Writers Essa Ranapiri and Joshua Whitehead spoke ahead of Whitehead’s visit to Aotearoa for the Auckland Writers Festival. Get yourself a cup of tea and allow time for this multi-faceted, fascinating kōrero. Note that Waikato-Tainui dialect is used throughout.
Kia ora koutou, what follows is a koorero between two Indigiqueers from very different places. We began with whakapapa:
My name is Essa Ranapiri and I whakapapa to Ngaati Raukawa, Te Arawa and Ngaati Puukeko; and to Clan Gunn in Scotland in the highlands; and the Horwood family from the south of England. I grew up in a small city called Tauranga-Moana. I was brought up by my nan and got to be on the beach often, which is kind of a privilege, especially now I live in a city that does not have beaches in the same way. I am the author of ransack (VUP, 2019) and ECHIDNA (THWUP, 2022), co-editor of No Other Place to Stand: An Anthology of Climate Change Poetry, and co-editor of Kupu Toi Takataapui an upcoming literary journal for queer Maaori. I am takataapui trans non-binary, my pronouns are they/them.
tânsi nitotemak, my name is Joshua Whitehead, just call me Josh. I am a two-spirit member of Peguis First Nation which is in Treaty One territory, also more commonly known as Manitoba, in the central area of Canada. I work and teach at the University of Calgary which is in Alberta, Canada, and in that space I’m a guest to the Blackfoot Confederacy, also known as Treaty Seven. I teach primarily Indigenous and more specifically the Nêhiyaw or Anishinaabeg or Cree Ojibwe peoplehoods, ideologies and histories of sex, sexuality, gender and two-spirit studies. I also teach creative writing in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. I’m the author of full-metal indigiqueer (2017, Talon book)s; Jonny Appleseed (2018, Arsenal Pulp Press); I’m the editor of Love After the End an anthology of two-spirit and Indigiqueer speculative fiction (2020, Arsenal Pulp Press); and Making Love With The Land a book of non-fiction (2022, Knopf Canada); and most recently a chapbook called Indigiqueerness: a conversation about storytelling with University of Athabasca Press. So, a bunch of books of all genres and forms. I’m a bit of a jack of all trades but I feel like most global Indigenous peoples are; kind of trained to be.
ER: This is a conversation that I have often with other Maaori creatives. Essentially the idea that before settlers came, it was all one thing! The arts were a part of each other, and were part of how we interacted with the world. For example, all of our tools were incredible pieces of art as well. There wasn’t the kind of market distinction that has since been introduced right?
JW: That’s been my life’s work as of late is that Indigenous literatures are all genre and no genre; and it’s not just bound to literature: paint work is story, track lines is story, petroglyphs are story, hunting grounds are story. Settlers just don’t understand, they just want to put a barcode on the spine and put it into Indigenous fiction, Black fiction, and put it on a shelf, and we supersede that!
ER: My second book of poetry ECHIDNA came out last year through Te Herenga Waka University Press and I remember one of the first things I was asked was, what is this? I was just like … I don’t know, I think it’s poetry? I just write the thing, I don’t think too much about the genre.
JW: I got similar questions with my book of poetry. Brevity is not my strength: I can’t write a short poem, like I’ll never write a haiku in my life. So I get the response “Josh this sounds too much like prose.” Then I write a novel and get ‘this sounds too poetic’; and I work in the academy and they’re like ‘your academic essays sound like personal essays’. I’m sorry I don’t fit into your genre expectations but maybe it’s limiting and let’s think about that?
ER: Totally! I’m working on a PhD at the moment, in the field of literary studies, looking at the embodiment of our gods or atua in poetry by takataapui Maaori and the only way I can write about it is in a personal essay style. This is me talking about our body of work, but also our literal bodies as they exist in this historic moment. To pretend to be at some kind of distance from it feels like it’s not serving our people and our art and culture.
JW: Yeah. My personal thing to always say in this place that Settlers call Canada, I’m very keen on disrespecting, wilfully, the kind of arbitrary lines of province and nation between Canada and the USA; but also our provinces and territories in the north – they’re so arbitrary and our Indigenous Nations supersede these lines. I’m loyal to the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations here in Canada on the land so I always remind myself I need to be just as decolonial on the page too; and genre and form and high poetry and high literature and low culture and low theory: those are all just such divisions that limit the story that wants to be storied into story, right? So I just forego those boundaries and treat them like National borders too.
