“Yasmeen Haddad loves Joanasi Maqaittik”
JQ: The novel is primarily set in Saqijuvik (population 346), a fictional, remote village in northern Quebec. There is a beautiful image described towards the end of the novel, at which point Yasmeen says that from a certain place in Montreal, it seems that the whole of the city can fit inside the palm of her hand, but that in Saqijuvik, she could never fit the expansive landscape in her hand that way. What is it about Saqijuvik that makes it such an extraordinary stage where the story takes place?
CMS: The proliferation of new films set in the Far North is a testament to the visual spectacle of Northern Quebec (now, Nunavik). Simply put, it is stunning. I wrote my novel with film in mind: I wanted the action to play out against the striking Arctic landscape and I wanted this setting to take on a significant role in the narrative. I wanted it to be so in-your-face – despite its quiet stillness – it almost becomes a character itself. The land is huge, beautiful, immeasurable, unpredictable. The human eye can’t take it all in, and there are variables that cannot be controlled—the weather, for example. But Yasmeen believes with every fibre of her being that she has what it takes to grasp its complexity, in the same way she thinks she can get a handle on Joanasi, her lover, a man with a vastly different culture and worldview.
Let me back up for a minute. North of the 55th parallel and accessible only by air, Nunavik boasts roughly 507,000 square kilometres of wild tundra, taiga forest, mountain, river, and lake. Roughly 12,000 people inhabit the 14 communities dotting the Hudson-Ungava coast. Although I wanted my story set there, I didn’t want to anchor it in a specific village for fear that readers might construe the fiction as truth. I asked an Inuit friend to invent a place name that would evoke the changing world of the contemporary Inuit, a locus where tradition and modernity would battle it out. From the Inuktitut, Saqijuvik means, “place where the winds are shifting.” This is one of the main themes of the book—how the Inuit have fared in the aftermath of contact.
When she first arrives in Saqijuvik, Yasmeen is attracted to the unspoiled quietude, the vast, unobstructed sight lines of the tundra. She embraces it without reserve, the way she embraces Joanasi. She embraces the Inuit values of using what the land provides for food, shelter, and clothing. When she is deeply in love, her relationship to the land is equally passionate. She sees only the pristine, unblemished landscape. As her relationship with Joanasi deteriorates, her feelings for the land take a hit. She begins to see only the detritus—the diapers and rotting carcasses and cigarette butts poking through the grey spring slush.
What Yasmeen wants all along is the “perfect Inuk,” one able to live in the modern world while preserving his culture and traditions. In fact what she discovers is a flawed man; and when she does [spoiler alert], she gives him up. Likewise, she gives up Saqijuvik and returns to the city she knows and understands, the dusty, noisy, predictable world of nine-to-fivers—a city she can fit in the palm of her hand.
JQ: Would you categorize the novel as belonging to the tradition of the bildungsroman (a work dealing with a person’s formative years or spiritual education)? Yasmeen acknowledges that during her tenure in Saqijuvik, she was edified and humbled by the people and the land, but she returns to Montreal disillusioned, with spirits rather abject. What did she learn during her eight months in the North, and how did these lessons affect her; what might be next for Yasmeen Haddad?
CMS: That would be an accurate characterization of the book. Yasmeen’s father, a forward-thinking Syrian-Canadian, has educated her about the value of education and curiosity. He taught her about the American astronauts and the European explorers, and raised her to believe she could do anything she put her mind to—the sky was the limit. When, as a young woman, she finally chooses Quebec’s Far North as a destination, she goes with a pioneer mind-set; she is seeking out a new frontier like the astronauts and early explorers in her father’s bedtime stories. She’s a teacher, but she is also a student hungry for knowledge. She intends to learn everything she can about the Inuit inhabitants, which also means integrating into the community. She is loath to adopt the colonial mentality of previous Qallunaat (people from the “South,” mainly Whites) who have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to cultural genocide in their efforts to introduce “progress” and/or “improve life” in the North. Upon arrival, Yasmeen is drawn to the beauty of the landscape and the resilience of the people who live there. She intends to use every opportunity she can to immerse herself in the culture, and she is harshly critical of her colleagues and other resident Qallunaat, who spend their time judging the Inuit by Western standards and falling back on unfair comparisons and generalizations.
Her relationship with Joanasi is the outward manifestation of her desire to connect with the new culture. She welcomes and even initiates their rough, passionate sex. In her words, she wants “their bodies intersecting on the bed and never coming undone.” She wants to “seal the space between them until it [is] non-existent.” She is serious about trying to bridge their worlds, and believes it is possible. Meanwhile, as the story progresses, Joanasi is beginning to drink more and more, and his rage is building.
Yasmeen’s eventual disillusionment is partly tied to her disillusionment with her father, her childhood hero, whose reckless drinking finally killed him (he is already dead at the start of the novel). She has begun to understand that if she continues down her own reckless path with Joanasi, if she stays with him, she will be destroyed in the process. The only possible solution is to end the relationship. Of course, this makes her a stronger person than her mother, who, like many immigrant women of her generation, stayed in the marriage no matter how bad things got. At the same time, Yasmeen sees this decision to pull out as a failure on her part to connect with the culture of the “other.”
The flashback portion of the novel (Yasmeen’s year-long adventure in Saqijuvik) ends with the dissolution of the relationship, though there is a lack of closure on her part. She doesn’t know what she will do next. Can she be an effective teacher to anyone? With this failure in her repertoire, what does she even know about the world? She is wistful and nostalgic. In the final bookend scene, a return to the beginning of the novel where she encounters the homeless Inuk in a Montreal park, she is finally able to let go of the North and hopefully move forward with her life.
