An Indigenous Writer Discovers New and Old Ways to Connect With the Land and With Each Other
Joshua Whitehead blends prose and verse to explore identity, queerness, mental health, and the body in "Making Love with the Land"
Joshua Whitehead can’t be held by genre. Following on the success of his Lambda Literary Award winning novel Jonny Appleseed and poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer, Making Love with the Land is Whitehead’s first full-length work of creative nonfiction. But to describe this book as merely an essay collection is limiting for the depth of emotion and reflection he brings to the page.
Instead, Whitehead describes the narrative form as “biostory,” a hybrid form rooted in oral storytelling that blends the best of the prosaic and poetic. The result is a truly rare reading experience, with his essays frequently shifting and taking shape in ways that seem to mimic the author’s own thought process as he mourns, copes, and heals from his past wounds. Whitehead explores topics ranging from indigeneity, queerness, loss, and the relationship between his body and the land as if he’s arriving at the right questions to ask as he writes. Meditative and wholly cathartic, Making Love with the Land is a book to savor; its words best experienced the second time after letting them fully wash over you.
Whitehead and I talked about the emotional power of storytelling that supersedes genre and process of writing through pain to find healing.
Michael Welch: This is your first official work of nonfiction. What was your experience putting yourself and your life on the page in this way?
Joshua Whitehead: Harrowing, to say the least—this is vulnerability as I’ve never known before. Freeing, as well. A kin of mine once said that when you lose nerve, when you’re no longer anxious before setting foot on stage, and I’d add the page, you’ve lost something along the way. My penultimate goal in writing is for the betterment of my communities and non-fiction was, at this point in time, the most stalwart motion of doing so. To remove the mask of character and step on stage, bloodlet and cauterize simultaneously—I had to put my theory into action lest it be petrified wood and aged into something merely aesthetic vs. utilitarian. I hope in showcasing myself, my body, my history, and my joy, that I’m making space and allowance for others to as well. That the page is a forge.
MW: Making Love With The Land is described as “biostory,” a form that reads as such the perfect blend of prose and verse. Can you talk more about how you define this way of telling stories and how it allowed you to better express what is a very intimate and personal narrative?
JW: What I named biostory for myself, here, was a way of letting me become an outlaw to genre. If I was to be decolonial on the land, I needed to do it on the page too. Often, I’ve found, Indigenous narratives are characterized by either: testimony (a synonym, perhaps, for residential school stories or a synecdoche for stoic historical accounts) and/or pulp (inasmuch as when our stories are not about that they’re called “simple,” “mystical,” or “magic realism”). Surely our stories can be these forms, but they’re rich with allusion and metaphor—of riotous joy and complex constellations of creation. I needed MLWTL to be as it ached to be: prosaic, poetic, theoretic, autobiographic, philosophic, futuristic. And so, biostory came to me as a way to pay homage to the oral stories of the peoples I come from as well as fully embedded within my physical body but also the layered textures of our bodies of water, land, and text too. I could not discount how a snake, meandering through the badlands of Alberta, too was not a poet of their own accord, the land, too, a page.
MW: In the book you argue that storytelling requires animation and life like lovemaking, as you write that the desire to “master” the craft of story is “wholly violent.” Naturally, this immediately made me think of the formalization of writing and its attempt to place rules that students can follow. What do you see is the danger of this approach and how we return to something more lived?
JW: When I’m teaching my creative writing students, what I want for them to take away from my pedagogies is that they are all storiers in their own rights. That the aestheticism of this thing we call literature need not be bound by borders, because we are always integrally tied, umbilically, with our bodies of text. A story is a leaking, not a container, and when we autopsy under the suspicion of preordained form—we are losing precious syllables and syllabics that ought to be there. I suppose what I feel I want myself, and others who find themselves inspired by my writing, is that the motoring noun of all writing is: the body.
MW: Now that you mention the body, I was really drawn to your relationship to video games growing up as not one of distraction but as a “medicinal tool.” Can you talk more about how giving yourself over to games helped you heal both physically and spiritually?
JW: Video games have always been a space of solace for me in my life. A refuge. A safe house. And they are rich with narrative. Primers in characterization and serialization. They allow you to craft an avatar of yourself and embed them into any landscape, any parable. I think back to the lockdown periods of COVID and how everyone was playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons and we were richer in connectivity for it—as our physical bodies waned from a starvation of intimacy (especially for those of us who lived alone) our digital bodies excelled in latitudes of reunion. How could I not find that a gifting? And of course, there are accessibility issues pertaining to the affordability of gaming consoles and the video games themselves, but I know, for myself, I am richer in experience for having been a gamer.
MW: Ultimately this book is as much about healing as it is about mourning and pain. How important was it to you to balance showing these conflicting experiences, and how did you work through on the page the messiness and ambiguity that often is the healing process?
JW: I think here of Vision in WandaVision who notes to Wanda, “What is grief if not love persevering?” What a beautiful line. What a gorgeous television show that centers around grief, loss, mourning, pain, love, heartache, isolation, trauma—all wrapped up within a witch who is one of the most powerful beings in the universe. To know some thing we might call god (or godly) can mourn and cry is a humbling reminder. For me, it was less about thinking about pain and love as separate entities, but rather as transformations of each other. Perhaps love is pain evolved. And pain is love that forgot it was never a closed circuit. I would be remiss that it took a village to write this book, both actualized and conscious decisions for help in writing and editing (of the many “you’s” denoted in this book, a good handful were very active participants) and that no writing, or writer, thrives in a vacuum. Healing is messy, it’s ambiguous, it’s confusing and bewildering, it’s cyclical—like all relationships are within a nêhiyaw (Cree) epistemology. So perhaps I return to the metaphor of the circuit, that when we place any emotional body within it, when we attempt to close it we invent finality, when means we strive for ownership, so in that healing and transforming, I had to leave the circuit open so that the spirits of each direction could enter, visit, breathe life anew into a rotting floorboard of memory.
MW: One thing I loved about Making Love With The Land was that even while it is quite an intimate story about your body, your grief, and your healing, you continually return to a larger narrative about the land and kin you come from. How do you see the personal fitting into this larger collective in your work?
JW: Let me regress us a bit into the lockdowns again (I’m sorry, hah) but I want us to remember what we did, realized we took for granted, how we were in relationships with everything around us when we were at our most isolated and lonely: we went for walks. We walked with parks. We swam with rivers and lakes. We sat with mountains and hills. The land and water held us when we needed it. They are kin to us. They nourished us when we were starving (emotionally and physically). I am grateful beyond belief for the bodies of lands that held me. I think of Kim TallBear who writes about ethical non-monogamy, not only of partners, but more specifically (and I paraphrase here) how she is never single because she is always in relationships with that which we call kin, the non-human, around us. It is those relations that I tried to position as the epicenter of kinship within MLWTL.
MW: You write about your responsibility to your kin as to be “a pain eater.” In our modern era and its violence against Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, how do you make space for others’ pain and also your own pain in a way that has the potential to be restorative as opposed to traumatizing?
JW: There’s a line in my novel Jonny Appleseed where he and his partner/best friend/rival, Tias are discussing their relationship and Jonny notes, “It’s funny how an NDN ‘I love you,’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you’”. Sometimes I think back to that book, and Jonny, and I am bewildered, I’m like, who wrote this passage? I don’t recall ever being that wise or observant. It frankly makes me laugh in awe and terror. Which, I don’t mean to exacerbate ego, but rather, humble myself to our characters who live with and share so much of ourselves that they become twins to us, almost, and offer us insights we didn’t know we had.
With “The Pain Eater,” I wanted to theorize how that is what so much of us do, for others, of ourselves, and it’s sometimes through our shared pain that we find connectivity and political mobilization. If pain is a closed circuit that love forgot, then to unlatch its closed door is to make it ouroboric: collaborative, communicative, and cyclical as we eat pain and expunge love. Of course, there are boundaries and limitations to this as a praxis of being—but to eat pain is really to share story. Narration beautifies it, beatific, and its passing lightens our kin if we so choose to enact this form of community care—it’s our role than to know when the well is enough and how to dispose of it properly and ethically. I’m still learning that, I believe I always will—the profound and profane eligibility of the human condition twisted into thorns from systemic injustice and violence. Perhaps the point is not to unwind those tangles, so as to straighten them, but to let them thrive into a hinterland that is an emotional meadow of wildflowers that know no invasive species.