A review by John Cook.
I wish to rate this book very highly despite it being sometimes tough, raw, gritty and (perhaps in some readers’ views) uneven, which sadly might prevent them from persisting with this remarkable work. It was a moving experience to read it from a number of different viewpoints.
First the author:
‘Joshua Whitehead is a Canadian First Nations, two spirit poet and novelist. An Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, he began publishing poetry while pursuing undergraduate studies at the University of Winnipeg.
After he started graduate studies in indigenous literature at the University of Calgary, Talonbooks published his debut poetry collection Full-Metal Indigiqueer in 2017. The book initially received a Lambda Literary Award nomination for Transgender Poetry at the 30th Lambda Literary Awards in, although Whitehead withdrew the book from consideration as the category was a misrepresentation of his identity as a two-spirit, not transgender, person.
His debut novel, Jonny Appleseed, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2018. In the same year, he was named a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Canadian LGBTQ writers, and the book was named as a longlisted nominee for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and a shortlisted finalist for the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction at the 2018 Governor General’s Awards and the 2019 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. The book won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction at the 31st Lambda Literary Awards.Wikipedia
Clearly this is a remarkable person coming from an often very poorly understood background for anyone ‘straight’ or otherwise. Whitehead is certainly none of that and he has poured so much of himself, his cultural, social and personal background into this fascinating piece. Most aware individuals have heard of the Canadian remote North First Nation’s experience and know that it is a classic example of systematic exploitation and ignorance leading to wide scale social disorganisation and outright collapse. Whitehead speaks from that background in ways that are utterly human in his anguish, fond memories, anger and happiness all mixed into his consciousness. I have to say I have rarely read something so totally personally felt in all the aspects of the human condition. A key figure in the fictional (?) Jonny’s life is his kokum (grandmother) and the writing of her death I found profoundly moving. (apologies for the length of the quote)
‘I never cried when my kokum died—I reserved my energy for telling stories and making everybody around me laugh. My voice, my body, my life—every piece of me is a bundle of medicine that gives and burns and smudges. When she died, she was wearing a blue and white hospital gown with pale blue diamonds patterned on it. I had watched those diamonds rise and fall with every one of her breaths for twelve hours straight as she lay unconscious in a hospital bed, until they finally stopped. I was alone with her when she died; only her and me at three in the morning. When her bloated belly stopped filling with breath, I rubbed it and felt it gurgle. My kokum taught me long ago when my aunty died, that we need to rub the breath out of the belly of the dead. “It’s to help them on their way,” she said.
“That’s what us women do—we help them on their way back home.” So I rubbed my grandma’s belly and put my ear to her mouth. Then I crawled onto the bed beside her and laid my head on her breast. I maneuvered one of her arms around me and the other hand atop my head. My favourite feeling in the world was when she clawed my hair with her fingers to put me to sleep. Her hand fit perfectly on my head like a bird sitting atop a ledge. We lay like this for a bit—I didn’t tell the nurse she had stopped breathing and because we had unhooked her from the machines, they didn’t know she had died. I slipped her monitor off her finger and pressed it onto mine. I wanted a few minutes like this, just us. The nurses were busybodies, I could hear them scurrying about in rooms adjacent to ours. They were telling jokes and laughing. Their happiness pissed me off. Stop fucking laughing, I thought, my kokum’s lying here dead. I drowned them out with a prayer.
I told Manito I love him still. I told the ghosts that permeated our room that maybe I’m ready too, you know? Maybe I’m ready to go; its okay its okay its okay. I laid there not moving, trying desperately to sleep, trying my hardest to will myself into death. I closed my eyes and said here it comes, it’s coming, it’s here. And when I could open them again, I wondered what was wrong with me; why not now? Wasn’t the lifeline in my palm broken too? When a nurse eventually came into the room and discovered that my kokum had passed, she asked me if I was okay. By then the tears had already crusted in the corner of my eyes. “Of course,” I replied. I didn’t tell her that I thought something inside me was dead too; didn’t tell her that something inside me had been broken for years, if not centuries. She wrote up a report and closed my kokum’s eyes, then walked out of the room and summoned a doctor. In the room beside us, another nurse was still laughing. Sometimes I don’t like how life goes on. And sometimes I don’t think it should.’
Jonny is a product of the treaty reservation system where his abandoned mother acquired a tough-loving step father which led to Jonny’s close attachment to his mother and grandmother. As a two spirit individual Jonny’s early life has plenty of difficulties but also deeply fond memories embedded in his daily existence within his home(s), culture and physical environment.
Like many, he escapes to the big city (Winnipeg) where he ekes out an existence doing private internet sex shows for carefully negotiated cash while looking for love. He continues a disadvantaged life while seeking out advantages and experiences where possible. He has a close circle of friends from the ‘res’ including Tias (lover?) and his feisty girlfriend Jordan and much of the book consists of reflections on his current way of life and that back on the reservation.
The conclusion is driven by the death of his stepfather and his need to organise the cash to negotiate a ride back home as he evaluates his life in Winnipeg, his changing relationship with Tias and his longings for his home, mother and the now dead Kokum.
I found Whitehouse’s expression of this young man’s life and consciousness quite overwhelming at times. I have rarely come upon so much (not all) good writing that plumbs such depths of feelings and needs in a kaleidoscope of sensations – rather like the bead work that adorns its cover. Highly recommended.
(BCC library has 5 copies, 1 ebook)