'What inspired her was getting mad': Inuk writer tells family's stories in new collection

Norma Dunning is using literature to draw attention to inaccurate, but persistent stereotypes. 'I thought, why is it that Aboriginal women are never in charge of their own sexuality?'

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories is Dunning's first published collection

Norma Dunning is a PhD candidate in Indigenous Peoples Education at the University of Alberta. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

The title character in Norma Dunning's short story collection, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, was inspired by reading an anthropologist's characterization of Canada's Arctic.

"He was portraying Inuit women as though they were something that was up for commodification,"  Dunning said.

"When I read it, I thought, why is it that aboriginal women are never in charge of their own sexuality? Why are we presented as women who can be used? So that's where Annie came from — what inspired her was getting mad."
Cover art for Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, published by University of Alberta Press. (University of Alberta Press)

In her collection, Dunning says she wanted to draw attention to inaccurate, but persistent, sexual stereotypes.

Dunning says the 16 stories in her collection are set in the recent past, so they can address the history of Inuit in Canada.

"For myself, what I know of my own Inuit people, and my own ancestors ... regardless of our situations we are able to laugh and I think that has to come forward in the story as well," she said.

"I tell the story of residential school and I tell the story of my grandfather, Husky Harris, even though the work presents as fictional, there is at least, at least, 95.5 per cent truth in what I've written."

Fear of 'recolonization' can silence voices

Dunning says she's always been a writer, but she felt the time had come for other people to see her work. 

"In terms of the Canadian lit scene, I know other Inuit writers, they're afraid to publish and they're afraid to go through that process because we know what it's like to be colonized and you don't want your work re-colonized." 

Dunning is 58. She started her university education three months shy of her fifty-first birthday, and is now three years into a PhD.

During her bachelor's in Native Studies at the University of Alberta, she picked up a minor in creative writing, which she says is when many of the stories in Annie Muktuk were developed.
Annie Muktuk and Other Stories was published when Norma Dunning was 58. (Submitted by Norma Dunning)

Her PhD research focuses on being a southern Canadian Inuk and the unique challenges that presents in terms of support and recognition — both by southern Canadians and Inuit, she says.

Dunning is Inuit, her mother's side of the family is from Whale Cove, Nunavut, but she has never been there. Her father joined the military shortly before she was born and she grew up in northern, but not Arctic communities.

She now lives in Edmonton, where she helped start the group Edmontonmiut, a society for Inuit in Edmonton.

And while she says her research helped her develop the collection, the stories were told to her by her family members. Her four older siblings were all born in Churchill, Man., where the "Annie Muktuk" story is set.

She says she hopes readers take more than the history away from her stories. 

"I would like to trouble the perceptions of Canadian people who generally think that Inuit Canadians are standing at a seal hole with a harpoon — we are not that, we are present day people," she said. "We get up and go to work and stop at Tim Hortons."

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories will have a book launch September 14 at Audreys Books in Edmonton.