JQ: You mentioned the “western standards” that pervade the attitudes of Yasmeen’s colleagues’ vis-à-vis the Inuit community. Supplied with a few years of experience, Elliott professes his “insider knowledge” about the residents of Saqijuvik. He regularly discusses their systematic, historical, and even genetic shortcomings. Contrarily, the individuals belonging to the local community refrain from exteriorizing judgement. I suppose the question, if it can be called that, I am arriving at concerns silence. The Qallunaat, like the metropolitan regions they are from, are constantly abuzz with talk and gossip, whereas the Inuit appreciate the stillness and quietude of silence. How does silence, or the conversations not had, function as a mechanism in the stories? In the bookend scene that you describe in the previous answer, Yasmeen says that that before (Saqijuvik), she would have bombarded the Inuit man with questions, but instead, she simply sits with him. What lessons can silence impart?
CMS: When I lived in the North back in the 1980s, it was common for students to visit their teachers after school. Usually mine would arrive unannounced, sit on the couch with their parkas still on and eye me curiously for a lengthy time, without saying a word. They watched me cook, correct, wash dishes. At first it made me uncomfortable. Eventually, I figured out that the Inuit speak when they have something important or necessary to say. They don’t seem to experience our discomfort at being around someone else when we have nothing to say. Nor do they resort to small talk about the weather, for instance, to ease the awkwardness around silence. There is no awkwardness. They say what they have to say in the moment. When finished with a conversation, they will utter the word “taima” (“done”) and walk away or hang up the phone. There are no niceties sprinkled around to stretch out the chat or eradicate the void. In keeping with this practice, radio in the North allows for moments of “dead air,” something that would make radio producers down south cringe.
The contrast of sound and not-sound was a kind of shorthand I used to tell the story of the two cultures and places. Yasmeen adjusts to the silence of her new surroundings. She learns to be with people without talking incessantly. When Yasmeen returns to Montreal for the Christmas break, the jabbering city noise grates on her after all those months of quietude and simplicity and interacting with people in an authentic way. She is irritated by the “cavernous” airport terminal, the family banter, and the car radio “veering off the station into static.” The city is a place of constant distraction. The snow-draped, silent North is as it is, unembellished. This is what she learns in her short year away. Talk is not always essential. Sometimes it prevents us from living in the moment.
JQ: What is (are) the role(s) of educators from “the South” who assume pedagogical responsibility in the North?
CMS: Before answering this, let me explain the educational infrastructure that is currently in place in Nunavik. It helps explain what is expected of non-Inuit teachers, like Yasmeen, who decide to head north. Briefly then—
After the 1975 signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (first major comprehensive land claims agreement in northern Canada), a lot changed in Nunavik. Health services were restructured, regional governments were established and an Inuit-controlled school board was created. Since the 1970s, Kativik School Board (now Kativik Ilisarniliriniq) has been mandated to develop and deliver educational programs and services to all 14 Nunavik communities. In keeping with the Board’s primary goal of protecting, maintaining and developing the Inuit language, culture and way of life, the first language of instruction is Inuktitut, with English and French as its second languages. The curriculum includes the usual subjects (math, science, history, art, etc.) but culture classes, taught by the locals, provide an opportunity for students to learn about their culture and traditions. Boys learn how to carve, build igloos and sleds, while girls learn how to sew parkas and sealskin boots. A unique teacher-training program also exists to train locals who want to become teachers. Generally speaking, classes are small enough – nothing over 15 – for children to get one-on-one attention.
People who accept a teaching position in the North understand that they are not walking into a traditional western school, although it certainly looks like one from the outside. They understand that they have to make their content pertinent to the lives of the students in their class. This involves a willingness to adapt their materials or create new ones that are relevant. My first year in the North, when the Board was still in its infancy, I made nearly all my classroom materials from scratch. Since then, three decades have passed. Culturally relevant materials are more readily available to teachers.
Several issues complicate the northern educational machine: high rates of student absenteeism and lateness, for example. On a nice day, children are frequently pulled out of school to go hunting with the family. This means a teacher is left to teach a lesson to half the class and then re-teach it the next day. Since this is a cultural matter (eating off the land is healthier than eating overly expensive frozen foods from the Co-op), teachers from the South are asked to be accommodating.
But another factor is important to consider. The world is getting smaller. Nunavik is now connected to the rest of the world through satellite and Internet. Nunavimmiut (people from Nunavik) are part of the global community. As a result, more and more Inuit youth are deciding to pursue post-secondary studies after high school. Since there are no colleges or universities in their own communities, they have to leave the North, and this presents its own set of challenges: homesickness, culture shock, adaptation issues (e.g. large, impersonal classes where the teacher doesn’t know your name). Preparing them for the post-secondary experience means that from early on, students need to be educated in a way that is consistent with their values and traditions, but they also need to be exposed to what is going on outside their communities. Educators need to prepare them for the challenge of moving forward and becoming a player on the world stage (if they wish to do so); of achieving their full potential within the global context, without losing their unique culture and traditions.
Carolyn Marie Souaid is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently This World We Invented (Brick Books, 2015). She has performed at festivals and literary events in the U.S. and Europe as well as Canada, and her work has been translated into French, Arabic, Spanish and Slovenian. Blood is Blood, a videopoem she produced with Endre Farkas, garnered a top prize at the 2012 Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Her poems and stories have appeared in several magazines, including The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and the Literary Review of Canada, and have been featured on CBC-Radio. Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik is the Silver Medalist for Best Regional Fiction (Canada East) given by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. She lives in Montreal.