Oct. 15, 2018

PhD student's novel, Jonny Appleseed, a finalist for Governor-General's Literary Award

Author Joshua Whitehead receives high CanLit kudos for his coming-of-age Indigiqueer tale
University of Calgary PhD student and author Joshua Whitehead's novel Jonny Appleseed is catching the attention of the literary world.

University of Calgary PhD student and author Joshua Whitehead.

Danni Black

When Oji-Cree, two-spirit storyteller Joshua Whitehead wrote his first novel, Jonny Appleseed, he expected it would have a following “in queer and Indigenous circles.” He didn’t expect that his tale of a young, Indigiqueer man making his way as a cybersex worker in the big city — while struggling to reconcile with his roots growing up on a reservation — would be hailed in the highest echelons of the CanLit world.

It’s understandable then that in the days following his nomination as a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award, Whitehead admits he’s been “walking around in a bewildered haze.”

Consider that news of the Governor-General’s honour came just weeks ahead of another elite nomination in the CanLit world, when Jonny Appleseed  was longlisted for the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Ultimately, Whitehead — who’s doing his PhD in Indigenous literature at the University of Calgary — didn’t make the shortlist for that one. Although his hopes were high, he took it in stride.

“That door closed and I thought, ‘Perfect, I’ll get back to my PhD,’” he says. “Then I heard about the Governor-General’s nomination. 

“I guess I never expected this sort of book — a sex-positive, LGBTQ Indigenous-based story — would be celebrated so widely, on such a national, highly regarded and recognized pedestal,” says Whitehead. “It’s very much taken me by surprise. It speaks to a shift, maybe, with where CanLit is going in the future, and I feel really happy to be a part of it. I feel like I’m helping to break some important new ground here.”

He adds: “The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind, but it’s all warm wind, too. I feel honoured and humbled.”

It might surprise some CanLit lovers to know that Jonny Appleseed was inspired in part by classic young adult novels, such as The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice. 

“I really like those novels because they showed the way inner-city impoverished kids were growing up in a very raw, truthful way,” says Whitehead. “I wanted to create something like that for Indigenous youth. I wanted to represent youthful Indigeneity — more specifically, queer Indigeneity — in powerful, beautiful and respectful ways. I believe that you need to see yourself to know yourself and right now there’s all these images which portray Indigeneity as a state of suffering. I wanted to show that there are ways in which we thrive, even though we are in pain.”

Hailing from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, and identifying as two-spirit (defined, in the simplest sense, as an Indigenous person who is a member of the LGBTQ community) one wonders if Whitehead’s own story is reflected in that of Jonny Appleseed.

“Jonny Appleseed is a fictional character, but I can’t disassociate my life with the characters I create,” says Whitehead. “I often refer to Jonny as a real person. ‘Jonny and I are going to a reading tonight.’ 

“I always think of my stories as autobiographical, to a certain extent. They’re infused with my reality and my life experiences, even though they’re also fictionalized and hyperbolized. I think of my characters as kin and it’s my responsibility as a storyteller to let them live their lives. I think of the novel Jonny Appleseed as a collaborative effort fusing both lives — his imagined life and mine, real.” 

Just as so many LGBTQ people struggle in their youth, coming to grips with their sexuality and acceptance in society, Whitehead says he, too, faced challenges. Reservations can often have a rough, violent side, he notes, and for a young two-spirit man, growing up in that environment often felt threatening.

So, is Jonny Appleseed’s journey back to the reservation one that mirrors Whitehead’s own experience? Not quite. Not yet.

“For me Jonny Appleseed is full of glitter and strength,” says Whitehead. “He has the ability to do that — to go back. He has that courage. And in facing that, maybe he will give me, and others, the ability to do the same.”

Winners of the Governor General’s Literary Awards receive $25,000. The winners will be announced on Oct. 30.