ER: That makes a lot of sense. I had a funny moment the other day because I often squish different kinds of cultural touchstones into each other because that’s our lives. I have a poem called ‘Walking Backwards into Gender’ and because of how often I reference internet memes a friend thought my reference to a traditional whakataukii (Maaori saying) was a dril tweet; just incredible.
Here in Aotearoa we have a bird called the poopokotea (the whitehead), they are a small bird with pale coloured heads and a clear call that’s useful for being a messenger between the atua and taangata (gods and people). I was wondering if there were any specific animals that you relate to in a deep way and if you wanted to speak to the history of your name Whitehead?
JW: I’m very excited to come and see a whitehead in real life on Maaori land! The Whitehead name is a very fraught name for it’s one that I legally changed to in my late teenage years. My father’s last name is Whitehead – Peter Whitehead – and he was a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, which here in Canada and in the US was a forced stealing of children after residential schools closed. My grandmother, his mother, was murdered in the 60s and is part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women here, I also make sure that we always add the Girls and two-spirits to that acronym so it becomes MMIWG2S which is what the grassroots movements use here. The media likes to say ‘just women’, which is so cis and erases so many lives. My father’s journey to reconnect to his homeland, which is Dine Chipewyan of Northern Alberta, was a long one that took him some 30 years. The original name that he used to have was Kwasucki, which is a Polish last name: the name of his adoptive family who were disgustingly abusive. He found his birth mother and reconnected with his community and then re-adopted his name Whitehead, rightfully so. We also adopted it because I didn’t want to have some like Sixties Scoop colonizers last name, a Polish last name, which makes no sense.
My mother’s also indigenous so she is primarily Ojibwe and comes from the Sutherlands and Stevenson families of that space in Peguis First Nation. But my father was very visibly Indigenous but because of a loss of documents from imperialism and colonization he didn’t have the name. So, Whitehead as a name is very sovereign to me to have to proclaim because it comes from murder, and it comes from loss, and it comes from colonization, and it has survived through infernos. I take great pride in it and try to propel it forward now. I’m a queer person, I’m never going to procreate so the books become the continuation. In terms of animals, in Making Love with the Land I kind of theorized the aunties in my life – the fierce staunch women and the queer non-binary folks in my life – as wolverines because they’re so tiny and so fierce and have large hunting ranges of like a thousand kilometres! They can take down bears though they’re the size of a small dog, so they pack a punch. I just think they’re beautiful but also hella fierce. So this is the perfect animal to give to the aunties and kokums or grandmothers in my life!
ER: Do you remember the first story first poems/whatever we want to call it that you wrote and what was it?
JW: If you ever visit my parents they like to whip out the box of ‘here is all the stuff kid Josh wrote.’ I was just reminded about this: my mom is very nosy which means she likes to snoop. So she was back at her house with my father who’s a truck driver so he was gone and she was looking through the cabinet for her glasses, she says. How are you looking for your glasses without your glasses and you found this… uh anyway, she’s going to the cupboards and finds my father’s book from Narcotics Anonymous (he was a survivor of the Scoop so he was an addict of narcotics) and I guess in it there was this poem that Josh at nine years old had written as this empowerment piece. She was like, “I found it and I was bawling” and “Do you want me to send it?” And I was like, “No.” I’m very shy around my early stuff but apparently that’s the first thing I remember writing. I don’t remember what it’s about but I do remember writing it and I was definitely in the age of adolescence so I think that might be one of the earliest recordings of my writing that I wasn’t ordered to make in school.
ER: What does a writing day look like for you and do you have any different ways of going about it? Especially in regards to your books being quite different. Were they kind of formed in different ways or did you have different restrictions for each one?
JW: My writing day is very erratic! In terms of writing it takes me a long time. Everyone says I write books quickly but it takes so much prep: emotional, textual, researching, archival, to do that. I need to experience things too in order to write them truthfully so when I do get to writing it comes very quickly. I did write Jonny and full-metal and Making Love with the Land within less than a year: probably under six months for each. But the life experience preparation for that took decades if not lifetimes: I think it is ancestral in that sense too.
