The Next Chapter

Joshua Whitehead explores Indigiqueer and two-spirit culture in his Canada Reads contending novel

In this June 2018 interview, the author of Jonny Appleseed recounts what went into creating a triumphant Indigenous character.
Jonny Appleseed is a novel by Joshua Whitehead. (sweetmoon photography, Arsenal Pulp Press)

This interview originally aired on June 18, 2018.

full-metal indigiqueer was Joshua Whitehead's first poetry collection and it explored Indigiqueer identity — a term that brings Indigenous and queer identities together. Indigiqueer is how Whitehead self-identifies. 

He also thinks of himself as two-spirit, as does the title character in his novel, Jonny Appleseed. Jonny is a young man who has left the reserve for the city and the novel follows a painful, loving and powerful week in his life as he reflects on the brokenness and the beauty of his past. 

Devery Jacobs is championing Jonny Appleseed on Canada Reads 2021. Canada Reads will take place March 8-11. 

The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Whitehead spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Jonny Appleseed.

Planting the seeds

"Jonny is a character that's been with me since I was 17 or 18. He's this kid obsessed with the beatniks and problem novels like Go Ask Alice. He came from poems that I excised from full-metal indigiqueer. When I took those little poems and planted them into this new idea for a story, Jonny took the stage and was like, 'Here I am — write me into the world.'

I had to craft a two-spirit character who has pain, but who is triumphant in that pain, shifting it into love.

"A lot of people are reading him as this hyper-confident, super-suave swindling character. But I had to craft a two-spirit character who has pain, but who is triumphant in that pain, shifting it into love. Jonny is the better parts of me, hyperbolized. From that came this shiny, glittered figure of light for myself."

Bridges

"'Two-spirit' is a pan-Indigenous term that originated in Winnipeg in the 1990s. It encapsulates hundreds of nations, but it's something that is specific to each regional space, to that homeland and to those peoplehoods. But because of colonization and, more specifically, Christianization, those histories and stories around two-spirit peoples have been lost.

"I use 'two-spirit' because it's a homecoming and homecalling. For me, to take the word 'Indigenous' and braid it with 'queer' is a new type of worlding — a braiding of two bridges. I really like the biting edge 'Indigiqueer' has. I think of it as the driving force that is pulling along two-spiritness.

I really like the biting edge 'Indigiqueer' has. I think of it as the driving force that is pulling along two-spiritness.

"Jonny Appleseed grows up with the stigma of having to perform as hyper-masculine. What I'm seeing — in terms of sexual trauma brought upon Indigenous communities by things like residential schools — there's always this idea of silence, this idea of being macho. Jonny is dealing with that."

Careful wording 

"The Cree language is not divided by masculine or feminine, as a lot Western languages are, but by animate or inanimate objects. When writing Jonny, his kokum taught me the most. The elders and my aunts where I grew up originally taught me the terms for two-spirit within our languages. The matriarchs in the family who have heard or mended stories have always been the ones who have held me up and raised me to be unabashedly queer or as Indigenous as I wanted to be.

The elders and my aunts where I grew up originally taught me the terms for two-spirit within our languages.

"When I was writing Jonny Appleseed, I was very conscious to keep that unabashed queerness and maintain the truth that we are sexy and sexed peoples and to also wrap that around matriarchal systems. In the novel, Jonny's mother is trying to deal with living in poverty and trying to carve a pathway for herself to raise a two-spirit son on a rez that is hyper masculine. The women I've met are fiercely loyal and stubborn in the best of ways. 

"But we are missing valuable information from our Indigenous elders. We are trained to zone out. The act of fierce listening is a strategy that everyone could take upon themselves to learn from our elders, mothers or aunties and use those lessons and apply them to our lives."

Joshua Whitehead's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2021 contenders

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