Inuk author Norma Dunning loves to court the absurd.
In one of her short stories, called “Eskimo Heaven,” a Inuit ancestral spirit visits a priest from the North.
“The spirit says, ‘Come with me, we’re gonna take a walk on the wild side,’” explained Dunning, a lecturer in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education who last week won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction for her collection Tainna: The Unseen Ones.
In a hilariously subversive take on Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” the spirit ends up schooling the priest on Inuit culture in a McDonald’s restaurant on Edmonton’s Argyll Rd., on a city bus and in a blues club called Blues on Whyte.
“It was really fun to write,” said Dunning. “You can take these characters and do anything and have it be believable. It was just marvellous to put that story together.”
Tainna is Dunning’s second prize-winning collection of short stories, all featuring Inuk characters who have left the North for Southern Canada. Her first, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, won the $10,000 Danuta Gleed Award in 2018 for the best first collection of short fiction by a Canadian author published in English.
The Governor General’s Literary Awards are among the most prestigious of their kind in Canada, each coming with a $25,000 cash prize.
“I’m really enjoying the flame of fame right now, and the emails — I didn’t know I knew that many people,” said Dunning of winning the award. In a statement to the CBC, she said she’s cried every day since hearing the news.
“It’s such a validation of my writing and my work, and it’s good to see that Canada reads beyond the norm and took into consideration an old lady who writes in Edmonton.”
Much of Dunning’s creative writing takes aim at distorted settler views that can’t manage to separate Inuit people from stereotypical images of whale meat, fur-lined parkas and harpoons. Her characters struggle with the paradox of preserving traditional Inuit culture while confronting the realities of modern life.
It’s such a validation of my writing and my work, and it’s good to see that Canada reads beyond the norm and took into consideration an old lady who writes in Edmonton.
Norma Dunning on winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction
Norma Dunning holds a copy of her award-winning short story collection Tainna: The Unseen Ones
Recurring characters such as Annie Muktuk humorously upend expectations of what Inuit life is supposed to look like. Tainna’s “My Old Bones” features Annie as an older woman, after she has left the North and settled on Vancouver Island.
Dunning intentionally placed Annie in Victoria’s conservative settler culture to “let her go” and see what happens, “because the mainstream always thinks the Inuit must always be in the North waiting by that seal breathing hole. But we live everywhere.”
In the story, Annie walks into a Victoria bar to meet her son, where a group of barflies take an interest in her.
“They ask, ‘Where are you from?’ And they’re like, you’re one of those Eskimos!” said Dunning.
“That actually happened to me,” she added. “I was just so amazed, so stunned. For a year, I think I just walked around with my mouth hanging open.”
While Annie is on one level a manifestation of her creator’s personality, she also seems to have an independent life of her own, said Dunning, admitting that she’s never quite sure where Annie will lead her.
“It sounds crazy, but I can actually see my characters,” she told Folio in 2018. “They appear like a flash, and they stay with me. I have to write those stories or the characters never leave my apartment.
“Sometimes I’m out grocery shopping and there’s Annie in the produce section. I’ll say, ‘Leave me alone, I just want to get groceries.’ But she persists. I’ll probably just write her into infinity, because she keeps showing up.”
Besides her creative writing — which includes a second volume of poetry due for release next year — Dunning is now finishing edits on her fourth book. It is reworking her master of arts thesis, an academic study on Canada’s Eskimo Identification System used between 1931 and 1971. Inuit were forced to wear numbered tags replacing traditional names so the government could keep track of them.
“The government and the northern administrators had a hard time managing Inuit names,” said Dunning. “Its importance became huge for Inuit people, because if they did not identify themselves properly they were denied the same socio-economic benefits that all other Canadians had.”
Her recently completed PhD looked at the onerous, difficult-to-navigate funding stream available to Inuit students who reside in the south, “because I was one of them,” she said.
“Even though some Inuit no longer live in the North, we’re still members of our land claim agreement, but because we are not residing in the North, the way our funding and benefits are given out to us is very different.
“I was under heavy surveillance because of just the amount of paperwork I had to provide to the third-party funder.”
But she admits she may not have had the stamina to complete her academic projects if it weren’t for frequent retreats into her creative world.
“To be honest, when you’re writing that kind of work, it can be really boring. I always have to have the crazy over here, so that I can write the academic over there.”
Inuk author Norma Dunning loves to court the absurd.