Learning to cue in and listen wisely and fiercely when something’s being said or something is just sparking your attention, which is non-physical and physical; or metaphysical, perhaps. When I do get to the writing phase I am very feverish. I’ve been well known to have partners who tap me on the shoulder, like: “You need to go to bed, it’s 6:30 in the morning and you’re still writing. When was the last time you had a drink of water?” It becomes very intense and it’s almost like a spilling. There are a lot of edits that come after. I also have tons and tons and tons of notes in my phone and my journals of just everyday things. I’m a big eavesdropper. I think you can find great dialogue just walking around listening to people and I’m such a practitioner of focusing in on the small or the minute things that are overlooked. Like small body parts: like a freckle or a scar or a wound. How do those hold knowledge? They are little universes in themselves, right? I kind of move outward from there. I don’t really have a sit down from nine to ten in the morning every day and write because I think you need to wait for the right parameters to create and to make.
ER: That process reminds me of those toy cars that you pull backwards to wind them up!
JW: Yeah that’s basically me!
ER: It’s the slow pull backwards and then speeding forward…
JW: …doing circles on the tracks!
ER: I used to write every day and try and produce something as often as possible. That was when I was submitting to journals, doing that “I need to get my name out there!” thing. But recently I’ve been taking it a lot slower and working on projects over a longer period of time. I got asked to write a poem in response to artwork by Ngaapuhi/Te Roroa artist Marilyn Webb and I spent three months working on this one poem and it was nice having that time and that stillness because we so often don’t get that. For so many other aspects of our lives the colonial clock keeps ticking!
JW: I think when you subject story to capitalism in terms of the nine to five, that’s when it feels hollow, almost…
ER: Yeah, and not to throw too much shade but there’s a lot of writing by white or paakehaa writers in this country where it’s like “Did you think about why this needs to be in the world?” Did you actually ask that question?
JW: Probably not!
ER: Something that also struck me from your response was the idea of not eating or drinking, while creating. In a lot of creative practice pre-contact people that were in the middle of creating or composing waiata (song) or doing other such creative works to ensure that the practice was tapu (sacred) they would not eat until the work was done. Maybe you’re accidentally tapping into something like that in your feverish writing.
JW: Here in our ceremonies we have a lot of fasting specifically for things like sweat lodge or sun dance: it’s like forgoing sustenance for the sake of prayer and I think story is a form of prayer. I have theorised I think it’s a form of fasting for me too.
ER: For me, my takataapui community, queer Maaori community, is the one I think about most when I’m doing the work I’m doing. It’s one of the questions I ask myself if I get an email about an opportunity: how does this help our queer Maaori Community? And I was just wondering if you could speak to the communities that you think about in regards to your work?
JW: First and foremost I think I write for two-spirit or queer trans Indigenous youth and folk of Turtle Island (or North America as settlers call it). It’s important for me to have, vivacious, vicious, beautiful and completely dynamic representation of ourselves, by ourselves, for ourselves right? Again, I’ve read multitudes of books by settler sexual writers of settler sexualities writing about third and fourth fifth genders of the Indigenous spaces and peoples of this place, and so for me I find settler sexualities want so badly to have a history here in this new world that they eat Indigenous sexualities and genders and sexes for the sake of legitimising their own history. So, I actively try to write against those dehumanising, disempowering and debilitating narratives about queer, trans Two-Spirit youth. When the representations they have of themselves are ruin or completely traumatized pains – suicide, substance abused or substance abusive – I try to write against that. Obviously sometimes those things intersect but that’s just part of it and that’s on generational trauma.
All my books have been fuelled by personal injury and personal joy too. This vessel we call Joshua has been feeding it all and it’s exhausting work: emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally. I’m trying to detach my body from the bodies of text that I create for now (I’m sure I’ll come back to it) just to rest and completely craft story out of research and also just for the sake of joy. Most recently I’ve been working on a new novel which is kind of apocalyptic two-spirit fiction: and everyone’s like; “Well how is apocalyptic joyful Josh?”
