Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s “Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel.”

Book sheds light on what it means to be Inuk

“No matter your background, it urges readers to surrender themselves to it and to engage with the emotional geographies of the North”

By Pitseolak Pfeifer

Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s “Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel” was originally written in Inuktitut syllabics and later translated into French. The French version was yet again translated into English in 2014, which is what recently ended up in my hands.

As I was reading it, I found myself simultaneously translating it back into Inuktitut. I felt that it was only in Inuktitut that I could truly enjoy it. Within this context, the reader can perhaps appreciate the odd position I was in, having to write as a Western-trained reviewer for a university class.

I felt compelled to write as an Inuk academic―anything less would feel as if I am betraying the author and my unique cultural location. With this in mind, my contribution focussed on the question, “As an Inuk, what did I get out of this book?”

The author, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (1931-2007), was an Inuk from Nunavik, Québec. She lived preceding contact and at the cusp of the arrival of the qallunaat. She was a hunter and she published many other educational resources, becoming celebrated both within her community and nationally. As I learnt about all these facts, I began to appreciate the potential power of what I was about to read.

As an emerging Inuk scholar who has studied complex processes of historical and ongoing colonialism with Inuit Nunangat, it has been important for me to understand what life for Inuit was like prior to contact. And as I began reading the novel, I quickly realized that I was reading it the wrong way. I was reading it as someone who was in the Western tradition of intellectual engagement. I was reading it in English!

As I read the early episodes or chapters, I allowed myself to switch my thinking into Inuktitut and I began to simultaneously see the English words in Inuktitut. It was through that transliteration process that I was able to laugh, imagine, and live the rhythm of Nappaaluk’s writing. Although this novel is fictional, the accounts, activities, interactions and relationships are surely based on real life experiences.

While the land was a constant presence in my life up North, I never experienced life on the land as an intimate, existential force, which would determine my survival and way of being. I grew up in a semi-urban setting, confronted with many of the colonial ills about which I have since learned about academically.

One direct consequence of experiencing colonial processes was to permanently feel conflicted and question my identity as an Inuk. That is why, as an adult in the South, I felt honoured to read elders’ accounts of life on the land as it once was (e.g. “Interviewing Inuit Elders” series), and gained a sense of stability when watching old NFB documentaries or contemporary films like Atanarjuat, which would portray life on the land as an identity constant.

Nappaaluk’s novel enabled me to travel back in time in a sustained, engaged manner. I could join her thought processes and share her intimate and emotional life experiences. The descriptive but short writing style opened up the narrative to my own imagination of the sights, sounds and smells of Inuit life as it once was. It felt like my blood memory as an Inuk was stirred.

For example, the dramatic scenarios detailing the harrowing survival of a blizzard by Qalingu and Ilaijja, or the death of Jiimialuk in Chapters 19 and 15 respectively, carried me directly into that space of my ancestors and grounded my identity as an Inuk.

This book has offered me an opportunity to glimpse into a world that preceded me, and yet feel connected to it. My adoptive mom was born on the land; I grew up speaking only in Inuktitut and eating all of our traditional food. My uncles took me hunting regularly, but I was never taught the stories or the cultural rules of actually living on the land. This book offered me a reference point and sent me to a time passed. It is a time that I could never understand from my mom or uncles, who perhaps missed it.

This is a beautiful novel, whose value to the non-Inuk may be more anthropological than fictional. To non-Inuit readers, Sanaaq may show the Inuit worldview, and the readers may imagine the living in the Arctic and early Inuit life. To Inuit readers who have little to no experience with Inuktitut or life on the land, this book is a private conduit to discovering blood memories. No matter your background, it urges readers to surrender themselves to it and to engage with the emotional geographies of the North.

Too often, the public finds out about Inuit through news that highlights our current dire living conditions. But these aren’t and shouldn’t be the only stories. This novel depicts difficulties Inuit faced from a “harsh” life in the past, but serves as a way forward that asserts Inuit values, pride, dignity, strength and power, sharing, strong family bonds, courage and humility. Perhaps Canadians can learn rather than try and teach Inuit the way forward.

As one who is always on guard about co-produced Western-Indigenous works, I ask how much Western influence was embedded into this novel, especially through the double translation process, to become attractive enough for Western literary palates? My point is that the Western editor’s, translator’s, or reviewer’s cultural position shapes their interests in the book narratives.

If anthropology is a fundamentally intrusive endeavor into culture, and interest in Inuit culture seems insatiable, then reading this book offers a negotiated space where Inuit set the terms of engagement. I highly appreciated the strong use of Inuktitut terminology, requiring southern readers to seriously engage with our language. Those who do not speak Inuktitut have to work for this book―it is perhaps time to learn from us.

One may say the book is an important source for knowing Inuit culture and daily life before Inuit moved off the land. Or that it is simply fun to read, like an adventure novel. Nevertheless, Sanaaq is written in the Inuit oral tradition where the listener, or in this case the reader, is left to interpret the layers of meaning. For me, it was about the meaning of being an Inuk―then and now, together.

