RecensionsBook reviews

NAPPAALUK, Mitiarjuk, 2014 Sanaaq, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 248 pages.

  • Norma Dunning

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  • Norma Dunning
    Indigenous Peoples Education, University of Alberta, mailing address: 10442 – 82 St. Edmonton, Alberta T6L 3M7, Canada

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Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk has gifted Canada and the Inuit world, of both past and present, with her beautiful story, her novel Sanaaq. She has allowed each of us a small look into the once everyday existence of the Inuit from her home territory in northern Quebec. The world is a better place for it.

Sanaaq was released in English on New Year’s Day of 2014. In a prior book review, Martin (2014) mentioned that Sanaaq represents a non-traditional novel. Indeed, the novel is historically thought of in terms of structure and subject matter, but Sanaaq veers from the literary constraints of how a novel is produced. This novel was written over a 20-year timeframe and took another 20 years to be birthed into the English domain. Some will say it is an ethnographic study of the everyday life of the Inuit shortly before the arrival of the Qallunaat, as missionaries, businessmen, and medical staff. But what has to be remembered, as stressed by Trott (2014), is that Sanaaq is a novel that was originally completed in Inuktitut in 1974 and first published in syllabics in 1984, with a premier translation into French in 2002.[1] It thus took 40 years to be released to an English audience.[2] It is most regrettable that Nappaaluk is no longer with us and unable to enjoy her story’s entrance among the English public. Without the author here to help us sort out her novel, it is left to the readers to do just that for themselves.

Nappaaluk introduces the main character of the story, Sanaaq, as a woman characterized by a practical approach toward life from the opening scene onward. Readers are invited into her life as she prepares herself to head out, on her own, to gather mat-making material, taking with her a couple of dogs and enough food to last her through her day. The opening sentence reveals to the reader that the Qallunaat, the white men, have a presence in Sanaaq’s life already as she gathers up “matches and chewing tobacco” (p. 3) as a part of her provisions for this full day of work. As Sanaaq is returning, she stoops to pick berries for her little girl, who yells, “It’s Mother! It’s Mother!” (p. 5) upon seeing her returning home. There is a narrative within the first third of this book that brings to mind those readers that lined the desks of our elementary school years, the “Dick and Jane” genre of how we all learned to read; however the subject matter within Sanaaq is much different.

We are brought into a world of making your own: everything from the meals prepared from the game shot out on the land to the clothes on your back and to the stories told and handed down from generation to generation. Ningiukuluk tells us, “I can no longer do anything because I am an old woman,” (p. 67) and recounts a story of wisdom, passed on to her from years before. It is the story of a lone Inuk who is frightened within his snow house. He is later given the dead bodies of a caribou and a wolf, lying side by side, which had been killed by the she-wolf who had frightened him from his shelter. Ningiukuluk says, “We get by thanks to gifts” (p. 69) to remind the world of the importance of sharing and remaining fearless of the unknown. Nappaaluk disperses her Indigenous knowledge throughout the book, like small teasers peppered here and there, enriching the text with elderly insight.

The influence of the Qallunaat is seen again when Ningiukuluk tells Sanaaq of a bad dream she had had, one in which something is broken, and she cautions Sanaaq to take care of her baby son or else someone close to her will die (p. 86). Sanaaq chides the old woman, telling her, “We’ve been told not to believe at all in such things. They’re not really things to believe in ai!” From that moment onward, bad luck falls upon the encampment, and it is not until Nappaaluk writes down the importance of an elder’s wisdom that the situation begins to improve, “Without elders the Inuit are nothing, for this is much knowledge that the elders alone possess!” (p. 112). Nappaaluk brings back how to view the world with Inuit eyes over and over again, perhaps writing in her own way to the generations that have not yet come into this world but who are waiting to. The book falls out of the “Dick and Jane” genre completely.

There is a change in voice as this book progresses and it would be feasible to assume that as the author matures her writing style becomes more conformed to the standards of the English language. The beating of Sanaaq by her husband Qalingu (p. 164) brings about the deepest sadness within this text. The violence laid upon Sanaaq changes the tone of the story, as does the physical landscape the book is based upon. Tuberculosis enters the community, and Qalingu “goes out” to work and support his family, paper money begins to be recognized as having value, and living inside stagnant wooden walls becomes the norm; it seems as though all of Inuit traditional life is falling apart. There is a rapidity to the assimilation laid upon this band of characters, and acceleration to the conformity of Qallunaat ways becomes paramount. It is this portion of the text that is hardest to digest.

Nappaaluk gives us her wisdom once more by introducing the succubus of Maatiusi, who had had Arnatuinnaq promised to him in marriage, as a young child, a common tradition of the Inuit. Maatiusi is stricken by the nuliarsaq and is unable to maintain a normal life. When Qalingu encourages him to speak of this dream woman who has been haunting his daily life, she disappears.

Nappaaluk, in her own way, may be asking the Inuit as a community to speak about their own lives and the way the change brought about by outsiders has affected them while remaining true to the Inuit traditional ways of knowing and being. This may be the message at the root of this novel. It is not up for debate whether or not an Inuk woman has written what non-Inuit may call a novel; it is not up for debate whether or not Inuit knowledge has vanished. This is a book filled with tradition, the tradition that still lies within the blood of every Inuk in Canada. It is a book about the strength, courage, and love of family by one Inuk woman and how each of these traits were passed on to her own community, uninterrupted and with tenderness, allowing other Inuit to follow along the path Sanaaq has broken for us all.