In matters of identity as beautiful and nuanced as Joshua Whitehead’s, there is no better descriptor than the one he wrote for himself: “Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit storyteller and academic from Peguis First Nation on Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba.” Jonny Appleseed is his first novel, a short book marketed as young-adult fiction, which follows 2017’s poetry collection Full-Metal Indigiqueer. It tells the coming of age story of Jonny, a Two-Spirit Oji-Cree, as he explores his sexuality in present-day Winnipeg and remembers his childhood in Peguis.
I played basketball tournaments in Peguis. I travelled a lot of small town Manitoba for sports, and I didn’t have anything intelligent to say about anywhere I visited. I was a privileged white girl, and I thought struggle only happened elsewhere. I appreciate the catching up I get to do now, through literature. Every story I read is like another map of Manitoba drawn with marker on a transparent sheet, stacked on an overhead projector in the classroom where I should have learned all of this.
(Photo: Amy Attas)
Jonny Appleseed is a story of pain. The pain of colonialism and genocide, and also the pain of heteronormative patriarchy. Jonny works the whole novel to find a place of lasting safety and comfort. His mom and his kokum treat him as a human and meet him at his interests, regardless of gender, but they are dealing with their own genocidal pain and cannot provide a lasting safe space. Tias, Jonny’s best friend and closest sexual partner, loves Jonny but cannot seem to love his own sexuality. So many of Jonny’s sexual encounters are with homophobes uncomfortable with their homosexual desire. Points of pleasure for Jonny are still fraught with pain. As Whitehead puts it, “Funny how an NDN “love you” sounds more like, “I’m in pain with you.”
But, as Whitehead writes in his author’s statement at the back of the book, “if we animate our pain, it becomes something we can make love to,” and Jonny Appleseed feels like an uncomfortable, imperfect part of that process. It creates a space for a person who is both male and female, who comes from a culture where language isn’t gendered. It’s striking how confident Jonny is in his identity—a “self-ordained Injun glitter princess.” Jonny’s identity is earth and stone; everyone around him is wisps of smoke, unsure and embarrassed of their desire. That’s why Jonny gets beat up when he dances with a boy, why most of his sexual clients are closeted men, why elders keep teaching him how to hunt when he’d rather learn to bead. I just wish Jonny Appleseed offered him one place where he was safe to exist as his authentic self. But I guess the world is still catching up.
I guess I’m learning too. Learning to let go of fictional worlds where things work out, learning that characters in pain are still able to move forward. Afterall, “when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.”