Joshua Whitehead has been busy.
First, the Oji-Cree author published his cyberpunky debut poetry collection, full-metal indigiqueer, with Talonbooks in 2017. The following year, he released Jonny Appleseed, a novel about a queer cybersex worker in Winnipeg on a frantic, feverish quest to make it home to the rez in time for a funeral. Jonny Appleseed (Arsenal Pulp Press) won a Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for a slew of other prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. Soon after, Whitehead edited an anthology of sexy, post-apocalyptic speculative fiction by Indigenous queer and trans writers, Love after the End (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020), released a few months before Jonny Appleseed won the 2021 Canada Reads competition. Along the way, he completed his PhD in Indigenous literature at the University of Calgary, where he is now an assistant professor.
Instead of taking a well-earned vacation, Whitehead is publishing a new book, Making Love with the Land (Knopf Canada, out now).
The new book happened almost by accident. “The essays started off as think pieces, just for myself,” he explains by Zoom from Calgary. “I didn’t know I was writing a book until I was six essays in.” The result is Whitehead’s first nonfiction title, a deeply personal work that combines elements of memoir, essay, and theory. “For me, the stories that want to be told, they find their own form,” he says, smiling. “I think it just feels natural for me to be kind of a genre outlaw.”
He describes Making Love with the Land as a “sibling story” to Jonny Appleseed; he started working on it in early 2019 in an effort to untangle his identity from that of his celebrated fictional protagonist. “I’ve been saying to friends and folks that it was a means for me to step out from behind the giant shadow that Jonny now fills in my life,” he explains.
Because Jonny, like Whitehead, is a glamorous two-spirit storyteller from the Peguis First Nation in Treaty 1 territory, many readers and reviewers incorrectly assumed the novel was autobiographical. Interviewers would sometimes even call him “Jonny” while he was on tour for the book. The novel’s massive success only amplified the misunderstanding. “It’s funny – I thought it would just be queer Indigenous folks reading Jonny Appleseed,” he says. “Now, I have 70-year-old grandmothers DMing me, saying, ‘Oh, I love the grandmother scenes; they’re so touching.’ ”
Whitehead in conversation is like Whitehead on the page: fluid, thoughtful, somehow both wry and sincere. He never sounds scripted, and likewise nothing about his essays feels premeditated. Reading them is like being swept up in the slipstream of his perceptive intelligence as he wrestles with the complex emotions of grief, heartbreak, loneliness, shame, and tentative joy. “There was no road map,” Whitehead says. “Everything was crafted in the minute, really.”
The essays in Making Love with the Land address various figures in his life – ex-lovers, friends, ancestors, readers, critics – allowing Whitehead to locate himself at their intersections and map the scars and impressions left behind by these encounters. “I am looking for ‘me,’ but I’ve hidden bits of myself in each of ‘you,’ that universal pronoun,” he writes, “and I unfold like a crane, intricately, delicately, into origami, originality.”
A title like Making Love with the Land sets readers up to expect a sensual book, and Whitehead delivers, attuned to the erotic possibilities of the land, the body, and even language itself. In the essay “Writing as a Rupture,” he writes, “I respect in a writer, as much as I respect in a lover, the ways in which languages mix with odour – and therefore I am forever huffing oratory. I find storying is often a series of attractions.” The “land” of the title is Treaty 1 territory, specifically Winnipeg. “To me, it’s the sexiest place on Turtle Island,” Whitehead says, pointing to the fertile history of the region: it is the birthplace of the Oji-Cree and other post-contact nations, as well as the term “two-spirit” itself, which was coined by Elder Myra Laramee in 1990.
The collection also captures Whitehead’s growing fluency with Cree, which he began learning for a required language credit in graduate school. (“I was like, ‘I’m not doing another colonial language,’ ” he says.) For Whitehead, moving between English and Cree transforms not only the meanings of words but also their emotional heft, as in the essay “I Own a Body That Wants to Break,” in which he translates the hurtful phrase “Wow, you’ve sure let yourself go” into something gentle, beautiful, and expansive. “The Cree in this book was a safeguard for me,” he says. “Going through a lot of the painful moments in Making Love with the Land, the Cree epistemology and Cree linguistic system allowed me, as the modus operandi of this book, to transform pain into love.”
There were many painful moments. But Whitehead understands that many readers see him as glamorous and successful, so being honest about his struggles with mental health and investigating them in this book was important to him.
“Making Love with the Land was a very, very difficult book to write. But it was very liberating for me, going through a lot of these things that I repressed for so long,” he says. “I would hope that readers, whether they’re Indigenous or not, whether they love Jonny or are coming to [my] work for the first time, find the space to say, ‘I can also talk about these things’ – whatever they’re struggling with, be it trauma, mental health, relationship issues, their own body, or just the limitations of language.”