There’s a scholar here in this place called Canada named Leanne Simpson who has multiple books but she co-authored this book called Rehearsals for Living with a black scholar and writer called Robyn Maynard who is an abolitionist, an activist, as well as a writer. They wrote these letters to each other during the lockdown about abolition, about freedom, decolonization, about Black solidarity, Indigenous solidarity, Black Indigenous feminisms, Afro-Indigeneity, and they have this line, which I find so comforting right now, they ask us to remember; “it’s important that you know we as Indigenous folks globally and Black folks globally are reminding ourselves that not all world endings are tragic.” I find that so comforting and that’s what I find joyful about the apocalypse. It’s like in the prairies here you have to raze a field to make space and kind of rejuvenate the earth for regrowth, right? So you know we’ve all witnessed settler white panic around Covid and the pandemic and we’re all like ‘that’s cute’, how many have we survived? Six, seven, now? We’re experts in it right?
So yeah, my new work is trying to find joy even if it’s in an apocalypse, even if it’s in a world ending. I’m really trying to focus on myself for once, which I guess sounds selfish for a writer to say; I just write for me. But what I’ve learned in these three books that I’ve written full-metal, Jonny and Making Love With the Land is that yes it’s really kind of fuelled by the self and the self’s experiences I think so many writers try to write for a universal audience. They want everyone to read it and when they try to write for a universal audience the truth becomes so stretched it’s translucent. So I found actually moving inward and focusing on myself makes it more universal so that when I move inward as a writer I kind of expand outward as a reader and I think that’s what I’ve learned and that’s why I take no shame in saying I want to write about my joy, Indigenous joy, and of myself for myself. Aand I think that’s going to be more universal than writing about building a world like Tolkien or George R. R. Martin or something.
ER: Yeah it’s really interesting how being specific can speak to people a lot more successfully than going broad. I really like the image of the truth becoming translucent because you’re just stretching it so far!
My plan for my next book is writing a poem that acts as a love letter to some descendant who’s existing in maybe what we would view as a dystopian time (but also this is a dystopian time!). I like to say that the settler occupation that is New Zealand here is an ongoing invasion and things need to change and need to change drastically for things to get better. I have a friend who is a writer and artist and you know she does all the things (as we so often do hahaha) called Kahu Kutia who is of Tuuhoe descent and she has been working with the joy of the apocalypse because it means something is finally shifting. It means perhaps that this Empire that we all exist under is breaking and that’s a good thing! Like the complete opposite of you know like T.S Eliot’s anxieties in The Waste Land it’s like no, we want the waste land because we can build something new and better in it!
JW: Exactly, yeah exactly!
ER: I love the way full-metal indigiqueer just goes for it (the narrator and main character) and Zoa becomes a language virus in the western ‘canon’. I remember reading it the year after I wrote my first book ransack which is all about attacking English language in certain ways and thinking; thank fuck that I hadn’t read it beforehand because I would have just totally copied you. I was wondering if you could speak to where Zoa came from?
JW: It was my online handle. I don’t know why, it just came to me one day for some reason so I’ve had that since I was a kid. A pseudonym but also this alter ego. An inverse characterization of Josh the person. There’s an affect theorist here, or study of a emotion and emotive state, called Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and she has this great book called Touching Feeling. In that she writes about disability affect theory and writing. An essay [in the book] which has an amazing title ‘I bet you think this essays about you’ (a take on a line from the song ‘You’re So Vain’ by Carly Simon) and in it Sedgwick writes about two types of reading that she observes (and she’s not saying they’re binary): there’s a paranoid reading and reparative reading. Paranoid reading is when you are reading a text actively, looking for the holes.
So you as Indigenous folks, we are looking for the places where Indigeneity is appropriated or it’s vanished or should be mentioned; or it’s kind of misconstrued in a book, even if it’s set far from the frontier of the Americas. Say if you’re a queer person you’re looking for homophobia, femphobia, transphobia, fatphobia, in these books. You’re actively looking for what’s missing which is a great practice I think for reading. It can become an exhausting practice but it’s necessary. Reparative reading is when we go into a book or a story and are represented and we see ourselves, or we understand the story in any way shape or form, in any percentage, and we feel validated and empowered and it’s medicinal and it’s rejuvenating. So when we say, read the work of another queer Indigenous poet or storyteller and we’re like “Oh this is beautiful, I love this!” and we’re dog-earing the pages and writing hearts on every page like I do; that would be reparative reading. Healing medicinal reading versus angry and full of rage reading. And for me I kind of call full-metal indigiqueer and Jonny Appleseed sibling stories because they kind of were written back to back. I see Zoa as the online avatar that Jonny uses and Jonny is a human behind the counterpart.Sedgwick is saying these are two types of reading; paranoid and reparative reading.