Pitseolak Pfeifer is an Inuk who was born and raised in Iqaluit. After years of professionally advocating for Inuit needs, issues and priorities, he recently obtained an honours degree in Canadian studies and a masters degree in Northern Studies from Carleton University in Ottawa. He now owns Inuit Solutions, a consulting company specializing in organizational and community development.

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(13) Comments:

  1. Posted by View from Plato’s Cave on

    An interesting review, i’m fascinated by the simultaneous hostility to western (or, southern) tradition while clearly utilizing the tools of a western intellectual and academic. Which in turn begs the question, how can you be sure the transliteration process, which you produced within your own mind, rendered an authentic reading of the authors experience or intent? Maybe it did, or maybe what you really observed was a set of imagined, subjective imagery based in a lifetime of collected beliefs and imaginings about the ‘Inuit part’. So we have something like a rorschach or thematic apperception test which produces an image, romanticized into a language piece we will call “blood memory’.

    • Posted by Correction on

      Whoops.. please pardon my typo, I meant “Inuit past”. As in an archetypal image.

  2. Posted by No such thing as cultural blood memory on

    Great book, and generally a great news article. But studies show that there is no such thing as “cultural” blood memory. Culture and language are not transmitted through DNA (although trauma can be).

    Culture and language are transmitted through sustained, culturally and linguistically rich interactions between generations. In fact, arguments about culture being preserved through “cultural” blood memory can unwittingly undermine cultural preservation efforts by making people complacent.

    Also, I’m pretty sure there is no concept of cultural blood memory in Inuktitut. It is more of an English term and way of thinking. Please correct me if I’m mistaken.

    • Posted by A on

      Interesting comments. For the record, trauma cannot be passed through DNA, nor can culture or language. There is some epigenetic reasearch that indicates gene expression might be affected by trauma and other environmental effects.

  3. Posted by Willis on

    interesting response, I’m curious how/why you sense hostility in the review, where I see an easily justifiable wariness of the anthropological and editorial lens. How could the reviewer’s knowledge of the novel’s original language render her reading somehow inauthentic, or less authentic than a non-Inuk reader’s? I hope the reviewer finds an edition of the original and let’s us know how the novel fared through all those translations.

    • Posted by Willis on

      sorry, typo – lets

    • Posted by View from Plato’s Cave on

      I suppose my point wasn’t entirely clear. I wouldn’t frame this as a question of authenticity in reading between Inuit and non-Inuit, and language wasn’t a variable in that either.
      The authors interpretation is as authentic as could be expected from any reader, and given an understanding of Inuktitut almost certainly better than a reading in English only.
      What I would question is the idea that this interpretation is yielding access to something larger and more objective. So when the author says “my blood memory as an Inuk was stirred” we should understand this as a romantic, literary concept, an image cast onto the back of Plato’s cave, not an “authentic” epistemological rendering of how the world is.

  4. Posted by Tim Buck 2 on

    I don’t think certain interprtation is possible by transliteration. Even in 1 laguage book clubs people offer there own understandings. These people have different life experience and personal views.
    Some people see things they may have missed in a books and films at first go, when they go at it a second time.
    Translations certainly miss the point or over translate. Appreciate that each language conveys its’ own world view.

  5. Posted by iWonder on

    Pitseolak, i’m curious what you mean by saying that “anthropology is a fundamentally intrusive endeavor into culture”? I can see how the work of a given anthropologist might be or become intrusive, but when you say ‘fundamental’ it seems to suggest that it is inherent to the practice of doing anthropology itself, regardless of how any study or research might be approached. Is that accurate? If so, I would be interested to hear how you think this is so.

    • Posted by naja Inuk on

      The only person giving you right information is Father Robert Lechat OMI
      recipient of Order of Nunavut.
      It is he who was very close to Mitiarjuk and ask her to write the novel.

      • Posted by iWonder on

        Thanks, naja, but I’m only quoting the article above, not Mitiarjuk’s book.

      • Posted by Reader on

        Thank you Naja for mentioning Father Robert Lechat. Mitiarjuk started writing this novel so she could teach Father Lechat about Inuit culture and language.
        It was Father Lechat who kept the manuscript and eventually made it available for publication in Inuktitut syllabics. Professor Bernard Saladin d’Anglure played a major role in having it published in Inuktitut in 1987, and he translated it into French.
        All of this is in the introduction to the English version of the book, but it’s ironic, or perhaps not ironic, that the book had to become available in English before anyone started paying attention to it.
        It is highly significant text because it is a very early example of Inuktitut used as a literary language in a piece of secular writing.

  6. Posted by Sue Hamilton on

    Pitseolak Pfeifer said, “Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s “Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel” was originally written in Inuktitut syllabics and later translated into French. The French version was yet again translated into English in 2014, which is what recently ended up in my hands.”

    I think the skills and cultural sensitivity of the translators to French and then to English have a strong influence on what a reader like me would be able to take away from Sanaaq. Although I can’t imagine that this process was like the game of “telephone” where one story told to another, then another and so on changes with every passage, I would appreciate knowing that what I will read will accurately reflect Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s intent. I have read and seen other things which I consider contained too many horrifying translations using words, for example, that Inuit would never use. Can someone comment on this?

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