Joshua Whitehead is one of those rare writers: he can touch any shape and make it his own. Along the way, readers are entertained, provoked, and enlightened. His first book of poetry, “Full Metal Indigiqueer,” was visually arresting; his first novel, “Jonny Appleseed”, won the CBC Canada Reads competition. Her new book, “Making Love With the Land,” is a series of essays with a fluidity, as one would expect from Whitehead, between form and subject. We talked about the new book, pop culture, and how names can fuel an essay.
It’s one of those small but mighty books, 200 pages with so much in it.
I mean, I always say brevity is not my forte. And yet, my books are short. I really like to concentrate, as a director would, instead of doing the wide shot, in the very small minute. They do it with the characters, but also with the language. I find (the language) already so rich that all you have to do is crack a name and you’ll see all the skeletons and the webs, and all the alternate meanings through etymology and through translation. It’s language work and I think all I do is sometimes transcribe.
There is a point in the essay “The Joshua Tree” where you write that you will not use the term “ex”—that you want it removed from your lexicon—because “it is a signifier that you not attribute to a relationship, a disgusting word with its colonial sense of ownership, its finality. I was so blown away by it; you take that little word and explode it into something that takes you in all kinds of directions.
It’s just a little word that opened up to a world, which became (the essay), which came from conversations with this “you” (I am addressing myself in) this essay. And you know, when I think of “ex” and then I think of “x” as the signature Canadian governments use to sign treaties. And so it already has such a long history; all I have to do is dive into the word.
I become obsessed with words. With “Making Love to the Earth” there is one word in each that is the gravitational center of attraction for the whole essay and everything else will revolve around it. It comes from thinking through thoughts, but also from contemplating, sitting alone with my thoughts and my insomnia sometimes and saying, “What is the driving name of this essay, what is the driving verb?” And once I can locate that, everything clicks into place. Until then, I’m just playing with the cogs, trying to make them all work in the big text machine… It’s a little game of hide and seek, I like to say.
Has writing essays, as opposed to poetry or fiction, led you to deeper or shallower emotional well-being?
With my three books (people comment): my poetry was “too prosaic”; “Jonny” was “too poetic”; when I write essays, it’s “too theoretical”. So really, what do I do? “Making Love With the Land”, for me, started in 2018. 2019 was kind of a big year… I was on tour and catapulted into the limelight, even more after Canada Reads. I was being asked all these questions, mainly (along with) the confusion between Joshua and Jonny. People are so interested in Jonny and how I created this character who is umbilically linked to me, but (who is) not me, that I wanted to take us all to Oz, pull back the curtain and watch the magician behind, which is me, and lay it all bare. So I think “Making Love With the Land” is behind the scenes of “Jonny,” what writing costs the writer, and the kind of relationship that the reader and the writer form together.
There’s this transition between the different forms but also, in the book, there’s a fluidity in the narration, using so many ways to tell the story: memoir, notes, confession, essay.
You get a glimpse of my cognition here, like getting into my cerebellum, really. And that’s exactly my way of thinking, in fragments and fractures. I’m just the kind of puppeteer who puts them together to put on a show.
There is also a back and forth between pop culture and indigenous culture. It’s fascinating and fun.
The silence really hurts my ears. I can never be in complete silence. I joked with Lynn Henry, my editor at Knopf, that my next book would be a full-fledged musical. There are musical references in every book. “Making Love With the Land” was a mix of classical music and very contemporary country, female musicians. Because I always listen to music, it soaks up the book. When I take a break from something as emotionally laborious as non-fiction can be – I found it exhausting, more so than the novel or poetry – it was my free time, watching a movie or television or playing a video game.
I’m playing this game, where I’m always looking at something, it’s not about Native people but always about North America. And so I play this game with myself. It’s like “Where is Waldo”, but find the hidden native character or acronym NDN. And I always seem to find a semblance. Then I reflect on that and relate to the work that I do. Maybe it’s just a bigger game I’m still playing with myself, looking for the unseen, looking for the ghost in the room.
Without stressing it too much, but it’s part of this whole country, isn’t it?
Absolutely. And I just do it in the virtual domain and bring it to the page.
When you were talking about language, going back to the idea of that word “ex”, you also said, “We will define ourselves”. It’s about taking something back.
I feel a bit like an indigenous person who is self learning my own language through conversations and teaching myself, it’s continually a game of scrapping and finding what you can and make worldly but profound things out of the leftovers. That’s what I do all the time, run to wreckage, run to junkyard, run through junk and make some. That’s what I try to explore in this book. I like to be indecipherable and I like to be unknown; I like to be indecipherable because for me it’s like a radical act of resistance and freedom… to be unreadable to English and to the nation-state that is Canada.
In the acknowledgments you wrote that “this book almost killed me several times”. How?
“Making Love with the Earth” was, I think, one of my first forays into exploring character- and person-altering trauma, such as sexual assault, but also into dealing with issues of perhaps repressed – but widely known – mental health conditions such as eating disorders and body dysmorphia. I wanted to lay it bare, to give myself permission to make immaterial matter, so that I could lay down this physical book and lay it down like an exorcism when I need it. But also wanting to tell the truth about what it means to be Indigenous and queer, or BIPOC and queer. Any intersection within this country is always simultaneously a death sentence, an impossible future. We are in this intermediate space.
So in “Making Love to the Earth” I recount those moments of sexual assault…, talking about the kind of livable dangers and threats to life that something like bulimia can cause, but also… COVID is the backdrop. Thinking about how we have all felt in the isolation of lockdown, especially those who have been living alone and working from home for over two years. It was truly a toll on all aspects of health, mental, physical, spiritual and emotional to continually experience Groundhog Day where the mundane becomes almost imprisoning.
These are all shared experiences; we’ve all heard the “we’re all in this together” thing. But of course there are also differences. There’s something about the way you approach your writing that allows us all to see different perspectives, to understand each other, and to find places where we meet. Is this something you also see in work?
That’s what I learned with “Jonny Appleseed”. When I was writing this novel, I never imagined that it would be what it is today and that it would be read by whoever read it today. I was writing specifically for a very small audience, which was mostly made up of aboriginal people. What I’ve learned is that instead of always trying to come to the conclusion of a great universal truth or a great universal understanding, you can actually do that by working within.
Does this explain the focus on body parts?
Each of my books has a featured body part: (in) “Jonny” was the navel; in “Making love with the earth”, it is the hands. I thought the more personal I was, the more I would be ostracized for a wider readership outside of my communities, but in fact, it was the opposite. Speaking of emotional hardship, truth, trauma and pain, but also love and joy in a community sense and in a personal sense, (it was) actually probably the most universal movement I could do.
Who do you think you reached?
Now I have, like, grandmas coming to the readings or emailing me or messaging me on social media, “I love your grandma’s story.” I never thought a 65 or 70 year old woman would think of “Jonny” that way. So I tried to do that with “Making Love With the Land” too. I thought if I could put myself on stage – in a 10-try monologue – with the spotlight right on me and like working like an x-ray to show everything inside, it would be universal in that sense. Again, I hope this is the case for some people.
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