Landscape of the body

Joshua Whitehead presenting at a writing class at the University of Alberta.
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree two-spirited storyteller and academic. He’s the author of author of full-metal indigiqueer and Jonny Appleseed (2018). He presented a writers class at the University of Alberta on March 21, 2019.

I attended a writing class with Joshua Whitehead on Thursday, March 21. Joshua is an Oji-Cree two-spirited storyteller and academic from Peguis First Nation on Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba. He was speaking to writers about looking at the body as a landscape – not just in terms of identifying a character but describing emotion, time and going beneath the surface of the skin.

Joshua was asking us to see stories embedded in our bodies. What’s the story of your scar? How do you feel about that birthmark? Whose eye colour do you have? He had us construct stories about mapping the body, what he calls “cartography of self.” Then we shared our ideas and it was interesting to hear what people wrote about.

When I’m teaching memoir writing, I tell people to look for quiet moments, not just exciting events, to add to their stories. The body as a landscape is something that also belongs to that list of experiences. As Joshua said, small details can be universes. Here is my story.

Not all mine

Most of my body is mine. All mine. Except for a small ligament in my left knee. That’s someone else.

I ripped my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in half a few years ago. I was playing soccer on a grassy field in Sackville, NB when my cleat stuck in the grass. My body turned. My knee didn’t.


I heard that sound and I knew something was wrong. I had done the same thing ten years before. That time was on a ski hill. That time it was my right knee and it hurt. This time, the pain in my left knee didn’t arrive until an hour later. While I was limping home from the hospital after the doctor told me I had only a sprain.

“All you need is rest,” he said as he wrapped a bulky white bandage around my leg.

On the way to my apartment, a horde of powerwalking women pushed past me on the sidewalk. I wobbled from side-to-side. Couldn’t they see I was hurt? Earlier, I would have outpaced them.  

I knew I needed more than rest. After two more doctors and two more misdiagnoses, I went to an athletic therapist.

“Your ACL is gone,” she said.

She recommended surgery — and since I had been through it already with my right knee, I was good to go left.

At the hospital in Moncton, I watched my operation via a television to the right of me. The picture was black and white and so I didn’t see the redness of blood. Only grey blobs and the occasional flash of silver from the medical instruments. I asked many questions and the anesthesiologist on my left side answered them all. It was interesting to me and I liked seeing what the team was doing. I had no pain, although I felt the pressure of the chisel attacking my leg bone.

When the surgeon went to put me back together, he needed a donor ligament – a piece of another person to use as a piece of me. It was the anesthesiologist who introduced me to the cream-coloured thick noddle ligament that would soon be mine.

“It looks healthy and strong, doesn’t it?” he asked me, holding the ligament from end to end, as if it was a long worm — so long he needed to stretch it out to see how big it really was.

Now that other person’s strong ligament is mine. My body has absorbed it and it’s not giving it back. I do think about that person whose ligament was in the bone bank and selected for me. Was he a he or a she or a they? I’ll never know but it was someone who was a fast runner. Someone who liked to pedal a bicycle and hike in the mountains. Someone who liked to kick their feet and power themselves through water. Someone who danced and walked and drove a stick shift. Someone who did all those things and I still do them for him.


Thanks to the Canadian Literature Centre and Writers Guild of Alberta for bringing Joshua into my universe.