COMMENTARY || Writing is the air I breathe
PhD student explores publishing as an Inuit writer.
By NORMA DUNNING
I am Norma Dunning. I am a beneficiary of Nunavut; my ancestral ties lie in the village of Whale Cove. I have never been there. My folks left the North shortly before my birth. I am southern Inuk, born and raised.
I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t want to take the criticism.
I didn’t want to take the reworking of my words into a form that is standard Western format, or into the practices that are expected and accepted within literary work. I know that I do not write in the ways that most non-Indigenous writers do. I didn’t want my work re-colonized.
I have a small reputation of being a poet, and my poetry manuscript is usually rejected twice a year. Over the last seven years, I am often invited to read my poetry at various local events. I am very honoured to have been asked, but I am the poet who shows up without her book of published poems. I am the poet with her work attached to a clipboard. I am surprised that my first published work, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, is a book of short stories. There’s irony in that.
Inuit peoples live in two worlds
Writing for me is not a hobby. Writing is a part of my being, a part of daily living. It is for me what breathing is for others. It is physical in that if I am not creating a story or a poem, I do not feel well. I know that of myself. It is spiritual and emotional. Producing the written word is the only place where I can be who I am, without expectations, without criticism and without someone looking over my shoulder telling me that I am wrong.
Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival.
When I was studying for my BA degree, my minor was in creative writing. I have since taken many university creative writing courses and I received two prestigious awards for my efforts through the University of Alberta. Creative thinking is a requirement for my doctoral work, and taking writing courses has helped me. However, the other students in the writing classes were not always supportive. I heard their criticisms every week.
While not every class was good or productive, I was exposed to the writing of non-Inuit poets and writers from long ago. I enjoyed their old works, which were new to me. I thought about how they could spend time running up hill and down dale and always remain writing in their predictable and trained writing format. I cannot write about butterflies or bumblebees. In time, I published the odd poem here and there, but never a story. The stories were mine. It took many years to decide to share them.
Deciding to publish
Until one winter afternoon, close to Christmas. I was standing in a lineup at a post office. It was a long line, filled with people wanting their packages to exotic places to be stamped “Express!” I held my thick, brown envelope addressed to the University of Alberta Press close to my chest. I thought I could do this another day, but I knew that if I stepped out of the lineup, I would never send that envelope out anywhere. When I was asked if I wanted a rush delivery, I gasped, “No!”
The longer it took for anyone to read my work, the longer I was safe. The longer the characters that I had created could stay only mine. If no one ever read it, I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The longer the envelope took to deliver, the longer my creative world belonged to only me. I didn’t hear back from the press for over a year. I kept telling myself that was OK. Things take time. Inuit are patient.
When I was told that the press accepted my work, I was stunned. Perhaps part of being an Indigenous writer is the expectation of rejection. I did not get what I was used to. I was assigned to my editor, who is a Namibian man, born and raised. He knows colonialism very well. He lives it, like me. The path to publishing became less complicated. I knew one thing; my words were safe with him. He got it.
However, there was one long discussion over the use of a comma or a period. I had written the sounds of two Inuit women throat singing. I had written it without any grammar. I knew how the song sounded in my head, but what I had to think about was a non-Inuit readers’ understanding.
I sang it to myself for 45 minutes. Was it “Oooma” insert period or “Oooma” insert comma? There were emails and phone calls around two simple sentences. I learned to think about how grammar shapes understanding. What if I was a foreigner reading this passage; how would it sound in my head? We worked it through because my editor took the time to build a good working relationship with me. He didn’t dive in and try to make me or my words “right.” He didn’t push for the quick fix that I know all too well. When non-Inuit do that, it is a signal for me to run.
As Aboriginal artists, we inherently analyze the people around us, because we walk inside two worlds. Aboriginal artists do the hard work, the heavy lifting. We put out into the world the truth of Canada’s grand narrative. Aboriginal artists take the whispered secrets and put them onto paper. It is not easy work.
If my book does any one thing, I hope it brings other Inuit writers to a publisher. I hope other Inuit writers realize that they can do this too. They can put their work out there. They can publish. Be fearless. Stand by your words, and believe that no matter where you stand, you are Inuk.
Norma Dunning is a PhD student in Indigenous People's Education at the University of Alberta.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation.