Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
Published by: Arsenal Pulp Press
Genre: Literary Fiction
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: A literal and figurative journey crafted by an own-voices author, an indigiqueer two-spirit, working to get home for his step-father’s funeral. The baggage he gathers inevitably explodes, leading the reader to witness how one might pluck a sense of being and belonging from the remnants of family, community, identity, sex, love, cyber-presence, queerness, rez life, language, remembrance, and how to express all that is left and left behind.
“You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine” is a mantra that Jonny Appleseed, a young Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer, repeats to himself in this vivid and utterly compelling novel.
Off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city, Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. Self-ordained as an NDN glitter princess, Jonny has one week before he must return to the “rez,” and his former life, to attend the funeral of his stepfather. The next seven days are like a fevered dream: stories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition, and the heartbreaking recollection of his beloved kokum (grandmother). Jonny’s life is a series of breakages, appendages, and linkages—and as he goes through the motions of preparing to return home, he learns how to put together the pieces of his life.
Jonny Appleseed is a unique, shattering vision of First Nations life, full of grit, glitter, and dreams.
Jonny Appleseed takes place over seven days and a twenty-something two-spirit’s (2S) lifetime. We meet Jonny at eight, or when he looks back to the time he was eight. He’s watching Queer as Folk with a sound down, the subtitles on, and a tube sock for cleaning up after. All in secret, all in silence. A short time later—as measured in pages since the scene takes place in Jonny’s almost present day—he comes out to his kokum (grandmother), who had seen this and loved him regardless:
“I wanted to question her on what she meant by Two-spirit, but she cut me short by yelling that she had to go, her frybread oil was ready.
“You come down here m’boy, and I’ll tell you a story about who you are. You come and you’ll know. Kihtwam (another time), m’boy, kisakihitin (I love you).”— P.48
Jon’s a brown boy, sexualized early. He’s the only one of his kind, though we soon learn many avail themselves of his talents, only to disavow themselves of the pleasure when sobriety hits. This is equally true on and off the rez and regardless of whether those he’s apparently seduced are adults to his pubescence. There is one, though. His name is Tias. Theirs is a love story like so:
“He often sleeps over and helps me prep for work. He doesn’t mind, but he also says he isn’t gay and I tell him me neither. I still don’t think he gets what that means, even when he’s inside me.” — P.33
Even when he is loved, it is always loved in a way. Even while he lives, he lives in a way. Separate and not. Belonging and not. NDN and not. When Jonny moves to the city, he is called an apple: red on the outside, white on the inside. Nevertheless, he moves off the rez because it is the only way he will survive. He has no other options and it hurts.
“And I thought about it now, thought about my mom’s advice: if I want to survive, I’d have to leave. But it’s hard, you know? Each second I’m away from home is time that’s gone forever, driving us that much closer to the end. How much more time do we really have? And by whose measure?”—P205
This book weaves through memories of life with his mother and grandmother, of the times they fought over him and over each other. Whitehead deftly describes how we breeze past the present, noting how important moments are denoted only when those affected are unreachable. Even then, we are accountable to them. His survival is mirrored off those who have died: his kokum and, more recently, his stepfather. He is saved—as we all are—by stories.
“It’s overwhelming to think about all the stories that we’ve made, helped to tell, helped to create—our bodies are a library, and our stories are written like braille on the skin.”—P.219
Skin plays a frequent role in this book, from the different skins Jonny dons for his cybersex clients, to the scars on himself and others. His body is his income. He works until he is sore. When he bleeds, it’s his Cree that is leaching out of him. His brown body is ever-present. Sometimes, he’s white enough to fit in anywhere. Other times, it is in competition to other’s brownness, to another type of Indian…the Eastern kind. Then, there’s the role his skin plays in regards to his gender and sexual identity—the foundation for make-up, his femme-ness. He doesn’t seek validation as such but, like all of us, wants, needs to be seen as he is, but the language his culture had may be dying.
“I never did make it back to the rez to hear the story from Kokum, the story of who I am. She saved it for me after I left, and I never made it back in time.”—P212
At the same time, the whole point of this book takes the idea that First Nation folx and cultures are not a snapshot of wax figures in History of Man Museums, anthropological textbooks, or fetishized ideas for mystic and spiritual lovers. These are people who are and have been. They are people whose children have been stolen, whose land has been stolen, who have survived, rich in ways they have carved out for themselves. Their culture isn’t all-welcoming. Violence, homophobia, addiction, poverty is rampant. The idea of home is complicated, but death and food are not.
“It’s funny, NDN families only seem to reconvene when someone’s dead. It doesn’t take much to make an NDN cry, but a death, that makes them stoic as all hell; well stoic and maybe hungry. You’ll never have a better meal than at an NDN funeral.
“And that’s the truth.” — P.48
The writing is lush and lyrical. For those who haven’t followed Joshua Whitehead (I’m new to him, myself), he burst on the scene with a book of poetry: Full-metal Indigiqueer. There is much in the styling of this book that reminded me of Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars (link here: http://bingeonbooks.com/queer-
“Advice?” I paused for a minute, unable to believe any sad sucker wanted advice from me, the self-ordained NDN princess. “Um, yeah. How about this: we all got thick skin, but we gotta let people in.” I turned to leave, not waiting to see what his response was, because if I did, I knew I’d only see myself looking back at me.” — P.92
What you may not like: If you are in a mood to devour a book, prepare for resistance. This novel isn’t easy or simple; it demands your patience. But if you can give it this, it will reward you with ideas and prose that will resonate long after you’ve put the book down.
What you will love: Oh gosh, if you don’t know this after reaching this part of the review, I haven’t done my job. I can say this. It is so fitting this is the last review for Binge on Books. It is all about the bittersweet good-bye and moving forward with the heartfelt thing firmly in the past, loving it no less for knowing it is no longer around.
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra