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Author Joshua Whitehead: It's Time To ‘Infect’ CanLit With Queer, Indigenous Voices

"Writing has saved me from myself. It’s a ceremonial space, a confessional space," says Joshua Whitehead.
Joshua Whitehead, author of Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer.
Joshua Whitehead
Joshua Whitehead, author of Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer.

"For a two-spirit, queer, Indigenous writer who grew up in poverty, I would have never dreamed of being acknowledged by the Canadian literary scene," says author Joshua Whitehead.

Whitehead is one of 12 authors long-listed for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize, for his debut novel Jonny Appleseed. He's joined by writers Tanya Tagaq, Rawi Hage, and Sheila Heti in vying for the $100,000 annual prize, a distinction associated with the best of Canada's literary talent. The Giller Prize's shortlist will be announced on Oct. 1.

The author was also one of three finalists for the recent 2018 Dayne Ogilvie prize, which recognizes emerging LGBTQ+ writers. "The recognition gives a lot of agency, power and love back to those of us who are producing and writing right now," he told HuffPost Canada in an interview.

Whitehead, an Oji-Cree, is a two-spirit story-teller from Peguis First Nation on Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba. Two-spirit is a term used by some LGBTQ+ Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity.

We need to see ourselves as beautiful, and powerful, sexy and triumphant, not always traumatic or traumatized or appropriated from.

Whitehead's work leans into Indigenous sexualities, two-spirit experiences, and deconstructing Western institutions. In Jonny Appleseed, the titular protagonist is a two-spirit Indigiqueer who leaves Winnipeg, MB, to attend his stepfather's funeral on a reserve. Whitehead's latest work, full-metal indigiqueer, is a cyberpunk poetry collection that was nominated under the transgender poetry category for a 2017 Lambda Literary Award, which celebrates the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender books of the year.

Whitehead subsequently withdrew from the nomination in March with a public statement, writing, "To put it in the easiest terms for Western languages to understand, I live my life as a gay-femme and not as a trans Indigenous person ... After much talk with my communities and kin I have come to the conclusion that I must withdraw my name and stories from this wonderful nomination because it is not my space to occupy—occupation being a story I know all too well."

While Ben Ladouceur, author of Otters, claimed the Dayne Ogilvie prize, Whitehead says the nomination has been life-changing. Below, he opens up about the Canadian literary scene and how it's becoming more inclusive, thanks to a growing community of Indigenous queer, trans, and two-spirit writers.

What impact has writing made in your life?

Writing has saved me from myself. It's a ceremonial space, a confessional space. With [my books], a lot of times I wrote while [experiencing] depression, anxiety, panic, and nihilism ... I put the pain on the page and let it flower into a beautiful thing. So, writing has really taught me how to be a better person and how to be better with pain, and transform it into a thing of love.

How is the Indigenous literary scene right now in Canada?

We're in a mode of [building up the Indigenous writers community], with this avalanche of new texts.

We're seeing more stories from Indigenous women, queer and trans Indigenous folks. I don't think we have seen this breadth before in Canadian literature. It tells me we're in a space of self-sovereignty and self-definition.

We're all moving up together. I don't think folks realize that we're all interconnected. If one of us succeeds, we all succeed. There's this cyclical, loving nebula we all revolve around. If someone's not doing well, we will message each other, call, Facetime ... we all rush to the other's side and say, "What do you need right now?"

It's a loving space be in and I don't think a lot of CanLit [Canadian literature] is like that. I think a lot of CanLit is competitive. Because there's a newer wave coming, we're all just trying to uphold each other.

How do you hope full-metal indigiqueer will "infect" CanLit?

The book came out when I was pursuing three degrees and feeling very annoyed with being force-fed literary canons that were mostly heterosexual, white, and cisgender.

So I decided to take this big mess of canon text and go, 'Let me craft a virus, so I can infect, invade and Indigenize; so we can see ourselves in this canon — that high-class American, British, Canadian [literature] — let me infect them with these Indigenous characters, while using queer, two-spirit, Indigenous folks.'

A lot of time when people talk about being two-spirit, they'll be like, 'They were revered.' People always use the past-tense participle. I'm really trying to show that we exist in the now and will exist in the future.

Do you look forward to the Indigenous literature scene evolving in the future?

I'm a strong believer that we need to see ourselves in order to know ourselves in the world.

We need to see ourselves as beautiful, and powerful, sexy and triumphant, not always traumatic or traumatized or appropriated from.

In terms of the 'grandeur' of Indigeneity, we need to see more. Right now I think it's quite Cree and Métis. I would love to see more from the East Coast ... I would love to see an Inuk two-spirit writer producing these texts.

What advice would you have for queer, trans, and two-spirit Indigenous youth writers?

I want to tell them, 'Your stories are valuable, your stories are needed. We have a hunger and a thirst for these stories. Write what you know and what you know is what they need to see. Write yourself into the world because the world needs you.'

Who are your inspirations?

There's a lot. We all kind of know each other. Some of the folks who paved the way for me are Sharron Proulx-Turner, LeAnne Howe, Tommy Picau, and Billy-Ray Belcourt.

Tompson Highwayis a lovely writer and does so much for the community. The Rez Sisters was quintessential for me; it (speaks to how I know) Manitoba and my equity worldview.

Jordan Abel,writer of Injun, won the Griffin (Poetry Prize) two years ago for doing really radical, experimental Indigenous poetry and was my lovely mentor for full-metal indigiqueer.

Gwen Benaway is an Indigenous trans woman writer, she's got an upcoming book called Holy Wild that I did the back blurb for. Everything she does is awesome.

I can't wait to see more from Arielle Twist, who is also an emerging queer, trans, two-spirit writer.

How can readers best support Indigenous literature?

Go to our events and buy our books! Do a review on Goodreads. Tweet us your thoughts. For those who can't afford our books, request your library to get them. It all helps validate us and [draws us out from] our loving nebula.

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