The Next Chapter

Why Aviaq Johnston thinks we should see ourselves in stories

The Inuit author explains why she put Indigenous youth at the centre of her novel, Those Who Run in the Sky.
YA author Aviaq Johnston and Shelagh Rogers discuss her novel featuring Indigenous characters. It was shortlisted for a 2017 Governor General's Literary Award. (Patti Laboucane-Benson/Inhabit Media)

Aviaq Johnston is a young Inuit writer from Igloolik, Nunavut. Her first novel, the YA fiction Those Who Run in the Sky, was a finalist for the Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Literature. She spoke to Shelagh Rogers in Edmonton about her book and path to life as a writer.

Connected through stories

"Those Who Run in the Sky is about a young hunter named Pitu. He's very good at hunting and has a lot of wisdom. He's chosen to be the next leader of the village. In learning to become a leader, he and his mentor realize Pitu might actually be a shaman. While he is out hunting one day, he gets lost in a blizzard and wakes up in the spirit world and tries to find his way back to his family. Most of the stories I grew up with were about mythical creatures and there are many of them in my story because they're scary – Inuit legends are typically very scary stories. Talking about shamanism was very taboo and has only recently become acceptable. But learning about shamans, I instantly felt these were people I connected to. They were the storytellers of the community and made sure we were in balance with nature and the spirit world. It's so important for us to see ourselves in stories."

Things only books can teach us

"Throughout high school, I either had English teachers who didn't have the right resources or were teaching in the North to make money. They did not build relationships with us, so it was very difficult to enjoy English class. It wasn't until grade 12 that I really enjoyed my class with an amazing teacher. From there, I had so many opportunities to take writing courses and I went to university for it, but at the end of the day it wasn't what I wanted to do anymore. I found writing for school or for other people took a toll on me and I decided to just write for myself.  So I learned a lot from research on the internet and from reading books and mimicking story styles."

Stories only you can tell

"When I switched from writing about teenagers who lived in cities to teenagers who lived in the Arctic within small towns, suddenly my stories found an ending. I found a way to create a story that had meaning for me and happens to have meaning for other people."

Aviaq Johnston's comments have been edited and condensed.