Writing the song of life
Open your hearts and minds and let gifted author Norma Dunning introduce you to the reality of Inuit life.
A much-anticipated presenter and keynote speaker at the Word on the Lake Shuswap Writers Festival in April, the gifted writer records a history of abuse, discrimination and dismissal in her award-winning fiction and poetry.
A proud Inuk, Norma does not shy away from the painful burden effected by the often terrifying world of residential schools and continuing overt racism.
Readers will feel their pain, but Norma’s characters do not dwell in self-pity. Refreshingly, they share their experiences about life in a White world from their own cultural perspective. Profanity, never gratuitous, brings her characters’ emotions into sharper focus. Sexual intimacy is mostly free of the strictures set in the White world. But while this is life in the raw, powerful spirituality is a common thread throughout the engrossing tales.
“I will always say if I put fact into fiction, people will read it. If it’s in a scholarly paper, people won’t read it and the audience becomes limited in size,” she says. “Fiction makes people think about Inuit in a non-confrontational way. What I write lets Inuit be heard.”
Inspiration comes to her from people she meets, such as a homeless man she conversed with on an Edmonton bus, or from her own experience and imagination.
While she is pleased with the emergence of Indigenous writers, she says, what is really needed are Indigenous editors.
“A non-Indigenous editor will talk about grammar,” she says. “I feel what I am writing about is something spiritual, not grammar.”
Norma’s latest collection of stories, Tainna, (pronounced da-ee-na) won the Governor General's Award for English-language fiction in 2021. In 2018, she won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for her short story collection, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories and took home the Writers' Guild of Alberta's Howard O'Hagan Award for Elipsee, one of the powerful stories in the collection.
A self-described poet since childhood, Norma’s Eskimo Pie: A Poetics of Inuit Identity was published in 2020. A second book of poetry, Akia, (The Other Side), will be released in July, 2022.
Norma’s are not the stories of “Eskimo” life as taught in Canadian schools, but a culture in which only 24 of every 100 people graduate from high school, and obtaining post-secondary education requires travelling far from the comfort and security of one’s community.
“In 1955, they (federal government) finally took responsibility for Inuit education. The reasoning had been why do we want to put these people into school when they are just gonna be trappers and fishermen,” Norma says, noting that denying education erases opportunity. “Inuit are number-one of the highest disparities that nobody wants. It’s easy to say it’s their fault, but it’s the result of bad policy, residential school, and all the legislation that has been levied.”
The highly educated writer earned a BA, Masters and PhD from the University of Alberta where she teaches a required course on Indigenous Studies.
“I say to my students, “I do not teach the happily ever after because it has not occurred. But you my students, you are my hope.”
It is not uncommon for her students, most of whom range in age between 24 and 45, to burst into tears in class and demand to know why the information is new to them.
“Government never allowed our history in the curriculum,” she says, noting how stunned and upset many non-indigenous Canadians are as more and more graves are uncovered at former residential school sites. “We have known all along and asked for funding, but were refused, refused, refused.”
The Shuswap Association of Writers annual Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival takes place April 29 to May 2 at Sorrento Centre.
The irrepressible author will present on the importance of living mindfully in her “What’s my Beat?” workshop.
“To me our lives are a song. As we are going through each day, we’re living in a rhythm but we’re not paying attention to it,” she says. “When we’re writing, we’re in the rhythm; we have to hear it again.”