TORONTO — Calgary author Joshua Whitehead says he thinks Canadian/Indigenous literature is in the midst of a major shift as his novel “Jonny Appleseed” makes waves on the book-awards circuit. On Wednesday, “Jonny Appleseed” (Arsenal Pulp Press) was named a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction, after making the long list for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The story follows a week in the life of Jonny Appleseed, a two-spirit/Indigiqueer teen and cybersex worker who is unabashed in his promiscuity in Manitoba. Whitehead, an Oji-Cree storyteller and academic who hails from Peguis First Nation on Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba, also identifies as two-spirit/Indigiqueer.
He defines two-spirit as a “pan-Indigenous” term that can mean anything from sexual identity and orientation to gender identity and communal or traditional roles.
“It’s quite rare to see one two-spirit literature put on a long list at all,” Whitehead said in a phone interview from Calgary, where he’s writing his next book and working toward a PhD in Indigenous literature and cultures.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on a Giller, so I was really humbled to be on the long list for the Giller.”
He was also “astounded” when he saw so many Indigenous finalists for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards. Other examples including Darrel J. McLeod of Sooke, B.C., in the non-fiction category for “Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age” (Douglas & McIntyre), Edmonton’s Billy-Ray Belcourt on the poetry list for “This Wound is a World” (Frontenac House), and non-fiction finalist Terese Marie Mailhot of Seabird Island, B.C., for “Heart Berries: A Memoir” (Doubleday Canada).
“Indigenous lit has always been produced but now it’s receiving perhaps more mainstream recognition, rightfully so,” said Whitehead, 29.
“I think of (musician) Jeremy Dutcher after he won his Polaris Prize (last month) saying we’re entering a new wave of ‘Indigenous renaissance’ and I really think we are…. I never thought we would see something like this, especially on such large-scale award recognition like the GGs.”
Jonny Appleseed is a character Whitehead has had in his head since his late teens, when he was an avid reader of stream-of-consciousness, beatnik-type literature from the likes of Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote Jonny into a short story and a novella before making him the focus of his debut novel.
His aim was to write specifically for two-spirit or queer-Indigenous youth and showcase their lives “in powerful and sexy and meaningful and healthy ways,” said Whitehead, whose poetry book “Full-Metal Indigiqueer” was shortlisted for the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry.
“I’m a firm believer that you need to see yourself in order to know yourself and right now there are so many harmful representations of Indigeneity, specifically queer-Indigeneity, made by non-Indigenous people, or sometimes even Indigenous people,” said Whitehead.
“I wanted to craft healthy mirrors for folks.”
Whitehead called the book a “bio-story” that braids his life with that of Jonny’s.
“Yes, it’s fiction, but I don’t have that ability to disassociate,” he said. “I like to think of writing as method-acting, almost, where it’s like I’m imagining myself in a film or I’m placing myself into situations. Sometimes my personal experiences are embedded and they kind of flower from there.”
While all the plaudits for “Jonny Appleseed” have left Whitehead in a “bewildered daze,” he’s mostly excited that he’s getting more opportunities to spark conversations about what two-spirit means or what queer-Indigeneity looks like or feels like.
At recent Giller events in Winnipeg and Regina, “everyone would come up to me with open arms, sometimes with tears, sometimes with laughter, and thank me so vigorously for writing a character that they had never seen, that they had never heard before, and for teaching them and transforming them, too,” Whitehead said.
“Every time I go somewhere I feel like I’m always in a state of mourning, because I’m so overcome with emotion. I never thought Jonny would have an impact this wide. I’m trying to think back to the child-me, the impoverished, urban rez kid who was living in the hood or the ghettos of Selkirk, Man., or the housing projects. I never thought writing would expand or put me on a platform as large as it has.
“I never could have dreamed of this.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press