Reader Profile: Joshua Whitehead

For every day of our Indiegogo campaign, we’ll be sharing profiles from readers and supporters of Glass Bookshop both local to the city and from across Canada. Visit our campaign page now to claim cool perks and support us in building a beautiful brick-and-mortar space in downtown Edmonton. And read on to discover why today’s featured reader is excited to one day visit Glass Bookshop!

Joshua Whitehead is a storyteller whose work is so many things at once: playful, serious, experimental, generous, difficult, open, vulnerable, grounded, soaring. Joshua is an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is the author of the novel Jonny Appleseed (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018), longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. He is also the author of the poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer (Talonbooks, 2017) and the winner of the Governor General’s History Award for the Indigenous Arts and Stories Challenge in 2016. His next book, Making Love with the Land, will be published by Knopf Canada. He is currently at work on a PhD in Indigenous Literatures and Cultures in the University of Calgary’s English Department (Treaty 7). He has been a warm supporter of Glass Bookshop, and we’re honoured to profile him and learn more about the insights his favourite books offered him, and what he thinks Glass Bookshop can offer the Edmonton community.

How did books and the act of reading come to be meaningful to you?
Books have always been influential in my life. I was an overweight anti-socialist growing up; I had no confidence, I had no social skills, and really, I had no way of crossing the bridges of friendship by convincing myself I had little to offer in the way of relations. So I turned to books. I recall so many days of going to the local bookstore in my hometown and either checking out, or reading, copious amounts of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia universe, which then turned into Ursula K. Le Guin and Isaac Asimov. Books equipped me with an arsenal of lenses through which I viewed the world, how I narrated it, how I curated it. These were fundamental instruments for me to have that I developed throughout my childhood and teenage years which ultimately led me to becoming the #Indiginerd writer I am today, hah.

What is your relationship now to books and reading?
I am often nostalgic for books but find myself with very little time to read them. Our relationship is still strong, everything I do revolves around books/stories. What interests me as of late is how the story, so heavily embedded as being owed and owing to the spine of a paperback, has shifted in our current moments into podcast, e-book, video game narrative, film, graphic novel, television, music (which, of course it always has been but has seen, in my opinion, a shift in popularity through social media). Books save lives, I believe, and stories give us lenses in which to view the world that enhance our perspectives while also challenging ours by asking us to view from vantage points that aren’t our own—and isn’t that the best kind of gift? And there are moments when reading when you come across a passage so wholly you that you gasp for breath momentarily, dog ear a page, engrave a heart into the margins, and revel in the fact you have transformed however minutely. We need to see ourselves to know ourselves and books give us that. Maybe I think too much on the act of dog earring, but I believe stories and books are our best friends.

Is there a book that has had significant impact on you?
Oh there are so many, but the one that changed me fundamentally was Beloved by Toni Morrison. It was the first time I came across a novel that I both saw myself in, even though I am not black it was one of the first books that I read from a non-white perspective that gave me insights into the onslaught of living as a colonized person. Plus, I am obsessed with horror and hauntings, it was a match made in a decolonial literary heaven/haven. Others came along, most notably Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed, Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sapphire’s Push, Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Recently, the one that has sat with me and asked so much of me, while also giving as much in return, is Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother was an Aztec.

How does literature influence your sense of community?
Literature makes community. I often think back to my family, immediate and distant, embodied and ancestral, and how stories have floated through our mouths and spirits in one way or another. For me, and perhaps many other Indigenous peoples, stories have always been about kinship, family, community, nationhood. Being a writer and touring, bookstores have fostered new families for me all across Turtle Island. A city just isn’t a community if it doesn’t have a thriving independent bookstore. Everything revolves around one: politics, philosophy, comedy, horror, memoir, queerness, race, Indigeneity, and every imaginable intersection therein. Maybe I think of bookstores as I would of Janis Ian giving Cady Heron a tour of North Shore High School, though instead we’re surveying the topics and genres I’ve named above, to which I would end on her note that here you will find the “greatest people you will ever meet.” I owe so much to stories.

How do you find new books or writers?
I often find these through my local bookstore, Shelf Life, here in Calgary and my hometown bookstore, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg. Both have an amazing layout of all genres with dedicated sections to Indigenous Lit and literature from racialized writers under headings such as Black Lit, Asian Lit, while also having beautifully curated sections to queerness, memoir, mental health, graphic novel, zines, etc. I think a local bookstore has so much more experience, perhaps less turn over as compared to somewhere like Chapters which, really, you’re led only to so-and-so’s picks who has never actually set foot in that store I bet. A local bookstore, yes, has recommendations but the ambiance of the store is wrapped in knowledge from peoples of varying backgrounds who have relationships not only with their authors but with their communities and what they like, look for, long for.

Can you share a memorable experience you’ve had in a bookstore? What makes it stand out for you?
The best experience I’ve had in a bookstore has been almost every literary reading. It’s just so refreshing to come out and see a bookstore fill up, people spilling and idling in between stacks, listening to a reader share their work and asking insightful, intelligent questions about the work or about writing/reading in general. Then, when everyone gathers afterward for some crackers, cheese, and wine, they all storytell in their own ways sharing tips, new books to check out, or where they’re at in their own maneuvers to write. That’s just beautiful to me.

What do you think Glass Bookshop could offer Edmonton’s community of readers and writers?
I think a store wholly dedicated to BIPOC and LGBTQ2SIA+ is a wonderful endeavour to take. From experience, some of my favourite bookstores have been dedicated wholly to these topics as well such as Little Sister’s in Vancouver, Glad Day in Toronto, Another Story in Toronto as well. It’s so refreshing to see these books and their writers featured, centre stage, unabashedly, sometimes without being constrained to a specific “section” as if it’s some type of genre writing. It’s wonderful, I think, to see them in their entirety as specifically literature, and great literature. We see that already in our current CanLit moment and I believe bookstores, many but not all, also should be taking this into consideration when organizing their shelves and layouts.

Want to help make this reader’s dream for Glass Bookshop a reality? Support Glass Bookshop’s Indiegogo campaign by buying some cool perks today here:

Joshua Whitehead
Matthew Stepanic