Joshua Whitehead Publishes First Book


English Honours and MA in Cultural Studies alumn Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer from Peguis First Nation in Manitowapow. He is an English Literature doctoral student at the University of Calgary, where he focuses on Indigenous Literatures and Cultures. Joshua is the author of full-metal indigiqueer and the forthcoming Jonny Appleseed.

1. How would you describe your book and how did it originate?

full-metal indigiqueer actually began in my final year of my English Honours degree at the University of Winnipeg. The poem “the ndn river phoenix” was one of the earliest incantations of my formulation of this 2S cyborg trickster I call zoa. I wanted to play with our millennial vernacular, the digital language of our cyber worlds. During our juice open-mics I debuted that poem, which was later published in juice 2015.

As I progressed through my MA in Cultural Studies at UW I started to hone in on the stories I wanted to tell—I became transfixed with thinking about how technology augments my Indigeneity and the role theory plays as a story of revision. I think here of Iktomi, that okimaw apihkêsîs, spider trickster who spun the original world-wide-web, all sticky with feeling and kinship and think again on how Indigeneity has always been about intertribal connection. I thought about how Indigeneity itself is global and fluid, especially in its appropriated form. I saw myself in those scrapyard kids in post-war Japan all pining for metal to sell, finding kin in the “Indians” in American Western films; they called themselves “full metal apaches”.

Indigeneity has always been, and remains to be, about connection, kinship, and resurgence; we’ve always nurtured chaos theories, land as a primer in literature, land as pedagogy for futurisms. Indigeneity then, too, is a fine-tuned technology. zoa is a manifestation of that, a millennial queer Indigenous otâcimow, one who re-members 2S/Indigiqueer hi/stories and re-centers them in (y)our stories.

2. What were the challenges and discoveries of the writing and publishing process?

Finding my voice was the most difficult challenge—I was too ingrained to think about how to consume canonical figures via symbiosis and mimicking them to validate myself as a “writer”. What does “writer” mean? I think that’s the difference between CanLit and Indigenous otâcimowak and their âcimowinak, that we orate not for decorum or for national recognition (though we are certainly finally being recognized for such) but we storytell for our lives, our communities, and our futurisms.

There is a different dynamic of power at stake in our stories: one, they are not linear, time for us is circular, a figure eight, an infinity symbol, a Métis optic; and two, stories are nourishment are re-membrance are resurgence. So decolonizing my writing to recognize that as an Indigenous otâcimow—and more importantly as an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer otâcimow because Indigeneity is a pan-concept—I have communities and land bases I am accountable to, that I am responsible for. I had to tell stories that would heal and nourish, stories that would craft mirrors for my kin to see themselves in and think, “Here I am, I am an is not a was, I am vicious and I am vivacious.” That’s a great deal of weight, a challenge, yes, but one I needed to rise to.

Of course, I owe a great deal to juice and to the University of Winnipeg for helping me to come to that realization, more specifically, through the communities we created in our open-mics and our journals. It was there I was allowed to teach myself how to tell an oral story, how the word and the voice work hand-in-hand, how language can be sharpened into an arrowhead. If, a Margery Fee argues, literature is a land claim and canons become weapons, this symbiosis thereby becomes a powerful dispossessing infection for BIPOC and QTPOC writers; what better way, I thought, than to mutate alongside it, to create a hive mind for Indigeneity, a horrific NDN, to weaponize the story in order to combat canons, to piece together a ruptured body in a queer fashion, a glamourous dandyism, and to break monuments in full-metal?

3. How did your time at UW prepare you for graduate studies in creative writing?

First, let me say I made a lot of excellent friends and mentors during my studies at the UW who supported me all the way through, I owe them so much, ay-hay. I am a doctoral student at the University of Calgary (Treaty 7) in the English Department. While I’m not in a creative writing per se, I am part of a unique graduate program in Canada that offers a creative and critical hybrid. Both my BA and my MA at the University of Winnipeg taught me a great deal. There were many classes that helped re-augment my mind and I need to thank all the amazing mentors I had along the way: Catherine Hunter, Margaret Sweatman, Jenny Heijun Wills, Bruno Cornellier, Brandon Christopher, Neil Besner, Doris Wolf, Heather Milne, Deborah Schnitzer and so many others.

