Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth: Fiction, memoir and homespun myth

There’s no better description of scent in the Arctic than in Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth: “The air is so clean you can smell the difference between smooth rock and jagged. You can smell water running over shale.”

I could fill a whole review just quoting passages like this one. Tagaq’s writing is close and careful and unbelievably concrete: blue foam insulation blowing across the tundra, a boy carrying a gas can strapped to his head “Inuk style,” pilot biscuits and lard for supper, yucky high school teachers (“getting old is so gross”), an old sock shoved where a doorknob used to be.

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It’s the stuff that makes creative writing teachers swoon. From Tagaq, it seems to come effortlessly and the result is an almost perfectly drawn Arctic world, as seen through the eyes of an extremely sensitive and curious child, then teenager, who has lived and felt it.

How joyous to read this. How unique and totally new!

There’s a dark side too. That sock in the door knob hole is a ploy for privacy so kids can sniff solvents. The pilot biscuit supper horrifies Tagaq, because it’s made by children whose parents aren’t feeding them. A sense of menace pervades almost every page.

The book opens with a short tale of young girls hiding in a closet while some rowdy partiers come home. It’s taut with suspense until a somewhat pleasant but still unnerving surprise ending. Another early story follows a similar pattern, this time with a child piloting a raft made of blue foam insulation across a freezing cold pond. If he tips, he will certainly drown, but he just manages not to, prompting screams and cheers when he lands safely on the other side.

As this story ends, Tagaq casually mentions that “the next week, seven kids drowned in a larger pond closer to the airport after using a water tank cut in half as a boat.”

We’re on page nine. This story strikes me pretty hard. I’ve spent about fourteen years reporting in Nunavut and the N.W.T. I’ve never heard of this happening. The following week, I happen to be at an event in Yellowknife with several former CBCers, including a broadcast technician who was in Inuvik in the 1970s. I ask around about this story. Nobody’s heard of it, and all agree that had it happened, they would have.

And so we enter the realm of fiction, memoir and poetry that is Split Tooth.

It’s a strange place to be. Strange because the stories Tagaq writes about growing up in Cambridge Bay (and visiting family in Resolute Bay) are so powerful. About school, about being bored, about violence and adolescent longing and sexual assault (there is a very persistent backdrop of rape and child sexual abuse running through this book) and about fear and enchantment with the animal world.

Yet wouldn’t all these stories be even more powerful if they were actually true?

“A girl grows up in Nunavut in the 1970s,” the book jacket reads. Really? Because Tagaq came of age in the 1980s. And the story is blatantly there: neon leggings, big hair, Chip and Pepper T-shirts.

The reporter in me can’t help but wish Tagaq had stuck to memoir — even memoir infused with the spirit world. It seems, to me, such a huge opportunity. Tagaq, an internationally acclaimed musician with a huge following, is an incredibly brave artist — brave enough to share her very intimate brand of throatsinging with audiences all over the world. She seems perfectly positioned to tell her story and that of the Cambridge Bay she grew up in.

[I’m a reporter! I just can’t help but believe that one day, something, some story, will finally make its way into the national conscience in such a big way that the federal government will be forced to double Nunavut’s operating budget, build some houses, some docks…]

But once again Tagaq goes her own way.

Even more so in the second part of the book, when our narrator is having sex with the northern lights and various wild animals and we’re more firmly in the realm of fiction. Or are we? These are pretty concrete stories too and to our highly imaginative narrator, perhaps perfectly real.

I have to turn to the book jacket again for reassurance. “Fact can be as strange as fiction. It can also be as dark, as violent, as rapturous. In the end, there may be no difference between them.”

Not to equivocate, but, yeah. I mean, I guess so. Why not?

In several interviews about this book (like this one in Now Magazine), Tagaq said she was nervous about publishing it, her first venture into a new medium. I hate to think of her that way because she’s so singular, and so powerful (“I don’t feel like prey. I too am a predator,” she writes) and here are some of the thoughts and stories that shaped her.

And for all those reasons, this is a book worth reading. (Or listening to: in the acknowledgements sections Tagaq thanks Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory for her suggestions on intonation, which tells me Tagaq narrates this herself, probably quite effectively.)

Update: This book is nominated for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award!

Split Tooth
By Tanya Tagaq
Viking, 2018
208 pages

Got a northern book you’d like to review? We welcome guest posts, especially rebuttals. saraminogue @ gmail.com.

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