Diary: Joshua Whitehead, Writing as Relation and Rupture
Kent Monkman, Teaching the Lost (2012), Acrylic on canvas, 24” x 30.” Image courtesy of the artist
To be a writer under the banner of “Literature” when you are a queer Indigenous person is to create a type of peeping, voyeurism, stripping, the expectation of the unveiling of bodies, histories, communities, traumas. Creative non-fiction fails me here, as did the novel, as did poetry, as do the larger boundaries and borders of genre and form—I stylize and characterize myself and my writings within the webbings of my ancestral and contemporary storytelling—otâcimowak—in an attempt to answer some of these questions, to unpack these expectations, to lay claim to the sovereignty my body houses, and, if I must strip, to do so on my own terms.
“Our memories stretch back thousands of years,” Sto:lo storyteller Lee Maracle notes, “but we don’t think about them until the condition for the use of memory ripens and calls us to remember.” If story is the encasement of memory, then the stories of our bodies, our hunger for such poetics, are rooted within the paradigm of the ancestral—orality disrupts any condensation of time into what we simply call the “present.” My elders tell me that when we set foot on a piece of land—again, a body—we simultaneously experience past, present, and future. Temporalities sing harmoniously beneath the print of our soles, tinkling through bone and membrane. The land is an archive, is a library, is a genealogy—a body of land is a body of literature. Water remembers, it maintains memories, it recalls the substances it has previously dissolved; trees remember, and in their wounds is a witnessing of wars past, diseases eradicated. If the land can witness, it can also listen. And it talks through what we might call living stories: the way a tipi ring would point to hunting grounds; the way a waterway directs one to community or home; the way a petroglyph enlivens communal and historical dialogue.
I turn to my linguistic system to attempt to answer myself. Nêhiyâwewin does not gender objects the way some languages do. Instead, we animate them, holding our relations within our languages. Where English would call a river, the sky, fire, a rock inanimate, nêhiyâwewin considers all of these to be animate beings imbued with spirit, kin to us. The non-human, the four-legged, the winged, insectoid, fungal aquatic—all of these hold space, relevance, and importance within a circular way of being in relation to each other, rather than a hierarchical model that positions humankind on the highest register. For this we say wahkohtowin, which translates to “all my relations,” a term that many prairie Indigenous languages share, more specifically denoting the act of being related and in relation to each other. Wahkohtowin is a means of existing within the wholeness of a circle. Ultimately, it is upheld through the active practice of what we call miyopimatisowin, or “the good life”—being in good relations and adhering to laws of accountabilities to all our kin. Miyopimatisowin, then, is kin to wakohtowin. Nêhiyâwewin centers accountabilities and ethics within every word we utter. Stories, the original and the contemporary, braid together wakohtowin and miyopimatisowin through the active teachings of embodied modes of being in relation to land, water, sky, non-humans. As Maracle puts it, “poems move people from where they are to where they need to go to ensure community development.” Indeed, the very act of putting breath to language, of making sound, is an entry into community-based care. Orality, by which I mean a tool of storytelling, is therefore an entry point into community enrichment and the building of futures through the interlacing of our histories. Words, orality, sound itself are kin to us, since we not only breathe animation into language, but we also enliven stories through our voices, senses, bodies. The act of speaking summons words into being through an entanglement of experience, memory, and recognition. Wahkohtowin is enacted again precisely because storytelling is directly aimed at community development and health—something that differentiates Indigenous stories from European literatures, which are so often consumed in a solitary fashion.
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No one taught me in my creative writing classes exactly the type of labor writing, thinking, imagining, building would entail. Narrative is a type of strip show, sometimes of the body, but more so of the spirit-body. Lately storytelling has required a lot of me—me, alone, in my office, splayed across my couch looking up into rows and rows of books. Sometimes my beloved, nîcimos, comes in, asks me what I’m doing, and the only words I can muster are, “I’m remembering.” This may sound trivial, but in fact is a wholesome act. To say remembrance or remembering.
No one warned me that writing would take my family away from me. I don’t yet have the ability to mourn those who have passed because I have been working: on story, readings, interviews, dissertations, candidacies, comprehensive examinations. And you may say that is my fault—and perhaps it somewhat is—but it is also your fault for demanding so much of me and giving so little in return. I cultivate my pain into a garden that I do not know how to cull into beauty. Sometimes, when I’m left alone, I creep into my bedroom and look at the obituaries—I crack under the pressure, and grief rushes into me like a great wave. This is how I have to mourn now: silently, alone, shattered, ragged. We, wakohtowin, were never meant to be alone, least of all in a time of need. But I try to mourn this way nonetheless, because what are the ethics of a delayed mourning for my family now that they have healed and moved on, tucking away memories into their most precious places in the linings of their spirit-bodies? I hate it when I have to come back to them for the sake of my writing because they’re still speaking to me and I’m still listening, and I can’t help but feel like a glutton for doing so. I shouldn’t excavate them for the sake of singing story, but sometimes I think: Maybe that’s what pain is? I hope you can forgive me, my iskotêw iskwew, fire-keeper, my kîsik iskwew, sky-keeper, my me. Sometimes love needs to be ground in order for it to be grounded.
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-nêhiyaw, Two-Spirit member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is author of the novel Jonny Appleseed and a volume of poetry, full-metal indigiqueer, and he is editor of Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. He is assistant professor in the English and International Indigenous Studies departments at the University of Calgary. This post is adapted from his forthcoming book, Making Love with the Land: Essays. The author has allowed us to italicize words in the Cree language, for clarity for readers new to the work. In the original, Cree and English words are not differentiated. Cree does not have proper nouns and so names are not capitalized.
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