BOOKS Brutality of Far North brought closer to home
Author captures reality of Inuit life in Sanaaq
This time of year, many of us city folks grumble about having to bundle our children into snowsuits and shovel out our cars.
Imagine, then, it’s the early 1900s and winter in Nunavik — a region the average qallunaat (the Inuit word for non-native person) knows little about, though it comprises the northern third of the province of Quebec.
The Inuit described in Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s novel Sanaaq have bigger concerns than bundling up their children and shovelling out cars. They must hunt for food, stoke their fires throughout the night, ward off polar bears and make sure, if there’s a melt, their igloos don’t collapse on top of them. No wonder the Inuit in this story don’t ask each other how old they are. Instead they ask, “How many winters have you been through?”
Sanaaq is an unusual novel by an unlikely author. It consists of 48 short chapters, the dialogue is flat and there is a lot of repetition. Yet this simply told tale captures the stark and sometimes brutal reality of life in the Far North.
Appointed to the Order of Canada in 2004 for her work preserving Inuit culture, Nappaaluk, who died in 2007, never went to school. Her book, written over a span of more than 20 years, was begun in the early 1950s when a Catholic missionary stationed in Kangirsujuaq, the community where Nappaaluk lived, gave her a lined notebook and asked her to write sentences in syllabics to help him learn Inuktitut.
Nappaaluk became bored with writing sentences and began creating a series of linked stories peopled by fictional characters. As Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, the anthropologist who encouraged Nappaaluk to complete this project and who translated it from Inuktitut to French, explains in the foreword to this long-awaited English translation, “Mitiarjuk reinvented the novel, even though she had never read one.”
There are many parallels between the main character, Sanaaq, and her creator. Both are strong and outspoken; widowed young, they remarry. When, early in the novel, Sanaaq is courted by an older man, she rejects him, saying, “You don’t even have your front teeth.”
Though little mention is made of such endemic problems as incest and conjugal violence in the first two-thirds of this novel, Sanaaq tells her suitor, “You also won’t be my husband because I’m afraid my daughter will be abused.”
Readers will learn a great deal about life in the Far North. Sanaaq provides detailed descriptions of everything from skinning a seal to building an igloo.
When tragedy strikes, help is not always near. One character, Jiimialuk, loses an eye when he is splashed by boiling water. His elderly father worries, “Who will provide for us now that our only provider has lost an eye?” Sanaaq’s husband, Qalingu, is devastated when his hunting companion falls into the sea, “swept under the ice by a strong current.”
The Inuit have a very different relationship with animals than city folks do. They make use of every inch of the animals they kill. Sanaaq chews on seal sinew to make thread for her daughter’s mittens. Dogs are not pets; they are work animals. When a pack of dogs devours the family’s supply of food, Sanaaq’s younger sister Arnatuinnaq clubs the dogs with a stick. But during a whiteout, it is the dogs who lead Qalingu to safety.
In this world, survival depends on community. When the hunting is good, everyone benefits. As soon as Sanaaq learns her husband has killed a polar bear, she says, “We’re going to have plenty Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk University of Manitoba Press of bear meat! We’ve got to let our camp mates know. I’ll go myself and tell them.”
It is only in the final chapters of this book that Nappaaluk writes openly about subjects like conjugal violence. The first hint comes when Sanaaq’s son falls into ice water and Sanaaq fears Qalingu’s reaction: “I feel like running far away, for fear of having to face his anger.” Two chapters later, Qa- lingu beats his wife “with his fists while heaping insults on her,” and in the following chapter, Sanaaq needs “an operation … to mend her bones.”
Nappaaluk gives us only the vaguest sense that the qallunaat have not always done right by the Inuit. When Arnatuinnaq is impregnated by a qallunaat fur trader who is transferred to another community shortly after the birth of his child, Nappaaluk writes, “The Inuit realized for the first time that some unpleasant things were being done to them.”
Storytelling is as much a part of Inuit culture as hunting. When they are together, Sanaaq and her neighbours not only share their meat, fish and berries, they also share their stories and those of their forefathers.
In his foreword, Saladin d’Anglure explains he is working on bringing us more of Nappaaluk’s stories. Readers can look forward to these tales and to those by contemporary Inuit storytellers who will carry on the work she began.
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Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, who never went to school, wrote Sanaaq over a period of more than 20 years.
Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel