2-spirit/Indigiqueer author at U of C shortlisted for Governor General's Award

An author based in Calgary has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Awards for his portrayal of a two-spirit/Indigiqueer character in Jonny Appleseed.

'You need to see yourself, in order to know yourself,' writer Joshua Whitehead says

Joshua Whitehead's book, Jonny Appleseed, has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Awards. (Susan Holzman/CBC)

An author based in Calgary has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Awards for his portrayal of a two-spirit/Indigiqueer character in Jonny Appleseed and he says there's a lot of him in the book.

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree storyteller originally from Penguis First Nation in Manitoba working toward his PhD at the University of Calgary. He shared what it means to be recognized through the shortlisting with The Homestretch.

This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview right here.

Q: What does making this shortlist mean to you?

A: I am still walking around in a bewildered haze. It's been a whirlwind but it has all been warm winds.

Q: You also made the longlist for the Giller Prize. What's going through your mind as you accumulate all these honours?

A: It has been an intense two weeks. I didn't make the Giller Prize shortlist unfortunately, but I literally woke up the next day and this door opened.

Q: Tell us about your book Jonny Appleseed.

A: Jonny lives in Winnipeg working as an online cybersex worker. The story revolves around he has a week to return to the reserve in order to see the wake of his stepfather, so he is trying to earn money to return and tells you his life story along the way.

Q: The character is described as two-spirit/Indigiqueer. What does that mean?

A: Two-spirit is the inverse umbrella of the LGBTQ spectrum but it's a word of Indigenous peoples.

Q: How important was it to share this voice in the story?

A: Super important. I am a strong believer that you need to see yourself in order to know yourself.

There are a lot of inappropriate and unhealthy representations of queer-Indigeneity in the world right now and I wanted to craft a mirror that was powerful and beautiful for them.

Q: Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

A: A lot of it is lived experience and a lot of it is Jonny's own fictional world, so it is kind of a braid.

Q: How much of you is in this?

A: I would say a considerable chunk.

Jonny has his own ways of doing things, his own personality. I think of him as a real person, I always refer to him in first person. So when he was hitting a dead end, I would add a little chunk of me and it was interesting watching us collaborate while he unfolds.

Q: Does writing while including your own experience give you licence to say things that you wouldn't normally?

A: It is very Shakespearean in that sense. It does. It gives me agency and power to perhaps tell some things that I usually wouldn't have.

Q: How long have you been writing?

A: For the majority of my life. My mom says I was always telling weird little stories growing up, so I couldn't get rid of it.

Q: You previously published a book of poetry?

A: In 2017, Full-Metal Indigiqueer and Jonny took centre stage right after that.

Q: With your very first novel, did you expect this kind of success?

A: Growing up as an impoverished, Indigenous queer youth, you never really see yourself on these pedestals, so I am beyond honoured to be here.

Q: What kind of reaction have you had to the book?

A: Just an outpouring of love and excitement and tears and dancing, so I have just been showered with love.

I feel in my own communities, with or without the Governor General acknowledgement, I have already won in some sense.

Q: How do you top a debut like this?

A: That's the scary part for the next book.

I just have to keep telling stories truthfully and honestly and beautifully and I think whatever comes next, comes next.

With files from The Homestretch.