But what I’ve been kind of working on theoretically and thinking about as a protocol for myself is that I think full-metal was not only paranoid reading but was paranoid writing: I was writing to fill in those gaps and I was fueled by rage, righteous, rightful rage and I was ready to burn and it was in that sense I would say it was fanged. It wasn’t defanged, it could bite: it was a maw. Jonny I think was reparative writing from reparative reading. From reading my contemporaries and my ancestors and those who paved the way for me and so Jonny became kind of a love song versus full-metal’s war cry. So I kind of think about them as siblings because they exist for me in the same kind of emotive universe, where one is paranoid and one is reparative, one is anger and rage, and one is healing and water.
ER: We need something to fight against, but we also need something to fight for. You need both of these things to fight a good fight.
JW: Yeah! I think my non-fiction Making Love with the Land is in the liminal space between paranoid and reparative; I don’t know what that space is! I don’t have language for it yet, but it is equally…. I don’t know, have you ever watched X-Men, have you seen that?
JW: Oh so you know Wolverine (speaking of wolverines again haha) he heals instantaneously. I feel like that’s what the work of my non-fiction was in that in the space between paranoid and reparative or between inferno and water or showers. I feel like I was bloodletting and cauterizing at the same time and that’s what my non-fiction became. So it was paranoid but it was rejuvenative and that’s a very exhausting space to be in where you’re wounding and healing at the same time, so it’s not one I want to be in again anytime soon. I told my editor: “do not let me write non-fiction again until I’m like 50.”
ER: This reminds me of writing ransack, my first book. I was writing it very much for the dark wall in the room that I hardly left, essentially. It was this very intense speaking to trauma, and quite exhausting to write and then you know I handed it in and got an email three months later from the publisher being like “we want to publish this”. I had to go through and edit some things and ended up using redaction as a technique to both safeguard the things I had spoken to but then also to give this of feeling of transgression to the reader, like you’re looking at something that wasn’t actually meant for you. That was an exhausting book to write. So with ECHIDNA, which is my second collection, I was like “third person, I’m going with third person now!” So I wrote the whole thing in third person; and that was really fun working in poetry and making the effort a lot more reparative than the first book. Echidna for me is this character kind of similar to Zoa but they’re a bit more in the vibe of going into things and healing and bringing in connections that characters or people might not have had so maybe they’re more like Jonny than Zoa.
That also reminds me I remember a thing I was going to say earlier and it was in regards to colonial queerness eating Indigenous queerness:
There was a book published recently called Queer Objects. It’s a book of artefacts that speak to queerness in different ways in New Zealand history and upon opening the book I was immediately struck by this image of a flute called Murirangaranga. It was a flute that belonged to one of our queer ancestors Tuutaanakai. He played it for both of his lovers: he had a male lover Tiki and a female lover Hinemoa. Because he was of a Chieftain line he had to marry in a way that would produce heirs, so ended up with Hinemoa. The word takataapui comes from those relationships. He speaks to the sadness of leaving his lover Tiki, his male lover, “E koro, ka mate au I te aroha ki tooku hoa, ki a Tiki”; roughly in english: “I am dying for love for my friend, for my takatāpui, my beloved, for Tiki”. So that’s where we have the kupu takataapui from; the Te Arawa tradition. Seeing the flute that he played on the page there, I burst into tears. It was a powerful moment but then thinking about its position in this book, which is so white, and the kind of power and potency of it versus the other items it just felt so strange. Because this flute was made of bone; it was made from the forearm of a tohunga who broke tapu and so was punished with death and then that bone flute was given to the baby Tuutaanakai. But in this book it’s just another thing to catalogue, in this book of whiteness, and it just felt so wrong to be there.
