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book review
  • Jonny Appleseed
  • By Joshua Whitehead
  • Arsenal Pulp Press
  • 224 pages

Every so often, a book comes along that feels like a milestone, with revolution nestled beneath every sentence, every word. Oji-Cree/nehiyaw two-spirit/Indigiqueer writer Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed is one of those books. Of course, anyone who has read Whitehead’s futuristic, cyberpunk, poetic masterpiece full-metal indigiqueer, released earlier this year, won’t be surprised at this statement.

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On paper, Jonny Appleseed is about a young two-spirit/Indigiqueer NDN glitter princess named Jonny trying to get back to the rez from the big city in time for his stepfather’s funeral. Jonny had a difficult relationship with his stepfather, Roger. He not only made Jonny feel bad for being queer, but also “called me an apple when I told him I wanted to leave the rez. ‘You’re red on the outside,’ he said, ‘and white on the inside.’” Still, Jonny knows that without Roger, his “Momma’s got the sick of loneliness, the kind that’ll turn your liver into coal” and he loves his mother, so he decides to go back so he can support her.

Love, in all its forms, permeates this novel. Complicated love, messy love, nourishing love, platonic love, sexual love, familial love, secret love. Every character in this book is portrayed with empathy and understanding – from Jonny’s Momma, to his kokum (or grandmother), to his best friend/lover Tias, to Tias’s girlfriend (and, eventually, Jonny’s good friend) Jordan. All of them are complicated, dealing with their own traumas in various ways, but they’re never only their traumas, which is important. Each character has hopes, dreams, vulnerabilities, regrets. Each one laughs and jokes. In other words, they feel like real people. Long after I finished the book, I found myself missing these characters. That isn’t something that happens often.

Whitehead doesn’t just write about love of people, but also places. When Jonny talks about the decision to leave his rez, it’s clear that he feels conflicted. “Leaving hurts,” Jonny says. “It’s not glamorous like Julia Roberts makes it seem.” What’s particularly beautiful is the way that Whitehead writes about the rez, the way it’s imbued with such care and open-eyed clarity: “Even in the 21st century, two brown boys can’t fall in love on the rez.… But it’s home because the bannock is still browning in the oven and your kokum is still making tea and eating Arrowroot biscuits. It’s home because it has to be – routine satiates these pangs.”

Perhaps the most refreshing part of this book is the frankness with which Whitehead writes about sex – particularly queer sex. As soon as the book opens, he lets readers know what they’re in for: “I figured out I was gay when I was eight. I liked to stay up late after everyone went to bed and watch Queer as Folk on my kokum’s TV. She had a satellite and all the channels, pirated of course.”

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Joshua Whitehead. (Joshua Whitehead)

From there, Jonny tells us about his first hookup with a white guy, his catfishing of Tias, who he originally told that he was a girl named Lucia, his gradual relationship with Tias and all the drunken hookups and hustles in between. As an Indigenous sex worker, Jonny often has to deal with what he calls “treaty chasers,” or men “who only want me to play NDN.” These men never recognize that what they’re asking Jonny to enact is a fantasy. One even complains when Jonny dresses up as Catwoman, saying he wanted Jonny to dress up as “himself,” which he interpreted as “the fringe and [stuff].” The arrogance of assuming that this stereotypical image of an Indian is in any way grounded in reality, particularly the reality of a stranger, is one that Indigenous readers will know well. It’s particularly good to see Whitehead acknowledge how racist stereotypes work within the setting of sexual fantasy, as so many racist stereotypes are ingrained in modern-day sex and pornography, even in queer communities.

Jonny’s relationship with Tias in many ways drives the book. Both assure one another they’re not gay – a proclamation that Tias in particular has to make, as his adoptive father is violently heterosexual and toxically masculine, punishing Tias for any deviations from the “manly” norm. Still, his love for and attraction to Jonny can’t be denied. After Jonny tells Tias about a traumatizing night of drinking and violence that left him hospitalized, Tias leads him to his bedroom, lays a cold washcloth on his head and holds him, telling him everything will be okay. This is what I think of when I think of decolonial love, which Leanne Betasamosake Simpson wrote of in her book Islands of Decolonial Love: love that sees your trauma and carries you through it. As Jonny says, “Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like, ‘I’m in pain with you.’”

Despite its often serious subject matter, Jonny Appleseed is a very funny book, in the same way that Indigenous people themselves are often very funny despite our traumas. In that way, reading this book felt to me like home. Every line felt like being back on Six Nations, laughing with my family, even though I was in my apartment in Brantford. With its fluid structure and timelines, Jonny Appleseed creates a dream-like reading experience – and with a narrator as wise, funny and loveable as Jonny, it’s the sort of dream you don’t want to wake up from.

“I am my own best medicine,” Jonny says. He’s ours, too.

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations, currently living in Brantford, Ont., and author of the forthcoming book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.

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