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Shapeshifting across lines of flight: Transition in 'Jonny Appleseed' and 'The Thirty Names of Night'

By Juie Gune | OMC 2024

A flamboyance (flock of lesser flamingos) beginning to take flight, and floating in a creek surrounded by mangroves, as their pink-and-jet-black-strewn wings cast reflections in the rippling waters (photo courtesy of the author).

What is home? Is it a familiar place that we know like the back of our hand, an extension of our body? Is it a space where we belong, where our bodies do not feel “out of place”? Do such spaces exist for all of us?

Through his conception of “ontological homelessness”, Hil Malatino suggests that people who identify as trans¹* (or, as I propose here, 2SLGBTQIA+²) are less likely to feel “at home”. Through a reading of the following two texts, I argue that migrant trans people in particular inhabit the precarious mode of transit(ion), forever in progress.

As Nadir from The Thirty Names of Night puts it, trans* people may think of their bodies as “a tracing of something else”, where “not all the lines match up”. Trans* bodies, then, replot the borders drawn by readably gendered/sexed bodies. Jonny Appleseed’s Jonny maps his “NDN”³ Two-Spirit⁴ body outside settler-colonial conceptions of “queerness”, through and beyond his job as an online sex worker, “shapeshifting” across the waters of Manitowapow, within a network of his experiences on the reservation, his transit(ion) to city-life, and the Oji-Cree folklore he grew up with. 

Jonny Appleseed is the story of a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer person who leaves a State-assigned reservation for Winnipeg. Jonny’s Two-Spirit (2S) identity is “a mixture of masculine and feminine sensibilities” rooted firmly in his accountability to the indigenous context (according to Dube). And yet, he finds that he has had to perform as “straight on the rez in order to be NDN and…white [in the city] in order to be queer”. It is only when he reestablishes his relationship with Manitowapow⁵ – “the strait of the spirit,” where Two Spirits can meet – that he begins to imagine his Two-Spirit identity as inextricably linked to the land that birthed him. In a similar vein, Nadir can only actively acknowledge his transness after he allows himself to properly grieve his mother, to remember the reason she chose to keep fighting in the face of mortal danger, and to learn how to knot his community into his life again. 

Nadir’s story follows a Syrian-American trans man through his journey of love, loss and healing – a transit(ion) which re-members the intergenerational trauma of Arab migrant families in the US, with the acknowledgement of his trans identity. Unlike the women in his life, Nadir does not feel “at home” in sisterhood. Sisterhood starts to feel like a burden when he feels like it is not “his place” to accept it. The struggle forward lies in fighting for his resilient, albeit aggrieved community in the face of communal hatred, while also attempting to forge space as a trans man in that community – a struggle that he soon realises is not his alone. 

Jonny Appleseed similarly centres women along with 2SLGBTQIA+ people. Jonny's kokum (grandmother) is his guiding force – a friend who enables him to embody his identity with conviction, as well as an ancestor who reminds him of his responsibility towards the land he comes from. Jonny refers to this land itself as his grandmother – kokum askiy – the Earth that his mother gorged on when she was pregnant with Jonny. 

Joshua Whitehead, who wrote Jonny Appleseed, says in an interview – “thinking of bodies…extends to bodies of land, bodies of water, things that are all intertwined with you”. To make a home out of one’s body, then, especially if one’s body is socially illegitimate, one must see bodies as sites of connection with lands, and communities, resisting erasure by singing/storytelling, and dancing/flying oneself into being, as Jonny and Nadir do. 

As Jonny identifies with crayfish, leeches, and the rapids of the Red River, Nadir’s signature becomes a White-Throated Sparrow. He imagines slipping into the softness of “the line of sap running up the trunk of a maple”, “the fist of a fox’s heart”, and celebrates being seen as “a person-shaped beam of light” when he tries to dance/fly with Sami. In many ways, both Jonny and Nadir try to move beyond a conception of the sexed/gendered human body, towards the body imagined as rushing water, or a bird in flight – shaped by what surrounds it, just as it shapes its surroundings in return. 

As the body becomes a transient web of reaching in and out, home becomes, as Jonny says, not “a place, [but] a feeling”, a story told through changing bodies, struggling spirits, and healing hearts. Two generations before Nadir, Laila laments the separation from her first love, writing in her diary – “not all migrations end with a return home”. But perhaps homecoming is not merely a return grounded in space. Both Jonny and Nadir return to the places where they began telling their stories, and yet, everything has changed. This coming back/coming to is far more complex – it is a “home-calling” as much as a “home-coming”, as Whitehead says in his statement. It is not merely a return home, but a veritable reimagination of what it means to be at home, amidst networks of love, loss, and re-membering.

¹ Trans* is an umbrella term for gender/sexual identities that diverge from cis-heteronormativity, including identities that were not originally considered part of the transgender/transsexual community, e.g. cross-dresser, gender-fluid, etc. 

² Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual + (an expanding list…)

³ According to Billy-Ray Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, “NDN is internet shorthand used by Indigenous peoples in North America to refer to ourselves. It is also sometimes an acronym meaning ‘Not Dead Native.’”

A decolonial, specifically Native American way of negotiating “gender”, which is a colonial construct in the way we understand it.

 According to Joshua Whitehead, author of Jonny Appleseed, Manitowapow is Cree for something like “strait of the spirit”, and it is on the basis of this word that Lake Manitoba, and the Canadian province of Manitoba were named.

Juie Gune is a researcher interested in the intersections of Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Migration Studies. She is attempting to learn about the diversity of queer experience, which leads to reflections upon the overlap of diverse subjectivities within queer spaces. She has presented and written about some of the illegibly queer figures of South Asia, the retooling of AMAB (assigned male at birth) bodies through fanfiction, and the registers of camp humour.


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