It was a very intense feeling to see these ancestors being taken out of their context and that’s why I’m trying to put together a journal of queer Maaori writing so that we have a place that isn’t a part of this white queer tradition in this country! Because so often when you’re trying to trace the whakapapa of our writing it’s published in such white spaces and I want a place where we can be whole and a place where our Maaoritanga is one with our queerness.
I have a friend, a weaver and writer of Ngaapuhi descent, who tried to submit to a queer journal recently and it just wasn’t accepted because it was about more than just being gay. It was introducing race and Indigeneity and all these things into it, which just isn’t what white people think about in regards to queerness, even though our communities have been instrumental in fighting for these things because we’ve had to be!
JW: Yeah, exactly, oh my goodness, thank you for sharing that story.
ER: I was wondering if you could talk about your recent non-fiction book Making Love with the Land?
JW: The elevator pitch version is basically:it talks about the Ojibwean Cree peoplehoods that I’m from and it focuses on queer Indigeneity or Two-Spiritness. And then more importantly it focuses on mental health. So I started writing Making Love with the Land in about 2018/2019 when I had just finished touring with Jonny Appleseed (I refer to Jonny as a person all the time which might confuse people but he’s a real kin to me.)
ER: You’re on a first name basis!
JW: I have his phone number in my phone, hahaha. So, I just finished touring and then was just beginning to go through a breakup from a long-term partnership so it was a tumultuous time. Then the pandemic came. I wasn’t aiming to write a Covid book but I’m a Capricorn and am really good at repression, I’m an expert at it! e were locked down, I was by myself and when you’re like locked in a space and you’re living Groundhog’s Day and you’re forced to be static or in stasis … I feel like it was like an explosion: I held all the stuff in and then there would be murals and syllabics and stories written on the walls. Making Love with the Land came to be as I explored mental health and Indigeneity and queerness in relation to anxiety and panic attacks and insomnia. It was becoming more forthright in public with my lifelong, I would say, relationship with eating disorders and body dysmorphia and being honest about those. I wanted to be honest because I think we were all so profoundly, and so profanely at the same time, impacted in all ways shapes and forms [by the pandemic]. Some more serious and deadly; some more minute and small and fractured in that sense. It’s a conversation I don’t see a whole lot of people having. How has Covid impacted you personally?
So I thought the best way for me to do this would be to take the masks of characters off and stand on the literal and the literary stage and do that bloodletting and healing simultaneously on that stage in the hopes that it would allow my kin and communities of Indigenous and queer folks to express their mental health in ways that are formative and healing; and that aren’t necessarily bound to Western ideologies of therapy. I love therapy, I advocate for therapy, but therapy is about accomplishments and triumphing over mental health and you can’t really cure intergenerational genocide. You can’t really cure systemic racism, homophobia, and injustices. I always will live with eating disorders, which are caused by Western beauty standards, which are caused by whiteness. The food pyramid itself (at least in here in Canada and North America) was made based on [nutritional experiments done] on starving Indigenous children in residential schools. You can’t cure that. I’ve come to a place now of recognizing those things as by-products of settler colonization so I wanted to normalize that. And if I’m on stage doing this other folks can be on stage doing this, too: and first and foremost for the community and yfor allies like BIPOC folks outside of that and maybe it does become universal in that sense, but only because it’s so specific. So let’s say that those are the three nodes, or the thesis, of what that book’s trying to do.
ER: This reminds me a cloudy rainy day in Auckland (which is where you’ll be going, probably into the same weather) and me and a friend, Michelle Rahurahu (who is a takataapui writer and artist as well), were sitting in a car in a car park outside a Denny’s (which is always really funny to me that we have Denny’s in New Zealand).
JW: I love Denny’s so I’m excited!
ER: Me and Michelle joke about Denny’s being an extremely Maaori place because every time we go there’s all these Maaori families eating there. But in terms of how it looks, it looks like the most capitalist, imperialist building displaced onto the land. So we’re having this conversation about mental health, and we’re talking about anxiety and depression being completely sensible responses to the world we live in and how difficult it can be to explain that to paakehaa because you know the trauma that has been passed down is still here. And you know the processes are still ongoing: even if you didn’t have the ancestral trauma, you’re still alienated from land and alienated from culture in so many different ways, and forced into the cogs of a capitalist system. So I’m looking forward to reading Making Love with the Land!
ER: I was wondering how the process of being the editor for Love After the End went? I’ve been on that side before and it can be fraught. I wondered if you could speak to that process?
JW: The process was intense. I came on as an editor for Love After the End (which actually has a prequel which I have no part of in which is entitled Love Beyond, Body, Space, and Time). It was published by this now-dead press called Bedside Press which was run by Hope Nicholson – a white cis woman (at least I think she’s cis). She had run his Bedside Press out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Treaty One here in Canada, and e had made a sequel which was Love After the End. Hope brought me in as an editor when she had already selected the nine writers.
A lot of these writers were emerging or brand new and I was still emerging (I still am an emerging writer), so I was like this mother hen with newly formed wings trying to shield my nine babies.The press actually went under because Hope Nicholson had been accused of, and confessed to, a sexual assault of a young man at a conference. So we had worked on the stories, which are very important to the landscape of Canadian literature about utopias and joy and futurisms for Indigenous folks of Turtle Island – all who are trans and queer; and non-binary and gender non-conforming – and we were held hostage by this press. Thankfully I had the support and the resources of an agent, and I had a publicist: I had all these tools that I could use to infer legal action to wrench the stories back out of this dying press’s hands! So we got the rights back to everyone’s story; which is just ridiculous that you can hand over rights to a story that’s not bound in any contract.
We published it with Arsenal Pulp Press who did Jonny which was Arsenal Pulp Press. They are an amazing Indie press in Canada that focuses primarily on disabled, BIPOC and queer writers. They increased the advance fee for everyone and I deducted my royalties to split amongst the nine. We got to continue with more editing time and then we had a glow up aesthetically of the whole book so it became more beautiful and I’m very happy it found that home. Then we ended up winning this award called the Lambda, (Lambda which I think is Latin or Greek?) for the Best Queer Anthology, so all of the nine writers also became gold medalists. I was honoured to be there and to be the mother hen with new wings shielding these writers from this effed up publishing industry and to give them a launching pad to move forward and continue on their journeys. The first bit of publishing is the hardest, to at least get into a door, so it was a lot of fun in some ways, and very tumultuous in others, but I’m very happy I got to be a collaborator in their stories and offer some insights. They’re all going in amazing ways, publishing books and doing things. This is what literature is! It’s community and accountability.
ER: I often think about what we do in regards to creating legacy and creating culture and futurity for Indigenous people: I want to help people get their work in the world and I want to fight against Settlers who continue to try and erase our stories. And Settlers love the idea of the first, that’s one of my big pet peeves. It’s like ‘this is the first blah blah from trans blah blah blah or first blah blah blah from Maaori blah blah blah.’ We’ve been making story since the beginning of time! We have such a long whakapapa of storytelling and then they just cut it, they just cut it like an umbilical cord and throw the baby out or throw the mother out or something you know it’s just…
JW: The bathwater’s gone too!
ER: Everyone’s getting thrown everywhere and it’s frustrating the kind of ways in which we keep being limited. That’s part of why I view genre the way I do because that is often used to limit us!
JW: Just wondering, is Keri Hulme a Maaori writer?
ER: Aae! She is of Ngaai Tahu descent and she passed quite recently. A takataapui writer friend called Josiah Morgan who’s very young and very brilliant doing all sorts of weird things in regards to form was talking about how this moment in the Maaori literary scene is very much informed by Hulme, and it’s kind of sad that she’s not here with us to see it! Though she is here with us in certain ways. What we were going to say about Keri?
JW: I was just thinking how her work was my introduction to Maaori writing and I was like, ‘this is beautiful!’ I also see myself in a similar sphere as Hulme and the bone people! So I’m a big fan. I had no idea that they had passed so I’ll put some medicines down alongside.
ER: I’ve been looking at Hulme’s writing again for my thesis because she was out as asexual and neuter and not many conversations were had about this. There was an ongoing crusade from some of the older whiter writers in the community to question her Indigeneity: to be like “oh she’s 1/8th” …
JW: Oh, the blood quantum?
ER: Yeah, the blood quantum. So whenever Keri would speak to other parts of her identity it was just met with; ‘oh I don’t know how to deal with that’. But in the bone people she speaks so beautifully to all of these multiple ways of being.,This is all so relevant to the conversations we’re having right now and she was way ahead of us!
