April 11, 2013

Stories in a New Skin

Hingston: U of A prof takes flexible approach to study of Inuit literature

By Michael HingstonThe cover of Keavy Martin’s Stories in a New Skin (University of Manitoba Press) depicts an Inuit man unzipping his face to reveal his true identity hidden underneath: a fox. It’s a lovely, striking image—drawn by Ningeokuluk Teevee in 2007, the same year it also appeared on the cover of an issue of The Walrus—and it reinforces a key part of the argument being made between the book’s covers.

“It really signals this idea of adaptation,” Martin, a professor of indigenous literature at the University of Alberta, says of Teevee’s illustration. “A lot of Inuit scholars emphasize adaptability as a crucial component of Inuit culture: to make do with whatever you have.”

You can see this principle at work in several areas of life in the North, from diet to shelter. But Stories in a New Skin takes a relatively new tack by applying it to the growing field of Inuit literature and literary criticism. Here, flexibility is essential because so many Inuit stories come in genres that don’t neatly conform to the ones southerners have grown accustomed to.

How, for instance, should we engage with old hunting songs, the details of which shift according to who’s doing the singing—not to mention who’s in the audience? Or what about iviutiit, which are a kind of insult-poem, designed to publicly embarrass others when they’ve done something wrong?
Comment:  For more on Inuit arts, see Inuit Poet Speaks at College and Inuit Sculptor at NMAI.

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