Inuk author Norma Dunning explores life, death and identity erasure with story collection Tainna
Tainna: The Unseen Ones won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Prize for fiction
This interview originally aired Sept. 11, 2021.
Norma Dunning is a Edmonton-based Inuk author of books such as the poetry collection Eskimo Pie: A Poetics of Inuit Identity and Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, a collection of short stories exploring identity, life and death that won the the 2018 Danuta Gleed Literary Award.
Her latest is Tainna: The Unseen Ones, a collection of six stories that each focus on a contemporary Inuk character, and explore themes such as homelessness, spirituality, death, displacement, loneliness, alienation and community connection.
Dunning spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why she wrote Tainna: The Unseen Ones.
Navigating trauma and hardship
"When I'm sitting down writing a story, I don't have any particular message in mind — I have a story in mind. It's not like I'm sitting there with some great moral revelation that I'm going to put onto a page. One of the stories examines how blood is thicker than water — and how we're always family.
When I'm sitting down writing a story, I don't have any particular message in mind — I have a story in mind.
"Every family fights — that's normal. But I wanted to examine the love between two sisters. It also examines what I have seen happen to many Indigenous women when they pair up with a non-Indigenous man and the very constrained kind of life they end up having to live."
A silent form of erasure
"Being Inuit was not mentioned in my household when we were growing up. I believe it happens to many Aboriginal children growing up.
"I write about how, on a sweaty hot Saturday afternoon, I had been at the playground playing tetherball with the other children. They were talking about what they were. And I came home and my mom was in the kitchen and she was making home fries, cutting up potatoes. And I remember standing behind her and saying, 'Mom, what are we?' And she turned around and said 'Why?' I told her all the other kids on the playground were talking about they were from Germany or Sweden and all these other places.
"She said, 'You tell people, you are French, you were born in Quebec. That's all you have to do.' And I did — I followed through.
Once a child self-identifies within the grade-school system, they often end up being coded. I know how that system works.
"Once a child self-identifies within the grade-school system, they often end up being coded. I know how that system works. Once an Indigenous child is coded, they get coded heavier and heavier as they go through school. I would never, ever let my sons identify.
"Also, when they were very small and we moved here to Edmonton, we were extremely poor and we were living in Edmonton housing. So that was another strike against being poor and being indigenous. So I never, ever allowed them to identify.
"It was that kind of silence. It's funny how it transcends into the next generation."
Norma Dunning's comments have been edited for length and clarity.