JW: Way, way, ahead!
ER: And that’s why it’s important to have this recognition of whakapapa because there’s so much time spent having the start of the same conversation over and over again because it keeps being erased! One of the things I found when doing some research into archives is just so many Maaori people were talking about things that were on my mind and that I found difficult to even engage with. When I found their words I was so comforted: ‘oh they’ve talked about it, I don’t have to, I can just respond to them and keep the conversation going and then lift them up!’ rather than, ‘I am the first person to talk about being trans and Maaori in New Zealand’ and that is just not it!
I was wondering if you could speak to cool writers in your community: names and books you want to share?
JW: One of my dear friends Billy Ray Belcourt is a Cree queer writer. I would highly recommend his memoir a history of my brief body or his book of poetry this wound is a world, it’s probably one of my favourites of his. Arielle Twist is a trans Cree Indigenous writer, jaye simpson who’s also in Love After the End is also a trans Oji-cree writer/drag artist: I definitely recommend following them on Instagram. Leanne Simpson I mentioned earlier, Tanya Tagaq who is an Inuk/Inuit artist, throat singer(you may know her from her music) is also a beautiful writer and has a book called Split Tooth, which is super Inuit and also hella queer. Tommy Pico who is a Kumeyaay poet, if you like texting in poems, you’re gonna love IRL which is one of his books; or Nature Poem which is my favourite of his. It’s a full-length book about nature. One of my favourite lines is: ‘I would slap a tree across the face’. Natalie Diaz is a Mojave queer writer. Some of the more foundational poets who kind of paved the way for these contemporaries that I just noted would be Beth Brant lesbian poet; Chrystos who is also a queer trans poet; Gregory Scofield who is a Cree/bi Métis writer/poet; Thomson Highway and his brother René Highway, who passed away during the AIDS crisis, are very foundational,;Louise Erdrich. I feel like I’m giving the longest list but those are some of the first and second; and now what we call it is the third wave of Indigenous writing here in this place, for now, called Canada.
ER: Tayi Tibble is brilliant: Poūkahangatus and Rangikura are her books; Keri Hulme of course wrote the bone people but she also wrote some short story collections and some poetry collections. Strands is a big one for me. A lot of her poetry stuff, it’s out of print and you have to search for it in all sorts of weird places, like in some bookstore in New York it’s being sold for eighty dollars. I’m like, “what’s happening, send it back!!!”
ER: Robert Sullivan is an incredible writer of Ngaai Tahu, Raukawa descent; Michelle Rahurahu (my aforementioned friend) has a novel coming out this year (tentatively titled Poohara); Cassandra Barnett is a wonderful poet and she has this book HOW|HAO published in 2021 through a small press and it’s really beautiful! It’s about engaging with atua through AI – it’s super interesting and I feel like that’d be something you’d be into…
JW: I think I’m into it already!
ER: Other takataapui Maaori contemporaries with books that span genre; Anthony Lapwood, Hana Pera Aoake, Ruby Solly, Sascha Stronach, Tāwhanga Nopera, Johanna Knox, Sam Te Kani, Hinemoana Baker (one of my favs), Josiah Morgan, H.S Valley, Renée (one of incredible elders who writes a lot of mystery novels), Coco Solid, Jack Remiel Cottrell, Cathie Dunsford, Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall, Isla Huia (who has a new book out Talia), Jessica Hinerangi (who has her first collection of poetry coming out this year titled Āria that I’m super excited for!); Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (one of our brilliant elders who has some wonderful books including Ruahine & Tahuri). Lastly Witi Ihimaera, who is one of our most treasured novelists, is a takataapui man. I would recommend The Uncle’s Story or his memoir Native Son; and Michelle would probably recommend The Matriarch (try and find the OG version of it though with the red cover!).
JW: We’ve built each other a hefty reading list already!
ER: We have! And that is that. I just want to thank you for finding time in this hectic world to have this talk.
JW: Thanks for being so patient with me.
ER: Ka kite anoo!
JW: kihtwâm nitotem
Joshua Whitehead is appearing in three events at Auckland Writers Festival which is on now until Sunday 21 May.