Split Tooth

Tanya Ta­gaq

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Norma Dun­ning

Award-win­ning mu­si­cian Tanya Ta­gaq has writ­ten an in­no­va­tive part au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, part fic­tional novel that in­ter­min­gles prose, po­etry and draw­ings por­tray­ing present-day Inuit re­al­ity. Un­like sim­i­lar texts, her de­but novel Split Tooth (2018) does not con­cern it­self with the re­cant­ing of myths or with the ad­just­ment to mod­ern life, whether liv­ing on or off the tun­dra. In­stead, Ta­gaq has bro­ken a new trail for all fu­ture Inuit writ­ers to tread upon, de­scrib­ing the lived world of an

Inuk child with writ­ing that is breath­tak­ing and sin­gu­lar.

Ta­gaq’s po­etry is a ma­jor aspect of what sets Split Tooth apart from other works, both semi-bi­o­graph­i­cal and ethno­graphic. “In­hale hard love suck in the smell and re­ward reap eat chew swal­low de­vour all the good­ness and love that is given to you,” she writes with lyri­cal strength and ten­der­ness about a world that is of­ten harsh and dis­ap­point­ing. “Ex­hale calm­ness in ac­knowl­edg­ment of the beauty within the courage it takes to not fear love.” Ta­gaq re­minds us to bravely and openly em­brace love in an Arc­tic cli­mate where cold and dark­ness reign, themes that are par­al­leled within her main char­ac­ter’s life.

Ta­gaq speaks from a place of dis­com­fort and plunges her reader into a world filled with al­co­hol, sex and drug abuse. Laugh­ter and hope are largely ab­sent el­e­ments. The work­ings of daily life for a young Inuk girl tucked away in a small com­mu­nity are void of hap­pi­ness and filled with the quiet of the tun­dra. Nev­er­the­less, her thoughts are not si­lenced in her strug­gle to sur­vive in Iqaluk­tu­ut­tiaq (Cam­bridge Bay), NU, in 1975. Her first-per­son writ­ing ad­mits, “We can­not al­ways be what we wish to be. I can­not be per­fect for my chil­dren.”

Ta­gaq’s ado­les­cent re­sis­tance to­wards com­mu­nity mem­bers, whether a school teacher at an aun­tie’s party or her own mother, en­riches the com­ing of age of the young girl’s growth that is splat­tered with vis­i­ta­tions from the spirit world. “I saw in an in­stant the spir­i­tual world we all ig­nore. Like the ra­dio waves we can’t see, it is ev­ery­where.” She is later gifted with a dream from her ananak (mother) re­veal­ing her role in the af­ter­life.

I cau­tion read­ers that this is not a book that gives us the “hap­pily-ever-af­ter” end­ing. It is a book that strikes at the hard re­al­i­ties for a north­ern teen and is marked with the bru­tal­ity of the ad­dicts who are her care­givers. It is the harsh­est les­son the book leaves with its read­ers.

Le­ga­cies of death and destruc­tion are blended with the sad­ness of lost ba­bies and mur­der. The book de­scribes Inuit as the dead and des­per­ate. Inuit read­ers are forced to ask: Is this all we are? What are we do­ing to our­selves? More im­por­tantly, we must ask how do we cre­ate work that fur­thers the legacy of Inuit youth who are sur­vivors, who are brave, kind and giv­ing? As Inuit, we must re­mem­ber that when we speak, es­pe­cially to a broad pub­lic au­di­ence, we speak for all of us.

With this work Ta­gaq has re­shaped what Inuit lit­er­a­ture is. She has up­set the tra­di­tions of ac­cepted writ­ing styles of fan­tas­tic leg­ends, di­vides be­tween North and South and col­o­nized ex­pe­ri­ences. She has rat­tled the bones of Western tra­di­tional writ­ing norms by in­ter­ject­ing po­et­ics with prose. Al­though her first­per­son nar­ra­tive can some­times brink on te­dious, read­ers are given the sense of par­tak­ing in some­thing bad and dan­ger­ous through­out. And, de­spite these de­scrip­tive lulls, it is im­pos­si­ble to stop read­ing. It is de­li­cious. And of­fers a new way for­ward for Inuit au­thors.

Ta­gaq is a hum­ble artist. She worked to com­plete her ed­u­ca­tion. She worked at be­com­ing an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned per­former. Noth­ing was given to her. Who and what she is has been well earned. Split Tooth is what Ta­gaq is. The un­ex­pected. The unimag­in­able.

Cover of Tanya Ta­gaq’s Split Tooth (2018)

BE­LOW Il­lus­tra­tion by Jaime Her­nan­dez in Tanya Ta­gaq’s Split Tooth (2018)

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