Discover an Arctic girl’s coming of age in Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth

Tagaq’s book features poetry, reflection, mysticism


Nunavut's Tanya Tagaq holds a copy of her new book, Split Tooth, published by Penguin Random House Canada. (PHOTO COURTESY OF PENGUIN CANADA)

Nunavut’s Tanya Tagaq holds a copy of her new book, Split Tooth, published by Penguin Random House Canada. (PHOTO COURTESY OF PENGUIN CANADA)

CAMBRIDGE BAY—You can live or relive the experiences of a young girl growing up in the Canadian Arctic in Tanya Tagaq’s new book, Split Tooth.

Tagaq, better known for her critically acclaimed throat-singing performances and art, earned a prestigious Giller Prize long-list nomination for her first foray into writing, shortly before her book’s release last month.

When you ask people who have read Split Tooth how they feel about the book, this question generates the same kind of comments you hear about Tagaq’s music: that it’s stunning and uncomfortable, vicious and sweet.

In Tagaq’s hometown of Cambridge Bay, many rushed to download Split Tooth, released Sept. 25, or vied for one of two hardcover copies donated to the local library by a teacher at the high school. Several recommend listening to the audio version of the book read by Tagaq.

Split Tooth is a work that lends itself to such oral storytelling: the first 100 or so pages of Split Tooth describe a young girl’s childhood in what is now Nunavut with poetic writing and poetry, which are just waiting to be read aloud.

Take this description of the coming of warmer weather: “Lichen smells sweet. The green lichen smells different from the black. In the spring you smell last fall’s death and this year’s growth…. We can smell the footprints of last fall and the new decomposition of all who perished in the grips of winter.”

And only someone who has grown up in the North, with Tagaq’s poetic insight, could write that “winter always wins, the sun scoffs. Nothing can stop the cacophony of gluttony and procreation about to ensue.”

These gems of writing alone make Tagaq’s book unique and worthy of reading.

You can tell she’s not just a viewer of life, but thoughtfully enters into it, through the following passage about snow buntings.

“I realize that birds see in a completely different way than we humans do. We are slow and lumbering, our language is deep and muddy. Our confinement to the ground elicits pity. They looks at us as we look upon the trees, slow but full of longevity. The trees look at the rocks that way. Rocks look at the mountains that way. Mountains look at the water that way. Earth looks at the sun that way. Everyone has an elder.”

But Tagaq also talks about the gritty reality of growing up in the Arctic, nightless summer days of aimless and sometimes cruel activity, dark winters and encounters with bullying, violence, sexual abuse and drug use as the girl moves into puberty and on to a job as a cashier: “Someone committed suicide, someone is pregnant, Merry Christmas, Happy Halloween. Stock the seasons, watch the deaths. See the new babies.”

The second half of the book veers off into a mystical journey as the girl becomes pregnant. At this point—with scenes involving her conjoining with a wolf and the northern lights—it becomes clear that the book is a coming of age story that is part memoir, part fiction.

One commenter in an online review suggested reading Split Tooth when you’re in a stable place. That’s because this portion can be challenging to read, like listening to Tagaq’s music, which lies between performance art and throat singing. Primal and breathtaking, it can be both brutal and beautiful to absorb.

Split Tooth is widely available in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats, you can also order it through Tagaq’s label, Six Shooter records, along with a white or red sealskin bookmark.

Hardcover | $24.95
208 pages | ISBN 9780670070091

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