In contemporary conversations, you’ll often find a “2” inserted into the LGBTQIA acronym, in reference to indigenous Two-Spirit identities. While well-intentioned, the inclusion is often glossed over in mainstream conversations about gender and sexuality, which assume Two-Spirit is simply an indigenous flavor of transgender identity. Not so in Jonny Appleseed, the debut novel by Joshua Whitehead, out earlier this year from Arsenal Pulp Press.
Whitehead is Two-Spirit himself and a self-identified indigiqueer, and with Jonny Appleseed he delivers a poignant and gritty coming-of-age story, exploring in dazzling prose how the Two-Spirit experience differs from the commonly accepted understanding of transgender identity.
After coming out to his reservation community that always considered him an outcast, Jonny, the titular narrator, moves to Winnipeg where he hustles and hooks up with men online to make ends meet. One of the only people who understands him, his kokum, or grandmother—characterized lovingly by Whitehead through her devotion to Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup, WWE, and her outsider grandson—dies shortly after, a crippling blow to Jonny who is unable to return and inherit her knowledge about his Two-Spirit identity.
Several years later, it’s the aftermath of another family death, Jonny’s stepfather’s, that spurs him to try and finally return to the reservation and his mother, who is heartbroken over the loss of a husband who could be both tender and violently cruel, especially when Jonny cross-dressed or flouted gender norms.
Jonny’s reflections and dreams build a lush world and reveal a character at once devoted to living a life in between genders while remaining conflicted about gender roles imported with settler colonialism.
Jonny, like Whitehead, is of Ojibwe and Cree descent, and acceptance and rejection come from both the reservation and the gay community. Whitehead captures the tortured desperation of a young queer person’s attachment to home, made more complicated by the discrimination found on the reservation, but also more beautiful, and the novel’s most evocative passages imbue the landscape with a tender eroticism: “The treaty land has awakened and the berries are thick with juice that threatens to burst out of their infant seeds.”
The lush dream sequences with their mix of animal encounters and sexuality are especially exhilarating, and Whitehead uses them to stupendous effect to capture Jonny’s deep longing for tenderness from people and the land, while playing with the twinned taboos of bestiality and gay sex:
“A warm breath snakes down the nape of my neck and a fat black tongue works its way through the grooves of my cartilage. It probes my ear and the suction from its tongue pulls on my lobe. The tension reminds me of my kokum when she plays with my ears. A fuzzy chest presses against my bare back—the weight forces me down into the mud, and part of me wonders if this is nôhtâwiy. […] All of the forest is watching maskwa top me as the birds cackle and avert their eyes.” (70)
As he tries to make enough money for bus fare by catering to his white clients’ native fetishes, Jonny increasingly lapses into flashbacks in which he mourns the loss of his kokum and remembers the relationships that saw him through his youth, some of which linger into adulthood, like his slippery and undefinable relationship with Tias, another boy from the reservation. These reveries often divert at length from the main narrative, evoking the pleasurable sensation of being lost in Jonny’s consciousness, while at times veering off into a collection of vignettes with no narrative center. But collectively, Jonny’s reflections and dreams build a lush world and reveal a character at once devoted to living a life in between genders while remaining conflicted about gender roles imported with settler colonialism.
REVIEWED BY CALLUM ANGUS
Callum Angus is a trans and queer writer who has received fellowships from Lambda Literary and Signal Fire Foundation for the Arts, and has presented research at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books magazine, Catapult, The Common, and elsewhere. More of his writing can be found at calangus.com.