Hey friends! This week on the blog, I’m doing something a little different than the massive, exciting guest posts I’ve been throwing around lately. This week… it’s JUST ME. I’m going to tell you, 1, about this rad video game I played this weekend, and 2, I’m FINALLY going to let this post that I wrote in 2018 and for some reason NEVER POSTED go LIVE! Be free, ye olde blog post! Tell the world now VERY belatedly about the brilliant book Jonny Appleseed, by Joshua Whitehead.
Before we dive in, a quick plug that NEXT WEEKEND is the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) Kids Book Fest, which is free, live, and online this year. Don’t miss it! It’s one of my favourite events of the year. Photo evidence below.
Visual Novel: Neo Cab
I think probably more than I should about what “reading” means. The perennial question of, is listening to audiobooks reading? Semantically, maybe not, but practically, of course, especially in a world where visually perceiving words on a page isn’t accessible to all readers. In my house, we do a lot of reading. My partner reads braille, and I use a text-to-voice app to give my eyes a break from sensory overload, we both have eReaders, we have an impressive stash of audiobooks, and predictably, our physical bookshelves are full to bursting.
When I was a kid, I devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books. The series was immensely popular, selling over 250 million copies in the 1980’s and 90’s alone. It still continues to this day – the latest series is Choose Your Own Adventure: Spies, based on non-fiction stories. The next title in the series, Mary Bowser, written by Black author Kyandreia Jones, comes out in October. Later, I discovered interactive text games, and recently, I decided to try out a visual novel on Nintendo Switch.
Visual novels are otherwise known as point and click narrative games, and are distinct from adventure games, which incorporate narrative and other gameplay aspects, for example, puzzle-solving. Visual novels are text-based stories that integrate animation with interactive elements. I honestly didn’t know how I’d feel about this. I love slice of life anime, which seemed to have some of the same flavours as visual novels, but I wondered if they would just feel like really boring action adventure games. I’m not a … super patient person.
Turns out? I love them. They absolutely incorporate aspects of slice of life, and also simulation games, in ways that feel organic and engaging. When partnered with really stunning visuals, they are a really great way to spend an afternoon.
Neo Cab is described as an “emotional survival game”, and it’s available for Switch, Linux, Mac, iOS, and PC. In it, you play Lina, a WOC who is basically a near-future Uber driver, who just moved to the city to be with her (toxic) best friend, Savy. The game is queer-coded, heartwarming, anti-capitalist, AND has really skillful non-binary rep. It checked every box for me… and taught me weirdly uncomfortable truths about myself. (Are video games allowed to do that??) If you’re having trouble getting into conventional reading these days, for whatever reason, or you’re just looking for a new way to experience storytelling, this game is a great place to start.
Jonny Appleseed: Written December, 2018
Listen, yall. I wrote this piece around the time I created this blog. I didn’t know back then if I was going to really be able to commit to this thing, and it felt like A Lot. Also, the launch it’s about… fully changed my life. It was when I got to really meet the incredible Alicia Elliott, who continues to inspire me to this day. I had a lot going on at the time. Somehow, this fell down in my drafts and never got posted. So, consider this a time capsule, because Jonny Appleseed seriously deserves the air time.
When I found out that my book shop would be hosting the (belated) Toronto launch of Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed, I was so excited that I immediately messaged my managers to ask if I could work the event. Whitehead had been on my radar since spring of 2018. He was nominated for a Lambda award in the Trans Poetry category for his previous publication, full-metal indigiqueer, a collection that propels Two-Spirit (among other) identities out of a Eurocentric-imposed past and into an anti-colonial future. I read and admired the clear and generous letter that Whitehead wrote when he turned down the nomination, calling for space to be made to celebrate Two-Spirit identities within (colonial) literary award frameworks. Then, I encountered Whitehead himself at the FOLD last spring, where his books sold out completely, and customers who had attended his panels raved about how well-spoken and spellbinding he was on stage. Jonny is one of the only books I’ve ever found myself searching through boxes for in the middle of the night at the book shop.
After all of this exposition, I was hungry for the months-late launch of Jonny Appleseed… and I hadn’t even peeled open the cover of the book yet. Ultimately, I didn’t manage to start Jonny Appleseed until five days before the event, which meant that I finally finished the book only a few hours before Whitehead would take the stage. I was still wiping tears off my cheeks when I headed out for work that day, as I sent a text to my partner to say that I was sobbing in our living room over the end of the book – in a good way.
The blurbs and press copy on the back of Jonny Appleseed describe it as a fever dream that centres on a Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer glitter princess, who is returning home to attend his stepfather’s funeral. I cannot emphasize enough that even with all the hype that I experienced around this book, so much was still completely unexpected for me.
The non-linear novel is peppered with nostalgic and evocative anecdotes about Jonny’s close relationship with his kokum (grandmother), and I hadn’t anticipated that being such poignant part of the book. I was raised in a small rural city by my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother all under one roof. Although my relationship and memories of my familial matriarchs looked very different from Jonny’s in some cases, there were striking similarities, and I found these sections of the text to be heart wrenching. Whitehead has what seems to be a careful willingness to delve into the complexities of the relationships that exist between people who exchange caretaking; a tactful ability not to shy from the grittiness in these relationships, but to describe them in such a way that they don’t lose sweetness in the process.
Jonny Appleseed also wrestles with the reconciliation of identities with the environments that the character inhabits. On the rez (reservation) where Jonny was raised, he struggles to find space to safely express the queer and gender-defying aspects of his Two-Spirit identity. After moving to the city, he struggles instead to find space for his Indigineity. For a reader like me, the experience of this theme was twofold. While carving out space for a complex identity is relatable, it was also educational, and any white settler reader would do well to learn from this book.
Perhaps most unexpectedly? I laughed. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I have trouble laughing. Whitehead cleverly weaves pop culture references into this book, and through them had me chuckling and reading passages aloud to other people.
I’ve already passed on my copy and an additional two copies of Jonny Appleseed to friends and family. It was released in paperback, and it’s well worth the investment required to check it out.
Also, check out Joshua Whitehead’s new collection, Love After the End, a young adult anthology of stories by Indigenous authors, featuring Two Spirit and queer heroes in utopian and dystopian settings.
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