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Sky, rock, river, medicine: an interview with Joshua Whitehead

By Thomas Johnson, October 28 2018 —

Publishing poetry or prose often means baring your soul. It’s an experience Joshua Whitehead, a University of Calgary PhD student, is intimately familiar with.

“I think there’s a different approach with poetry and prose. In prose, you can hide behind your characters more, they’re more fully-fleshed, whereas with poetry it’s almost voyeuristic,” says Whitehead of the writing process for Johnny Appleseed, his Governor General Award-nominated debut novel. “You lay everything bare. It’s more of a strip-show than prose.”

Whitehead, a Two-Spirit Oji-Cree, has garnered notable acclaim for such a young career. Johnny Appleseed is a fiction finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Awards, alongside works by authors like Miriam Toews and Rawi Hage. His first book, Full Metal Indigiqueer (2017), was shortlisted for several national awards, including the Indigenous Voices Award for Significant Poetry (English), the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry and the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry. The latter nomination, however, was withdrawn by Whitehead, citing the difference between two-spirit and the English ‘Trans’ as his quandary with the nomination.  

“For [Full Metal Indigiqueer] I was nominated for the Lambda in the trans-poetry section, which I didn’t personally feel comfortable with,” Whitehead says. “There’s so many trans-Indigenous women in my life that have mentored me, so I felt that was a space that wasn’t mine to claim.”

Johnny Appleseed, by comparison, sees Whitehead carving a space of his own.

“The thing about Johnny is that he’s the better parts of me. He has some incredibly painful moments from my life and putting him into prose made him into a real-life character. I always talk to him in first-person,” Whitehead says. “Making him into a character helped deal with that pain.

“Within Cree [culture], we have animations, we can make things animate,” he continues. “We consider sky, rock, river to have a spirit. Johnny and his grandmother have a conversation in the book where she says, ‘Humiliation is just the humility you love so much transformed.’ I really like to think of Johnny in that way — take these painful memories and animate your pain, turn it into something loving and medicinal.”

Unlike the naked personal narratives of Indigiqueer, Whitehead is buried deeper in Johnny Appleseed, hidden within its titular character. As opposed to the half-decade it took to refine his poetry, Appleseed’s manuscript was written over the course of a year. While his poetry revelled in its stark vulnerability out of necessity, the greater margins of a novel enabled Whitehead to expand and flesh out his ideas.

“I think prose is a little easier to imbue. You can fictionalize it and draw it out over several chapters, whereas poetry is more secluded into a one- or two-page thing. You can’t use metaphor and simile and writing techniques as you can in prose,” he says. “With prose, I felt that if you treat the character as a person, nurture what they need and attune to their emotions — I felt like I became more fixated on Johnny fantastically. With poetry, I can come in and out, but Johnny took centre-stage in my life. There’s a cool collaborative nature between your character and yourself.”

As his career flourishes, Whitehead finds himself as both a product and catalyst of Canada’s shifting literary landscape. Earlier this year his U of C compatriot Vivek Shraya received wide acclaim for her book I’m Afraid Of Men. While both novels are differ drastically spiritually and stylistically — and while it would be reductive and unfair to the authors to lump them into the same category — both provide narratives from the unblinking eyes of those sidelined by traditional, tired outlooks. This new guard, which has long been kept silent, seems as intent on seizing the spotlight.

“I think right now, we’re in the midst of a new wave of Canadian literature. We’re shifting from that old guard of white males writing and rewarding themselves and awarding themselves. This is the first time [the Governor’s General Awards list] has ever seen two-spirit writers on the list. We have myself, we have Billy-Ray Belcourt, Darrel McLeod. We’re getting crazy recognition for marginalized folks,” Whitehead says. “I think we’re starting to see a dialogue forming and new voices of folks that wouldn’t have been heard even in the last couple of years. I take it as a hopeful thing and it’s energized and humbling to see my kin in those spaces. I’m very happy to be part of it.”

The winners of the 2018 Governor’s General Literary Awards will be announced on Oct. 30.

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