Disclaimer: I loved reading this book, I think it was really well done and wanted to write about it. I am a nonbinary identifying queer person so there are aspects of this book that I find incredibly relatable. That being said, I would also like to state that I am a white Canadian and I acknowledge that there are so many parts of the First Nations experience that are beyond what I can comprehend. Reading Jonny Appleseed showed me even more ways in which I need to try and be aware of my position of privilege and ways in which I can better respect First Nations culture.
There are books that are defined by their sexual content, whether that be those that are slammed as being bad erotica or those that are censored because they show sex in a way some faction of society has decided is offensive. But not all books that have adult themes are using sex in the same way and that is often clear through the reading experience. Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed is a book that definitely includes sex, and probably will be absent from some libraries because of it, but there is an intentional feel to the sexual content, and it is that distinction that in many ways makes describing the book challenging. The experience of one person reading the book is not going to be same as the next and though that is true of most literature people tend to be more sensitive to it because it includes sex. However, reading and then talking about Jonny Appleseed creates challenges around how we discuss sex in literature and how it can contribute to the larger themes of the text.
There is undoubtedly a lot of sex in Jonny Appleseed, and probably more than there is in most books outside the romance genre, but all of the explicit scenes feel like they are contributing to the larger themes of the novel. I found the sexual content in the novel far from erotic, they were simply a part of Jonny’s life in the same way that smoking out the window with the bird was. As a nonbinary person some of the experiences of being at odds with how others view the body is familiar and reading the narrator’s experiences with what is probably dysphoria made me more aware of the how uncomfortable I sometimes find myself in my own skin. It is from that place of understanding of the physical sensations of dysphoria that I was able to try and wrap my head around the importance of the politics of the indigenous body. This isn’t an understanding where I would claim to have any deep knowledge of that experience but it was eye opening to an aspect of my privilege as a white person that I previously hadn’t been particularly cognizant of. These issues might not have been as striking if they had been described in an abstract sort of way but the physical act of sex that the character is engaged in forces the reader to confront his experiences through the first-person narration.
Talking about a book like Jonny Appleseed often becomes a very challenging experience and while I tried to discuss the potential of the book for use in the classroom with my mother who is a high school teacher, I was surprised by how uncomfortable I was. I believe strongly in open information being the best way to handle sex education and I have been part of organizations that seek to further that goal, so I also have previous experience around how conversations about sex sometimes go. Despite this I still found myself throwing in numerous warnings about the adult content in the book, not trigger warnings – although some of the scenes of dubious consent might benefit from trigger warnings for certain audiences – but just general warnings of the ‘hey there is sex in this’ sort. Really what I wanted to communicate was how effective I thought the book was and that it would be an ideal book for grade twelve students, especially in a small town where so many people lack exposure to or context for first nations issues. But what ended up happening was I buffered by opinion with warnings that were mostly unnecessary. This is one of the fundamental challenges of books that utilize sexual content and it is very much a challenge that arises out of problematic cultural stigmas around sex which are only amplified by the other political issues in Jonny Appleseed.
Joshua Whitehead’s use and inclusion of sex in Jonny Appleseed is incredibly effective and the impact of Jonny as a character would have been far less vivid without it. The intense physicality of these moments provides a perfect contrast for his inner experience of both queerness and first nations identity that may not have come through in the same way if conveyed in more PG ways. Since the impact of the sexual contact on the larger themes of the novel is quite visceral while reading the novel consideration should be given to how we discuss books like Jonny Appleseed so that the themes can be the focus rather than warnings about the sex.
(And yes I see the irony that this is the conclusion of a post that focuses on the sex in the book)