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Tracey Anderson

“I have come a long way from peddling poems for pennies in downtown Winnipeg”: An Interview with Joshua Whitehead

Photo of Joshua Whitehead by Tenille Campbell
Photo of Joshua Whitehead by Tenille Campbell
Photo credit: Tenille Campbell (sweetmoon photography)

Joshua Whitehead (he/him) is a Two-Spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is currently a Ph.D. candidate, lecturer, and Killam scholar at the University of Calgary, where he studies Indigenous literatures and cultures with a focus on gender and sexuality. He is the author of full-metal indigiqueer and Jonny Appleseed and the editor of Love After the End. His non-fiction manuscript Making Love with the Land is slated for release in spring 2022.

Editors Canada is delighted that on Saturday, June 12, 2021, at 3 p.m. ET, Joshua will give the first keynote address at our virtual conference, Editors Transform. Edmonton-based non-fiction editor Tracey Anderson interviewed Joshua about his work and about transformation in the Canadian publishing industry. (This interview has been lightly edited.)

Tracey Anderson: You edited Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction from Arsenal Pulp Press, which was released in 2020. Was that your first experience as an editor? How did you find it to do that kind of work? What were the rewards? What were the challenges?

Joshua Whitehead: It was my first experience as an editor, yes. It was a wild change of pace to be the stitcher rather than the weaver, to pay such close attention to syntax, rhythm, image, and grammar. And also, to be working across a plethora of Indigenous linguistic systems, the role of translation also became a primary function of the process. I very much enjoyed it.

Kai Cheng Thom has said, and I paraphrase here, “to be close read is a kind of lovemaking.” I very much felt that effect in my editorial role, the level of trust and kinship that is given to the editor is a position I don’t take lightly. Editorial work is community building. And I was overtly rewarded by being able to present to the world nine amazing writers — many of whom are new and emerging.

I’ve said it before, and I dare say it again: literature is a synonym for accountability. We all emerge, hand-in-hand, stories singing to stories, and practice an ethics of kinship that widens and makes room for others in a horizontal rhizome rather than a vertical hierarchy. I am overly joyful for and proud of this anthology.

TA: In what ways, if any, did being the anthology editor change your perspective on or teach you something new about having your writing edited?

JW: Editors are divinity embodied, at least a good one is; what a gentle fire they house and what a mercenary blaze they imbue into a manuscript. This role has taught me the rigour, patience, and keen eye that is required to take bedrock and really polish it into a diamond. What I took away from it is to apply that to my own writing practices — to write like a flight but one that is tethered by my own hand so as not to let it fly completely out of sight.

TA: You are one of the keynote speakers at the Editors Canada virtual conference that runs June 12 and 13. The theme of the conference is Editors Transform. In what ways would you like to see the publishing industry in Canada transform? What steps do you think the industry needs to take to make those changes happen? How do you think editors can help facilitate those changes?

JW: One thing I would like to see the editorial sector in Canada change, or transform, is to include more Indigenous editors — either on the team itself or as a hire when needed, especially when working with Indigenous writers. I think it’s important to have editors who have a balance in knowing Indigenous linguistic systems, epistemologies, and ways of storytelling; editors that understand cyclicity in lieu of linear narrative; editors that understand the need for unabashed truth when it comes to settler colonialism and its horrors; editors who make space for queerness and sexuality and let those scenes breathe and spill without reserve.

TA: Some people would say that the industry’s transformation has already started. Do you agree? Why or why not?

JW: I would argue that we are witnessing the reconfiguration of Canada’s literary landscape happen right before our very eyes — the contouring of its breadth now including, highlighting, and celebrating BIPOC, queer, and trans voices. I think it important that editors follow in that wake. I definitely do see the industry transforming, and I find it exciting to be a part of this shift.

TA: Your book Jonny Appleseed won CBC’s Canada Reads 2021. Congratulations! What does this win mean to you personally?

JW: Oh goodness, the week of Canada Reads felt like I was continually in the eye of the hurricane — I’ve never been busier in my life. But it was an absolute honour and privilege to be on that stage with a book that features Indigeneity, queerness, sex work, femmeness, and intergenerational trauma and triumphs. Kawennáhere [Devery Jacobs, the actor and filmmaker who championed the book in the competition] was just a miracle to work with; she’s such a starwalker, and we made history with that win as not only the first Indigenous book to ever win Canada Reads in its twenty-year span, but also as the first Two-Spirit novel to also grace the largest literary stage in our nation-state we call Canada. It’s a ceremonial fire that we have lit together, and one I intend to keep lit for as long as I continue in the literary sector.

TA: What does the win mean to you professionally? 

I have told Kawennáhere that she has changed my life irrevocably. This win has solidified not only Jonny Appleseed as a seminal text in our country’s “canon,” but also it feels as if she has given me the golden key to a successful career as an Indigenous and queer writer. I have come a long way from peddling poems for pennies in downtown Winnipeg.

TA: Can you tell us something about yourself, not related to your work, that readers might not know about you?

JW: If I’m not reading or writing, I’m playing with my five-month-old dog, Chief — who isn’t the most adamant cuddler (though to be fair he also won’t ever let me leave his side). He has been a fierce caretaker of me and for me during COVID-19; his favourite things to do are to protect me from dangerous magpies, watch Disney+ nature documentaries with me, and visit his Dene pup-cousin, Nushi. Outside of these, you can usually find me either locked in virtual reality gaming on my PlayStation 4 or being wholly femme with cosmetics and glitter and dancing around the house listening to King Princess.

TA: Can you give us a teaser about what your keynote address at the Editors Canada conference will focus on?

JW: What I will give away is that I am interested in exploring and talking about the multiplicities and complexities of the noun “body” from both an English and a nêhiyâw perspective. My talk will be about kinship, relationality, and accountability to not only our textual bodies of work but how literature is itself an animate being.

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