Joshua Whitehead: ‘Jonny Appleseed’ and ‘Love After the End’

Jonny Appleseed and Joshua Whitehead made Canadian history this year – by winning the 2021 Canada Reads debates, they became the first Indigenous and Indigiqueer book and author to win Canada Reads.

“This means the world to me,” Whitehead said. “I’m holding this as a legacy and a fire to keep burning for all Indigenous folks across Turtle Island and I dedicate it to all missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited people and their families. I think the book is timely and needed for Canadian readers to see what it means for Indigenous peoples to be living under the weight of ongoing settler colonialism, the ways in which we have been harmed, injured profoundly, but also the ways in which we are powerful beyond measure and hold the highest registers of love for our communities, ourselves, and for this land we call Turtle Island.”

Straight

(Butter Honey Pig Bread was the other of the last two books to “fight it out” on Day 4, both books published by Arsenal Pulp Press, a small Canadian Indie press. It was a good year.)

Jonny Appleseed

Jonny Appleseed is about a 2-Spirited/Indigiqueer who has left the reserve to try to make it in the big city, getting by by selling sex online. As he tries to make enough money to make it back home for his step-father’s funeral, he considers his life thus far.

There are only a few sounds that always hurt me and one of them is the sound of my mom crying. It seems like my mom is always in tears on the phone with someone who is either dying or in pain, or knows someone who is. There aren’t enough jokes in the world to stop her from weeping and there aren’t enough stories to stop me from feeling. I think that’s why she turns to the bottle and why I sometimes follow.

Jonny is fortunate to have the love and support of both his mother and his Kokum (although, his mother and Kokum don’t always see eye-to-eye) – not everyone on the rez accepts him for who he is. At least in the city he is anonymous.

Kokum loved that photo and put it into her fanciest gold frame. And in front of it she had tucked a tiny Polaroid of the two of us laughing, our faces smudged with lipstick. In the picture we are leaning against each other on the couch; her frizzy hair blends into my shaggy braids and the points of our noses exactly match. There is a large red kiss print on my forehead. That was the first time I ever wore makeup. She would apply her powders and lotions to my face with such grace and softness that I would fall asleep, smelling of talc and lilac. She would push back my hair with her hand and tickle my widow’s peak with her fingers, applying concealer to the scar there. I like thinking that she is impressed to my forehead even now–that the stories in her body are written on mine.

This book leaves me with a sense of who Jonny is: a dazzling human being full of life, a person who is able to take his pain and turn it into love, paving the way for a better world.

I was back, and the whole damn rez looked, felt, even smelled the same. All my cousins were still here, for the most part. Maybe Nates stay on the rez because they’ve been pushed so far already. But wherever we end up, we can take pride in knowing that we survive where no one else can, and that we can make a home out of the smallest places, and still be able to come home and say, “I love you, Mom.”

The Acknowledgments are not to be missed.

Jonny has taught me a lot of things but there are two that I want to share with you: one, a good story is always a healing ceremony, we recuperate, re-member, and rejuvenate those we storytell into the world; and two, if we animate our pain, it becomes something we can make love to.

Love After the End

Love After the End is an anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer speculative short fiction, with contributions from “a number of new and emerging Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous writers from across Turtle Island” and edited by Joshua Whitehead. Irresistible.

As someone who doesn’t read a lot from this very specific writing community, I was itching to experience something new, but worried I might not be able to relate. For anyone else with that concern, don’t give it another thought – this collection of stories is accessible and engaging. Let it charm and surprise you.

As is often the case with story collections, some of the stories charmed me more than others, and some were easier to “get” than others, but I enjoyed them all. I especially liked the stories that focused on the characters against the back drop of some dystopian/future world, rather than the ones that focused more on the world itself. Luckily, most of them were a nice mix of character development and world building.

In History of the New World, a family of three must decide if they are going to travel to the New World with other migrants (from which there is no possibility of returning), or stay and try to make a go of it on Earth by reverting back to traditional ways of living. The adults are torn, but their daughter is observant and wise. The charm of the New World is that “the planet was without buildings, monuments, or systems of writing. No history at all. A miracle… we can make our story there, anything we want.”

In Andwànikàdjigan, Winu is the last storyteller of her people. She has marks all over her body and each mark tells a different story. “The elders had told her stories about the world that was. Stories about a mother who was earth. Stories about how the ones in power killed her. Others said the stories were lies. The world was always grey and concrete, steel and sorrow.” The ones in power knew the importance of these stories and left none of the villagers alive. Or so they thought.

In Story for a Bottle, a girl is abducted by an AI (Artificial Intelligence) living alone on a 203-year-old floating city. The story is told by way of a letter written to the girl’s younger sister and put into a bottle, in the hopes it will reach her. “You know how Grandma always says, “Old folks live in their memories”? In that respect, I felt a lot like an old woman at sea. Every night, after Olivia locked me in my cabin, I sat at the window and remembered.”

In Eloise, “The Gate” is a program that takes you somewhere else in life; where you can live 10 years for every minute that goes by. Cassie sees people enjoying The Gate in cafes, sitting at tables, staring off into space. Now, the same company has come out with a product that will make you forget your past – enticing for Emma who can’t stop think about Cassie.

Other stories include mind travellers, synthetic humans, a rogue AI, an Ark built for space travel, and written “instructions” for future generations. Contributors include: Nathan Adler, Gabriel Castilloux Calderon, Adam Garnet Jones, Mari Kurisato, Darcie Little Badger, Kai Minosh Pyle, David A. Robertson, Jaye Simpson, Nazbah Tom.

18 thoughts on “Joshua Whitehead: ‘Jonny Appleseed’ and ‘Love After the End’

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Songs That Sound Like Blood, by Jared Thomas is an Indigenous Australian contribution to First Nations/LGBTIQ+ writing… It’s YA but it’s really well done… it’s about a girl leaving her community to study music, supporting herself in a commercial world where young people are exploited plus the problem of being accepted by her family back in the community when she realises that she is gay. I’m also currently reading Growing Up Queer in Australia which is an excellent book for those of us in unfamiliar ‘reading territory’… it certainly shows that coming out to family is one of the hardest things, and that it’s harder still in traditional cultures.

  2. wadholloway says:

    I’m glad I read (and will one day soon review) Butter Honey Pig Bread. It is so rare for me to have read a book you mention. Melanie/GTL has encouraged/shamed me into a new project next year which will involve me reading more Black and Indigenous US and Canadian fiction. I will post some more about it in a the next week or so. This post can be your first recommendation, though I will necessarily be leaning towards audiobooks.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m so glad you got to read Butter Honey Pig Bread – can’t wait to hear your thoughts! These books are good, too, but might be hard to find on audio. Although, winning Canada Reads might have changed that for Jonny Appleseed…
      I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m excited about your new project! 🙂

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I have yet to read Johnny Appleseed or this this anthology, although both are definitely on my radar! I’m surprised how sci-fi the anthology sounds too!

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I’ve enjoyed both of these. I had a tweet for each of the stories in Love Until the End because each of the stories is so different. My favourite novel featuring a two-spirit narrator though is Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, which has been out for ages now…but it’s still my favourite.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m happy to have that recommendation – especially since I still haven’t read any of his yet! (I have always loved his name, though…)
      I’m tempted to put it on hold right now, but I see that it would be an ILL and I have 7 of those sitting on my shelf right now. Lol (I’ve added it to “my favourites”.)

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