Joshua Whitehead's Making Love with the Land explores Indigeneity, queerness and identity via a personal lens
'I wasn't setting out to write nonfiction — it was the form it became through the exploration I was doing.'
In recent years, Joshua Whitehead has emerged as one of the most original and compelling new writers on Turtle Island, starting with his first poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer in 2017 and his Canada Reads-winning 2018 novel Jonny Appleseed.
The Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of Peguis First Nation has followed up the breakthrough success of that novel with his first nonfiction book, Making Love with the Land: a collection of essays exploring Indigeneity, queerness and the relationships between body, language and land.
Making Love with the Land breaks through the boundaries of genre, blending elements of memoir, confessions and notes to interrogate what it means to tell one's own stories — and how an audience receives those stories.
In many ways, Whitehead notes, Making Love with the Land was directly inspired by the responses to Jonny Appleseed and the intrusive questions he received in the wake of its publication. Many readers and journalists pressed him on the personal parallels between the titular character and himself, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
Jonny Appleseed was longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award in Fiction and the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. The novel also won Canada Reads in 2021, when it was championed by Kahnawà:ke Mohawk actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs.
Whitehead's debut poetry collection, full-metal indigiqueer, was shortlisted for the inaugural Indigenous Voices Award for most significant work of poetry in English and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry. He also edited Love After the End, a 2020 anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer speculative fiction.
Whitehead recently completed a PhD in Indigenous literatures and cultures at the University of Calgary's English department, where he will begin teaching this fall as an assistant professor of English.
The Manitoba author spoke with CBC Books about how Jonny Appleseed was the catalyst for writing Making Love with the Land, and the challenges of delving deep into his own story to wrestle with some big questions about the body, mind and soul.
Planting the seed
"Making Love with the Land is very much a sibling to Jonny Appleseed — specifically the reception to that book. Some of the core questions that Jonny grappled with, Joshua is also grappling with, so naturally this book came into being out of necessity, one might say.
"I feel like I've been an outlaw to genre for all my books so far — poetry, fiction, nonfiction — though I can definitely say, no more nonfiction for me for a decade! [laughs]
"I feel like I wasn't setting out to write nonfiction — it was just kind of the form that it became through the personal exploration I was doing, and how it was being received and the questions I was being asked, and just putting it down on paper. And then, lo and behold, it became a book.
The larger aim was to normalize conversations around mental health after years of secret conversations in the corners of rooms that people were having.
"Some of the lessons I took from Jonny — if I'm going to go there, I'm going to do it on my own terms. And that was kind of what I wanted to do with this book — the larger aim of it was to normalize conversations around mental health after years of secret conversations in the corners of rooms that people were having. And so I felt like the best way that I could do that was to step on the stage and put the spotlight on me and turn it into a monologue, really."
Listen | Joshua Whitehead on The Next Chapter:
"With the body, there's always so much to explore, in terms of etymology and translation — I think it comes back to the Western understandings of ownership in a capitalist, colonial sense. Owning the land, owning others, owning stories — and writing singularly, rather than communally.
I was trying to show that everything always ends up working in continuum and in relations of synchronicity rather than hierarchies of verticality.
"And so when I was exploring that, I was trying to show — to myself, primarily — that everything always ends up working in continuum and in relations of synchronicity rather than hierarchies of verticality."
"I think that writing in a poetic style comes naturally to me. If I had to give a visual representation of my cognition, my mind thinks in fragmented vignettes that are peppered with razors and barbed wire, but then also in that same barbed wire, there are florals growing.
My mind thinks in fragmented vignettes that are peppered with razors and barbed wire, but then in that barbed wire, there are florals growing.
"Also as a poet, it is the most fundamental tool we have as writers. I really try to ingrain that in my students: read poetry, write poetry — even if you don't want to publish it — because it is a very strong and useful tool that I think all writers should have. There's also the kind of capital-L literature that we attribute to poetry, which can be alarming to writers who maybe don't partake in the poetics of poetry."
"I think the focus on pop culture comes from my master's in cultural studies, and it's always been telling that Indigenous writing, Black writing or queer writing has often been seen as a disposable or ephemeral genre."
"With Jonny, too, I never gave Jonny an age — the pop culture was doing the work of world-building and also giving perhaps a temporal register that you as the reader could interpret.
Referring back to pop culture gave me little ledges to hide behind, which were needed when you're in the open field of memory and excavation.
"And so with Making Love with the Land, the pop culture kind of became, I would say, putting the 'C' in CNF [creative nonfiction] — it gave me little ledges to hide behind, which were needed when you're kind of in the open field of memory and excavation. It was a small refuge — pop culture kept doing that for me."
Winning Canada Reads
"Canada Reads was the most stressful few weeks! It was probably the most intense but energizing experience I think I've had in writing so far. It propelled me into the households of people who perhaps may not have read Jonny at first.
Canada Reads was probably the most intense but energizing experience I think I've had in writing so far.
"It was actually a very community-building experience — I became good friends with Devery Jacobs and was able to build small pockets across Turtle Island in the bookstores and book clubs, and all sorts of folks from different walks of life who I don't think I would have had the ability to meet if not for Canada Reads."
LISTEN | Joshua Whitehead and Devery Jacobs on CBC Radio's Q:
"This book required me to do a lot of bloodletting that I don't think I was fully prepared to undertake when I began opening up the floodgates that are the history of my life that nonfiction requires of you.
"In the spaces of COVID lockdown and in the energizing magnetic field that this book placed me within that required me to be very still, I wasn't fully prepared at the time for the rupturing dam that was about to burst. I have the hindsight to look back and think, 'Maybe you weren't quite ready to do that all at once.' [laughs]
"I think all my acknowledgements [at the end of the book] show that the old adage that we write as a solitary person [isn't quite accurate] — those stories are attributed to me by so many others, too."
Inviting the reader in
"The one thing I hope readers take away is what it means to enter into a book that you are a guest to. I do this as well, with books by Black authors or trans authors — always remembering that I am being invited into the space they are creating.
The one thing I hope readers take away is what it means to enter into a book that you are a guest to.
"I hope they understand the relationship we have as consumers of literature — that word 'consumption,' as I write in the book, helps remind us of that."
Listen | Joshua Whitehead on The Sunday Magazine:
Joshua Whitehead's comments have been edited for length and clarity.