I also must acknowledge the amazing writers in residences that were brought in during my time: Gregory Scofield, Chandra Mayor, and Jennifer Still. Though I think it was, again, the community of Winnipeg itself, that muddy, muddy red river, the strait of the spirit that isn’t straight, Manitowapow, that let me flourish into the thinker and storyteller I am today, Treaty 1 is a beautiful urban rez and doesn’t let you forget whose land you are borrowing.

I was fortunate enough to be at the UW while the mandatory three-credit requirement in Indigenous hi/stories was implemented—though that too had its own drawbacks that I saw unfold on campus and in my cohorts, drawbacks which made for kindling for me but also a lot of psychic damage. More importantly, I think I learned what story looks like, what its limitations are, and what it can do. I think here of Thomas King who said that “everything is story,” and I cannot seem to unsee/unhear that now.

I teach my students that the body is a theory is a story is a land base and I try to navigate the world thinking like that. I don’t care to call myself a novelist or a poet or a performance artist; I call myself a storyteller, an otâcimow, and I pay homage to those powerful orators who came before me; no story is mine alone: the story is a star blanket crafted from patterns given by community by which I mean given by the land. As Lee Maracle orated in downstream: reimagining water, the “water owns itself,” which I take to heart as a 2S iskwewayi nâpew born of Manitowapow. If our water owns itself so too does our land and so to do our stories. I’m just a torchbearer, a safeguard.

4. What is your next project?

I just launched full-metal indigiqueer this October with the loving help of Talonbooks (my editor, Jordan Abel, and the lovely cover done by Kent Monkman) which was all kinds of amazing. I have my debut novel coming out in April 2018 with Arsenal Pulp Press titled Jonny Appleseed, which tells the sex-positive story of a 2S cyber sex-worker working through his memories and his traumas to return home for the funeral of his step-father. The story is based in Wînipêk, Manitowapow and my home nation, Peguis.

I’m currently working on a third book, a hybrid of storytelling genres and following in the wake of writers such as Leanne Simpson, Gwen Benaway, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Gregory Scofield (i.e. poetry, prose, and personal essay) tentatively titled Making Love to the Land, which I’m basing largely within Manitowapow to act as a 2S/Indigiqueer primer on re-thinking of the land as a sexual pedagogy and queer creation story.

Lastly, I’m working on my dissertation, which I hope to create into a non-fiction/theoretical narrative on Indigenous futurisms, hauntings, and technology, tentatively titled Feral Fatalisms: An Indigiqueer Manifesto.

5. What advice would you give to students in the Creative Writing BA?

My advice: don’t be afraid to be a resistant reader, don’t shy away from your own body of stories, you’ll find voice in your communities, go to them, be a fierce listener, create relationships, and center your peoplehood.

I think a lot about what Eden Robinson once said, “If you don’t see yourself in the literary landscape, then the landscape probably needs you more than anyone.” Story yourself into the world—that’s a powerful gift for community. Craft a mirror that re-members and re-beautifies; you’ll decolonize a lot of minds that way and unlock a wave of potential.

Lastly, for BIPOC/QTPOC and women writers specifically, keep in mind that the whole stoic and extractive notion of “paying your dues” as an emerging writer is disheartening and wholly problematic. I still find myself afraid to ask, “Am I being paid for this?” When your whole life feels like a series of “paying your dues,” it becomes easy to comply and subsume. Don’t be afraid to ask for compensation. Your experiences, traumas, struggles, stories have merit and worth, especially for consumption on a national scale. Sometimes a poem or a story means rent and food for that month. Live, but don’t exhaust or harm yourself by abiding to the old adage that a writer is a sufferer. We have been through enough already.