Books·How I Wrote It

Joshua Whitehead played with form and time and scored a Governor General's Literary Award nomination

The Oji-Cree, two-spirit writer on why he wrote a coming-of-age tale involving cybersex, Indigenous queer culture and the search for identity in his debut novel Jonny Appleseed.
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree storyteller from the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. (Joshua Whitehead, Arsenal Pulp Press)

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree poet and Indigiqueer — the bridging of Indigenous and queer — scholar from Peguis First Nation. His debut poetry book, full-metal indigiqueer, a collection of experimental poems that aim to provoke discussion and debate, earned him critical acclaim

His first novel, Jonny Appleseed, is about a two-spirit Indigiqueer young man who has left the reserve and becomes a cybersex worker in the big city to make ends meet. Jonny faces his past when he returns home to attend his stepfather's funeral.

Whitehead spoke with CBC Books about how he wrote Jonny Appleseed.

Jonny Appleseed was on the shortlist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. It is currently a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

Manitoban youth culture 

"I initially wanted to write this Indigenous, beatniky, stream of consciousness YA novel called The Concrete Poets, about a ragtag group of kids from Manitoba. I was interested in developing a problem novel — in the vein of Beatrice Sparks' Go Ask Alice or S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders — about children growing up in slums and in poverty. I wanted to develop something around the idea of edging out beautiful spaces with things that are ugly or ruined. 

"When I was writing full-metal indigiqueer, there were these ideas I had set around Grand Beach in Manitoba about queer desire that were ultimately cut from the collection. My editor didn't feel like they fit well so we excised them. I think I was still very attached to them and those excised poems are what brought my idea about Jonny back to the forefront. He was one the characters in my original idea and it blossomed into what became Jonny Appleseed. Things came full circle."

Poetic prose

"My prose is very prosaic. Form for me is a fluid thing. When I wrote full-metal indiqueer, I recall people asking me if it was meant to be experimental poetry, spoken word or prose. But prose and poetry have already been a braided mode of storytelling for me.

"I've read and learned Indigenous literatures and cultures auto-didactically, in between reading epic works like Charles Dickens and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. But I think full-metal indigiqueer and Jonny Appleseed are almost like sibling stories. Jonny is kind of more like the human behind the animated avatar or the cyborg that is full-metal indigiqueer."

NDN time

"The expectation with a novel is that it is going to move from A through Z and deliver a self-gratifying or 'instant gratification' way of reading, understanding and consuming. But in writing this book, I was interested in playing with form and playing with timelines. So instead of 'A to Z' and progressing in a linear fashion, I want to play with what Indigenous communities call 'NDN time,' moving in a circular fashion, instead of an arrowhead, and weaving past, present and future. It's all intertwined. 

"I wanted to write the book in a way that was holistic and cyclical — it begins in the present time, but then the narrative moves back to the past with Jonny telling the whole life story, all while he's trying to get to the future tense. Linear time is a bit of an irrelevant concept in the book." 

Joshua Whitehead's comments have been edited and condensed.

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