When the protagonist of Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed calls his kokum to tell her that he’s queer, his grandmother is resoundingly unsurprised. He sobs and hiccups his way through his ‘confession’, and when he runs out of words his kokum asks, “you done, m’boy, or what?” She’s known for years, of course. “You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit,” she tells him. (At its most basic level, ‘two-spirit’ is a term for an LGBTQ person of indigenous North American heritage).
In this and many other ways, Jonny is neither one thing nor the other. He is a boy and not, a girl and not, at home in his NDN community and not. Always living in the gaps and the cracks in between definitions. Having left his home on the rez out of necessity, and now reluctant to return due to his cousins’ threat of violence, Jonny builds a life for himself in Winnipeg as a self-ordained ‘glitter princess’ and cam worker. When his mother’s boyfriend dies, though, Jonny heads back to the reservation to comfort her and sets memories and nostalgia falling like dominoes.
It’s easy to see why Jonny Appleseed was recently longlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize. Joshua Whitehead’s portrayal of indigiqueer life is touching and true, sometimes bruised and sometimes beautiful – and sometimes both at once. “Funny,” he writes, “how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you’.” First and foremost, the book is written with indigenous two-spirit and LGBTQ+ young people in mind, so that they can see themselves and be seen. Jonny Appleseed’s Giller longlisting, then, is a crucial moment in Canadian fiction, as those previously un- or under-represented groups begin to see themselves recognised by the literary establishment. Of course, this doesn’t mean the novel is only relevant to queer, indigenous lives. Jonny Appleseed is also about families – what we owe them, how they destroy us, how we can choose them.
Throughout the novel, Joshua Whitehead particularly emphasises the crucial role women have played in Jonny’s life. He depicts strength in femininity, describing his aunt’s confrontation with a bear or his friend Jordan’s innate power. He draws intimate, fraught portraits of Jonny’s relationships with his mother and kokum, showing how their influence has shaped the person he has grown up to be and his understanding of where he has come from. This is the heart of Jonny Appleseed; that we are our stories.
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead is available now from Arsenal Pulp Press (9781551527253, p/b, £13.99)