Award-winning musician Tanya Tagaq has written an innovative part autobiographical, part fictional novel that intermingles prose, poetry and drawings portraying present-day Inuit reality. Unlike similar texts, her debut novel Split Tooth (2018) does not concern itself with the recanting of myths or with the adjustment to modern life, whether living on or off the tundra. Instead, Tagaq has broken a new trail for all future Inuit writers to tread upon, describing the lived world of an Inuk child with writing that is breathtaking and singular.
Tagaq’s poetry is a major aspect of what sets Split Tooth apart from other works, both semi-biographical and ethnographic. “Inhale hard love suck in the smell and reward reap eat chew swallow devour all the goodness and love that is given to you,” she writes with lyrical strength and tenderness about a world that is often harsh and disappointing. “Exhale calmness in acknowledgment of the beauty within the courage it takes to not fear love.” Tagaq reminds us to bravely and openly embrace love in an Arctic climate where cold and darkness reign, themes that are paralleled within her main character’s life.
Tagaq speaks from a place of discomfort and plunges her reader into a world filled with alcohol, sex and drug abuse. Laughter and hope are largely absent elements. The workings of daily life for a young Inuk girl tucked away in a small community are void of happiness and filled with the quiet of the tundra. Nevertheless, her thoughts are not silenced in her struggle to survive in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), NU, in 1975. Her first-person writing admits, “We cannot always be what we wish to be. I cannot be perfect for my children.”
Tagaq’s adolescent resistance towards community members, whether a school teacher at an auntie’s party or her own mother, enriches the coming of age of the young girl’s growth that is splattered with visitations from the spirit world. “I saw in an instant the spiritual world we all ignore. Like the radio waves we can’t see, it is everywhere.” She is later gifted with a dream from her ananak (mother) revealing her role in the afterlife.
I caution readers that this is not a book that gives us the “happily-ever-after” ending. It is a book that strikes at the hard realities for a northern teen and is marked with the brutality of the addicts who are her caregivers. It is the harshest lesson the book leaves with its readers.
Legacies of death and destruction are blended with the sadness of lost babies and murder. The book describes Inuit as the dead and desperate. Inuit readers are forced to ask: Is this all we are? What are we doing to ourselves? More importantly, we must ask how do we create work that furthers the legacy of Inuit youth who are survivors, who are brave, kind and giving? As Inuit, we must remember that when we speak, especially to a broad public audience, we speak for all of us.
With this work Tagaq has reshaped what Inuit literature is. She has upset the traditions of accepted writing styles of fantastic legends, divides between North and South and colonized experiences. She has rattled the bones of Western traditional writing norms by interjecting poetics with prose. Although her firstperson narrative can sometimes brink on tedious, readers are given the sense of partaking in something bad and dangerous throughout. And, despite these descriptive lulls, it is impossible to stop reading. It is delicious. And offers a new way forward for Inuit authors.
Tagaq is a humble artist. She worked to complete her education. She worked at becoming an internationally renowned performer. Nothing was given to her. Who and what she is has been well earned. Split Tooth is what Tagaq is. The unexpected. The unimaginable.
This Review appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.