Joshua Whitehead — author of the Giller Prize-nominated novel Jonny Appleseed (2018) and the editor of the futuristic, hopeful collection Love After the End (2020) — is on his way to living his fantasy: a library like the one in Beauty and the Beast, where he can swing like Belle along a ladder to run his fingers along the towering shelves.
“I can never get rid of books, even if I don’t like them— and now that I’m on the Giller Prize jury, I’m getting even more,” he said. “I have five full bookshelves, with books on top of books, piled in front of books. I’m excited to see where this little library goes.”
His debut novel, Jonny Appleseed, follows a self-described “NDN glitter princess” who left the rez for Winnipeg in search of acceptance, freedom and horny escapades. In the city, Jonny gets by as an online sex worker acting out stereotypical fantasies for clients who seldom appreciate his flair for creative costuming. Then his stepfather dies, and he has a week to scrape up enough money for the journey home to the Peguis First Nation.
Like his protagonist, who loves X-Men and takes note of the John Richardson novel on a client’s shelf, Whitehead has eclectic tastes. He reads horror and cyberpunk, young-adult fiction and graphic novels. His omnivorous reading habits have informed his distinctive writing style, which moves fluidly between genres.
Now that Jonny Appleseed, published in 2018, is shortlisted for Canada Reads 2021 (championed by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs), his distinctive blend of sensual, devastating and joyful prose is gaining even more avid readers.
In this recent interview, he was generous enough to share the books that shaped him as a reader and writer.
You grew up in Winnipeg on Treaty 1 territory. Are there any books about the city that you think capture it beautifully?
Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen was so seminal to me as a person and writer. Gabriel, one of the main characters, was a progenitor for Jonny — a Two-Spirit person in the north end of Winnipeg, which is also where Kent Monkman has set a lot of his paintings. That’s a favourite book that I return to often.
Another more contemporary story is Katherena Vermette’s The Break. Winnipeg gets such a bad rap — it’s always called “the most racist city in Canada” on the CBC, but there’s also a lot of beauty and community there. Katherena’s book painted it in such a truthful light: it shows the pain, the trauma of missing and murdered Indigenous women, but also the love and beauty. It’s a multifaceted view of the city that you don’t see a lot.
I love Katherena’s book, too, for the intersecting perspectives — when the reunion comes at the end and brings all those threads and roots together. It’s amazing how she holds all of those simultaneously and knows where they’re going.
Who made you want to be a writer?
I’ve always been writing or storytelling in some capacity — my parents would attest that I would never shut up, and I’d make fantastical tales — as a kid I read the Redwall series, and I was big into C.S. Lewis and then Ursula Le Guin.
In high school, we got to pick a book and do a creative response to it, and mine was Ordinary People by Judith Guest. It was so important to me as a writer; it made me think, "I want to write something like this." Just the way she explores grief and grieving, and in this idyllic space of a cabin (which felt very Manitoban to me). How it animates pain, the physical and spiritual and mental elements of it.
I find something different in it each time I return to it. That’s the power of literature, you find what you need when you need it, whether you’re 18 or 32. I think of stories as medicinal plants: I harvest what I need, but I never uproot it, so that it can grow, and I can come back to it again.
How would you describe your literary tastes?
It changes a lot, but there are a few staples. I’m a big fan of horror novels, and we can thank Toni Morrison for that — Southern Gothic changed me. I also love speculative fiction, and I’d put those two together: horror and speculative fiction are doing similar things, especially in this decade and during COVID.
I’m a big fan of young adult fiction. I used to call it my guilty pleasure. I had to work through the stigma that YA isn’t lit. I like the style, the quickness.
And then most recently I’m really big into non-fiction that explores sex and identity, that’s been big on my mind. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous — even though it’s fiction it reads like non-fiction.
How do you choose your books?
I’m drawn to it based on interviews that the authors do. One I read that I didn’t know a lot about was In the Dream House. I didn’t know much about Carmen Maria Machado, but I read a bunch of her interviews and I loved her craft and style. Blurbs are great, covers are beautiful, but I like to hear from the authors themselves, and know some of their ethics and politics behind their writing.
There are so many NDN literary talents writing and publishing now. Who is a new voice that you’re excited for more people to discover?
The anthology Love After the End gave me the ability to publish emerging and new authors, and I would recommend all of them across the board. But I’ll pick two: Nathan Adler, a queer Indigenous writer, has several books out through Kegedonce Press. His short story Abacus in Love After the End blends horror and speculative fiction, but also a romantic element.
And Darcie Little Badger, who has a new YA fantasy novel, Elatsoe. She’s a scientist as well as a writer, so you get all these rich areas of expertise in her writing.
As an author whose work deals frankly and lusciously with sex and sensuality — what is the sexiest book you have ever read?
Where do I begin! I have to give a couple.
Tenille Campbell is a Dene poet, and arguably the erotica matriarch of Indigenous literature. Her collection #IndianLovePoems is erotic and sensual, and very sober in thinking about sex and sensuality. That’s the staple of how to correctly and ethically and truthfully write about Indigenous sex and sexuality. She has a second book of sexy erotic poems coming out this spring with Arsenal, nedi nezu (Good Medicine).
The other author who does it so well is Eden Robinson. Her sexy scenes in the Trickster trilogy, given what you can play with in YA, are so beautifully done. They’re so beautifully tied to the body and tied to the land at the same time. I have a lot of respect for writers who can do that.
And I can’t not talk about Cleanness by Garth Greenwell. There’s a story in it, The Little Saint, whose protagonist goes to the U.K. to teach and finds this person on Craigslist with whom to have this erotic moment. It’s about kink and BDSM, pain and pleasure, but he uses those themes not to shame them but to think about them as alleviation and exorcism of pain. It’s a beautiful essay, the perfect balance of pain and pleasure simultaneously and thinking of sex and medicine.
Love After the End, the collection of Two-Spirit speculative fiction you edited, explores post-apocalyptic futures. What other dystopian or speculative fiction do you love?
Ooh, my favourite! The big one is Ursula Le Guin, she was very important to me as a young person, especially her story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Also, The Left Hand of Darkness as the longer narrative form of it.
I loved it so much because as a younger queer person, these kind of non-human alien entities without gender or sex, who do have sexuality and procreating — kemmering — where they shapeshift between bodies and genders, so they can explore sex in whatever kind of form they want. It’s a sex-positive text that didn’t ascribe itself to binaries, and such a seminal queer text, set in this post-apocalyptic world.
I’m also a huge graphic novel fan. There’s a manga series called Akira, one of the most important groundbreaking cyberpunk series. I love that so much — it became the bones of my book of poems full-metal indigiqueer.
What’s the scariest book you’ve read?
The most important one for me was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It was the first time I read a book by a BIPOC writer, and it has stuck with me — it really kind of changed what I thought literature could do. She has the Southern Gothic style, and never lets you forget the Atlantic slave trade, but she plays with it in a way that turns history into a living entity, which becomes Beloved.
It scared me but also changed me, which is what horror does really well. It makes you interpolate yourself into the story, and then you come face-to-face with the person you think you are and these subconscious biases that you have, toward sex or gender or race or Indigeneity. What I love about horror is that it makes you interrogate yourself and then shatter a piece of yourself in order to engage with it, and then you emerge with this beautiful bricolage.
With Beloved, it was one of the first times I saw myself in something. It shattered me. And it helped me learn more about literary forms and genres, and also dared me to do similar things, by refusing to let a story be removed from its prefix of history. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Beloved.
Also, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. I would not recommend reading at night, with a small nightlight, which is what I did. I’m a huge fan of slashers, like Friday the 13th, and I feel like he brought elements of that slasher film style to things like hunting protocols and ceremonies, and to the character of the Elk Woman. I’ve been recommending it to everyone — I bought copies as Christmas gifts for my family. We’ll see if they like it.
Is there a character in fiction that you identify with most strongly? Who is it?
There is a lot with Jonny — I have trouble differentiating Joshua from Jonny sometimes. But I identified really strongly with Larry Sole in Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed.
This main character is an outsider from an Indigenous perspective — he’s northern Dene — and carries physical damage through a burn, from a fire. He is baroque in his knowledge, from that damage and trauma. I really saw myself in his ability to survive in a space that might be a death sentence for others. And Richard is a master of his literary universe; I love that characters will reappear in other books.
It’s also hard not to see myself in everything Billy-Ray Belcourt writes, but especially in Billy-Ray’s A History of My Brief Body. Not so much a character, because it’s non-fiction, but I resonated so much with it. I’ve added so many notes and folded corners that my copy has become two times its original size. There’s a specific essay in there, Loneliness in the Age of Grindr. I haven’t seen anything like it, discussed so publicly and truthfully, and in Belcourt’s style, theorized and carefully thought through. It’s even more pertinent in the age of COVID-19 — it feels like a primer for queer folk, BIPOC, in this strange time we’re in where we can consume a text in the same way as we can a body. For me, that’s perfection.
What are you excited to read next?
I can’t wait — I mean I would pay money right now to purchase a scribbled draft — to finish the Trickster trilogy. I’m so invested in it, especially after watching the Trickster series. There were so many changes from the book, so I wonder are those coming from Eden? Will they be revealed in the final book? I can’t wait to read it.
What is a book that made you hopeful for the possibility of a bright and beautiful future?
I wouldn’t pick one book. What makes me hopeful is not the individual novel or poetry book, but the gravitational shift happening in CanLit. It’s not the first time, just the latest in several waves: a plethora of BIPOC, queer, trans writers coming to the forefront, winning awards, shifting what we expect from literature. We’re moving queer fiction from the realm of pulp and genre fiction, and establishing it as literary fiction and seminal texts. It’s incredible that I have Jonny, a Two-Spirited online sex worker, on the stage of Canada Reads.
This fills me with hope for what’s to come — for what I can do on this Earth, but also what comes after me, for who takes that flag and carries it forward. I’m so hopeful about where we are, what’s to come, and where we are headed together.