Monday, August 22, 2016

Sanaaq & Alego

Sanaaq: an Inuit novel / Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk; transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d'Anglure, translated from French by Peter Frost.
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, c2014.

In my search for Canadian novels that have been translated from languages other than French I recalled this one, originally written in Inuktitut by this amazing woman over many years, starting in the 50's. Published in Inuktitut in 1983, it was published in French in 2002, and now finally we have an English version.  The introduction places it in its context and give us an understanding of how and why it was written, which I found helpful. It also tells us a bit more about Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk herself.

It's an episodic novel, with Sanaaq as the main character. She is an Inuk woman who has one young daughter at the start of novel; she remarries a young hunter and has a son as the story progresses. It's told from Sanaaq's viewpoint, and is made up of brief chapters explaining or illustrating a common event in Inuit lives. In the introduction we learn that this novel was started as a way for Catholic priests to learn more local terms as they attempted to create a dictionary; Mitiarjuk was well known and respected for her many skills, so stepped in to help. But she found just writing vocabulary-heavy pieces dull so started to include imaginative chapters, morphing this task into a creative storytelling project. 

Through Sanaaq's eyes we see the daily activities of her settlement -- building igloos, hunting, fishing, digging clams, raising children, being terrified by polar bears, surviving storms, and more -- and we also get a feel for the traditional activities that women carried on, as well as the interpersonal ups and downs among the residents of her small circle. Some people are competent (Sanaaq in particular) and some are just unlucky, like Jiimialuk who loses an eye while cooking, and later dies in a hunting accident. Sanaaq's daughter grows in age and responsibility, and we see her awareness of community standards growing, as well as her understanding of why young people need to respect the knowledge of their elders. All of these characters are used to illuminate the way of life that Mitiarjuk had experienced, but more than just stand-ins for her messages, they become lively personalities.

As the book goes on, and Mitiarjuk was able to write more freely, there is more frank talk of sexuality, spousal abuse, traditional spiritual beliefs ,and more. While this book is not a novel in the sense of having a plot that is carried through and resolved, it does have some great characters and a really interesting narrative voice. Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was given a PhD by McGill University in 2000, and was recognized by UNESCO in 2001 for her literary and artistic contributions to maintaining and communicating Inuit culture. Her lively storytelling certainly fascinated me.

The book has retained a generous amount of Inuktitut terminology - many things are referred to only by Inuktitut names. In context it is pretty simple to figure out what the word signifies, and there is also a nice glossary at the back. I liked the feel it gave to the book, like it was really a story someone was telling. But there were a few animals referred to, like sculpin or other shore creatures, that I wasn't familiar with whether in English or Inuktitut. Luckily for me, just as I was finishing Sanaaq, I came across a picture book in my library called Alego.

Alego / Ningeokuluk Teevee; translated from Inuktitut by Nina Manning-Toonoo 
Toronto: Groundwood, c2009.
24 p.

Ningeokuluk Teevee is an artist who lives in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. She wrote and illustrated this picture book, which is a brief story of a young girl, Alego, who goes clam digging for the first time with her grandmother, Anaanatsiaq. When they get to the shore, her grandmother starts collecting clams, but like any other young child, Alego wanders and explores all the different creatures she can find. All of these creatures are shared using their Inuktitut names, and luckily for me, many of them are the same as those mentioned in Sanaaq, particularly of course those in the clam digging chapter! There is also a helpful glossary in this book, which includes illustrations, which was very enjoyable and illuminated my understanding of both books.

This picture book was charming, showing the close relationship between a young girl and her grandparents. It also shares a little of the landscape of Baffin Island, an unusual setting for a picture book. I also appreciated how the text is shown in both Inuktitut syllabics and English - it really lends that sense of the story being rooted in its community.

I greatly enjoyed both these books, as excursions into a language and a lifestyle I'm not very familiar with.


  1. Great idea including the picture book for this event. It sounds like you're reading a lot of different voices this month for sure!

    1. I was so glad to find it, just as I was nearing the end of Sanaaq. Interesting to see this option in children's books as well! Maybe a place to get kids used to reading about other cultures.

  2. I have never thought about books written in Inuktitut. I'm so glad you brought these to my attention!

    1. I was happy to recall these in time for the #WITmonth reading challenge! We're lucky there are a few translations now.


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