2013 Review: Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature

Stories in  a new skin cover



Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature
Author: Keavy Martin
(Published by The University of Manitoba Press)
Review by Shari Narine

Keavy Martin presents a circular argument in her academically-heavy Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature.

Martin holds that Inuit literature – which she takes as a broad category – demands to be acknowledged by the western world in the same manner that other Indigenous work is. However, she says that for Inuit literature to be understood by broader society it needs to be explained to such a point that it loses its true Indigeneity.

Inuit storytelling not only entertains but imparts a lesson. What the listener takes from the story is dependent on the place the listener comes from. So in true Inuit fashion, when a story is told, the lesson isn’t drawn. However, Martin says, that isn’t the case in the southern world where lessons need to be clearly stated in order for the non-Inuit to understand. In this way, in the need to have to explain not only history and the context of the tale (or song), but also the meaning, true Inuit literature is not what is being shared with the southern reader.

In Stories in a New Skin, Martin examines the literature that comes from Nunavut, looking at its storytelling tradition, its history and its politics – both politics that are true to the Inuit and politics that are forced upon the Inuit by a western political structure. Indeed the very title of her work emphasizes this belief.

She points out that “skins and skin clothing are obviously of enormous importance in Inuit tradition,” yet an imposed political system forces Inuit literature into a broader audience, which if that audience is to understand what it is reading, forces the literature to grow a new skin or shed the old one.

“It represents both the possibility and the discomfort of adaptation,” says Martin.

While the south is quick to think of Nunavut – and some would argue all three Canadian territories along with Alaska and Siberia – as having a “common land, language and culture,” Martin points out that it is this vastness that means this isn’t the case as is clearly seen in a broad array of storytelling in its many forms and detail.

She states the Inuit Circumpolar Council is partially to blame for promoting a single-minded approach to literature (and therefore downplaying the diversity) in the same way it has provided a single, unified voice for Inuit politics.

“The most important national trait is the tradition of telling stories that work to define Inuitness by raising the spectre of Otherness,” says Martin.

While there is a lack of Inuit literature available to the broader audience, there is, perhaps surprisingly, a fairly large collection of Inuit work – songs, poetry and tales - available to scholars dating back almost a century.

While Stories in a New Skin is highly academic reading, reference heavy and therefore sometimes difficult to ascertain where Martin herself stands on the issue of sharing Inuit literature with a broader audience, she does offer food for thought.

She quotes the IQ Task Force report, which asks the question, “Should the Nunavut government try to incorporate the Inuit Culture into itself, or … should the Nunavut government incorporate itself into the Inuit Culture?”

This could be the question Martin intends to leave the reader with: “Should Inuit literature fit into the broader southern context or should the broader southern context work within the Inuit literature?”