Read: December 2017
Sanaaq is an intimate story of an Inuit family negotiating the changes brought into their community by the coming of the qallunaat, the white people, in the mid-nineteenth century. Composed in 48 episodes, it recounts the daily life of Sanaaq, a strong and outspoken young widow, her daughter Qumaq, and their small semi-nomadic community in northern Quebec. Here they live their lives hunting seal, repairing their kayak, and gathering mussels under blue sea ice before the tide comes in. These are ordinary extraordinary lives: marriages are made and unmade, children are born and named, violence appears in the form of a fearful husband or a hungry polar bear. Here the spirit world is alive and relations with non-humans are never taken lightly. And under it all, the growing intrusion of the qallunaat and the battle for souls between the Catholic and Anglican missionaries threatens to forever change the way of life of Sanaaq and her young family.
About the translation:
In the early 1950s, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was asked by a priest working in Kangiqsujuaq in northern Quebec to write down some Inuttitut phrases to assist him in the study of the language. At the age of twenty-two, Nappaaluk began writing but did not stop at mere phrases. She invented a group of characters and events and, over the next twenty years, wrote the first Inuit novel, simultaneously reinventing the novel form.
Due in part to the perseverance of French anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, Sanaaq was first published in syllabic Inuttitut in 1987. His French translation appeared in 2002. This English translation now brings this cornerstone of Inuit literature to Anglophone readers and scholars.
I had gotten this book from the library as an interlibrary loan after I had been wanting to read more fiction by indigenous authors in Canada. I had been trying to read across Canada, trying to find authors from every single province and territory and had been starting to think that the majority of authors lived in Toronto, and I misread Mitiarjuk as living in Nunavut (which is a territory) when she actually lived in Nunavik (which is in northern Quebec). I had already started reading this and was halfway through before I realized the error, but I’m glad that I picked it up because it was such an interesting story.
Now, really, this story isn’t written like a lot of the fiction available these days. It had originally been commissioned as a way to learn some Inuit phrases, but Mitiarjuk instead turned the phrases into many chapters featuring the life of someone living in Inuvik just before the arrival of the Qallunaat (the white man) and includes the arrival of a white priest into their society. This story is very quick paced and really doesn’t include the descriptive phrases or narration that we come to expect in fiction, but nonetheless, it’s very accessible and very interesting.
I think what I love most about this story is how it was written. I believe it took Mitiarjuk 20 years to write the story and she had originally written it in Inuktitut symbols. The priest who commissioned the writing, Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, worked with her to translate it to French and spent two years actually seeing the scenarios she had written in the book played out in real life so he could get a better grasp on her writing. It was only recently translated from French to English but the original publication that’s written in syllabic Inuttitut is still available in Inuit schools. I also find it fascinating that this was written by Mitiarjuk, who had never actually read a novel prior to writing.
This is a story about community and relationships and really provides a glimpse into a culture that people these days probably can’t even fathom. I highly recommend reading this if you’re interested in the indigenous culture. I really look forward to finding more books written by First Nations people in Canada. I find stories like this fascinating and love getting a glimpse into history.