North­ern MAGIC

An Inuit novel for all the Far­ley Know-its

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

WELL over a half-cen­tury ago, from the anatomy of Canada’s Arc­tic, there be­gan to emerge an em­phatic creative ac­com­plish­ment in Inuit cul­ture that brought new life to their al­pha­bet. It was the be­gin­ning of the first work of fiction, the first novel, in Inuit syl­lab­ics (a kind of short­hand) from the mag­i­cal mind of a young and non­con­form­ing in­dige­nous woman. Mi­tiar­juk Nap­paaluk’s Sanaaq has now been trans­lated and pub­lished in English so more peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly south­ern­ers, can en­joy this lit­er­ary gem and the fas­ci­nat­ing life of its Inuit au­thor and her in­trin­sic creative skill. It’s hard to fathom, but about 60 years ago, a Ro­man Catholic priest asked a woman in a tiny set­tle­ment in Arc­tic Que­bec (a fe­male born not in a writ­ten, but an oral cul­ture, a woman in her 20s who never went to school, a per­son il­lit­er­ate by south­ern stan­dards) to help him study her lan­guage. She jot­ted down some phrases in the syl­lab­ics writ­ing sys­tem she and her peo­ple use that was cre­ated long be­fore by a white mis­sion­ary smis­sion­ary and adapted for the Inuit. Mi­tiar­juk Nap­paaluk did much more than that: she took her ob­ser­va­tions of or­di­nary, ev­ery­day life and be­gan to step over the thresh­old of his­tory by sit­ting down in hher snow house (igloo) and sum­mer tetent to write Canada’s first work of ffic­tion in her peo­ple’s short­hand. AAnd some of it she may well have writ­ten by the flick­er­ing light of a seal oil lamp. Thus did Nap­paaluk off-and-on over 20 years com­plete on pa­per the ad­ven­tures of the make-be­lieve woman Sanaaq. The novel (dis­tilled from the 1,000 pages she wrote) was pub­lished in syl­lab­ics in 1987. It be­came a best­seller in French in 2002. (The English trans­la­tion is from the French.) Her writ­ing is set about the time non-na­tives started com­ing into north­ern Que­bec as traders and mis­sion­ar­ies around the turn of the cen­tury. It’s the story of a de­ter­mined Inuit widow and her daugh­ter and their ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences with the peo­ple around them in the ex­treme cli­mate that still kills the dis­re­spect­ful. The work roughly cov­ers the pe­riod up to the Sec­ond World War and its af­ter­math, a pe­riod of some­times aching so­cial change for the Inuit. The sec­ondary im­pact of Nap­paaluk’s novel is that it is an Inuk writ­ing about the Inuit rather than a judg­men­tal south­erner (a kabloona) who usu­ally stud­ies them to death or spends a week­end to write a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle about the peo­ple or a week to pen a book. One such white au­thor earned the un­flat­ter­ing nick­name Far­ley Know-It. But this writ­ing is more than just an ethno­graphic record of the lives of a spe­cial­ized peo­ple liv­ing in prob­a­bly the world’s harsh­est cli­mate. This nov­el­ist is good — skilled in her sto­ry­telling, provoca­tive in her style and her char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment and, in­stinc­tive as it must have been, is con­fi­dent and suc­cess­ful. (Mi­tiar­juk died in 2007 at age 76.) The novel is made up of 48 episodes, in­clud­ing de­scrip­tions of hunt­ing, gath­er­ing, the dan­ger­ous rit­ual of col­lect­ing mus­sels, laugh­ter, vi­o­lence, birth and death, the spirit world, re­la­tion­ships, con­flicts be­tween Ro­man Catholic and Angli­can mis­sion­ar­ies, sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with non-na­tives and, doubtlessly to the sur­prise of many, the sta­bil­ity and peace­ful­ness of their ev­ery­day lives way up there. Sanaaq is worth­while both for plea­sure and to com­bat the bom­bard­ment of mis­con­cep­tions out­side their en­vi­rons these na­tive north­ern­ers have had to tol­er­ate for­ever. And the first to read Mi­tiar­juk in English should be all the Far­ley Know-its. Barry Craig lived in the Far North for years and came to

ad­mire the Inuit.

Sanaaq An Inuit Novel By Mi­tiar­juk Nap­paaluk Univer­sity of Man­i­toba Press, 192 pages, $25

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