Books·How I Wrote It

Why Joshua Whitehead wants to recentre Indigenous characters with his cyberpunk-infused poetry

The Oji-nêhiyaw, two-spirit writer discusses how he wrote his debut poetry collection, full-metal indigiqueer.
Joshua Whitehead is the author of the poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer. (Courtesy of Joshua Whitehead/Talonbooks)

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-nêhiyaw, two-spirit writer, poet and Indigiqueer scholar from Peguis First Nation. His book, full-metal indigiqueer, is a collection of experimental poems that aim to provoke discussion and debate.

The book focuses on a hybridized Indigiqueer Trickster character named Zoa who brings together the organic (the protozoan) and the technologic (the binaric) in order to re-beautify and re-member queer Indigeneity. 

In his own words, Whitehead explains how he wrote full-metal indigiqueer.

The millennial age

"I was very interested in writing using the colloquialisms or the vernacular of the millennial age. I wanted to explore text messages and the digital language we use online. Digital stuff like the 'LOL' or 'BRB' messages we use. I wanted to bring that to the page and see how that works — what it looks like, how it sounds. So it's about bringing the text message language and how our digital or cybernetic might transform how we think of poetry."

Cyberpunk origins

"The main catalyst for this book was the famous 1988 Japanese anime film Akira, about cyberpunks and the post-apocalyptic age. So there were similarities between Akira's post-war Japan and the kind of post-apocalyptic nation state I think we live in — and what that means in a Turtle Island Canadian context.

"I also recalled the work of Full Metal Apache by cultural critic Takayuki Tatsumi. I was thinking about the global nature of Indigeneity in the commodified and essentialized sense. I experimented with the concept of globalization and the fluid, almost viral nature of Western or U.S. storytelling genres and literature. I thought it would be interesting to flip these concepts on their head and redirect that back to the United States  — and in that path of travel, it can reorient and weaponize itself, in the cyberpunk sense."

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A Trickster narrative

"The narrative is a conversation between me and and this Trickster figure. I would apply this to literature and pop culture canons and allowed the Trickster figure to become like a virus that infects and invades. I think I completely lost control. I think the character became much larger than I ever anticipated for them to be. And I think that speaks to how the internet is, once something is out there, it can go viral. I wasn't able to contain but I don't think that's my job. I think I just followed in the wake of its disruptive path." 

Unexpected connections

"I didn't realize that the poems were all connected at first. I thought this was just going to be a collection of poems that I could call a book. But as I started working on these poems, I noticed a thread that was binding them all. It was all about disruption, ruptures, breakages and just straight up revisionism. I wanted to recentre Indigenous characters in canonical texts. I've always played with the idea of Indigeneity, whether outright or not. The way to do this is by bringing in the character of the Trickster — someone who can shapeshift, mould and form, and almost envelope, consume and redigest these types of stories."

Not a poet

"I'm not sure that I think of myself as a poet. I noted there was a narrative throughout these poems and I wanted to play with the cyberpunk genre. It's the kind of speculative fiction that I think literature is moving towards right now, this idea of futurism. It took me so long to write these poems because I had to got out and gather these experiences — whether it was reading novels, watching films and listening to music. So I would consume it, digest and then just let it be.

"I'm working on a novel, but don't think of myself as a novelist as well. I don't think that kind of terminology works for the types of work I am doing. I would call myself a storyteller."

Joshua Whitehead's comments have been edited and condensed.