Tanya Tagaq can’t stand the heat. It’s the first week of September and every single body in Toronto is soaked from yet another wave of humidity. Tagaq stands in the doorway of the restaurant where we’ve met to discuss her first book, Split Tooth, and shakes off the heat, her body silhouetted against the sun-bleached street. “I don’t know why any Inuk would live here,” she says, joking – but not – and leaning in for an unapologetically damp hug. “I can’t wait until it’s minus 20.”
A short while later we’re cooling down with booze-free spritzers. The release of Split Tooth is just a few weeks away – after we speak, it will be longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize – and Tagaq is shook for the first time in forever.
“I’ve had 17 years of wordless expression,” she explains, referring to the sensuous throat singing (“my weird ass music!”) that marks her as one of Canada’s rare renegades. “Music has been a protector. My inner self isn’t out. It’s protected by the fierceness – my gown, my makeup – and scaring away anxieties or pain. This is a completely different thing. It’s scary…” She swears. "I can’t drink until the book comes out because I don’t want to be interrupted physically, mentally or spiritually from anything that’s about to transpire. That’s how important this is to me.”
So, this is not a crossover artist memoir. What Tagaq offers with Split Tooth is a still too rare glimpse of the inner lives of young people, particularly girls and women, living in northern and rural communities.
She speaks as if the book were a gamble, but Tagaq is basically a professional risk-taker. In addition to recording four studio albums, including 2014’s Polaris Prize-winning Animism, she is a painter and actress, performing in the 2009 short film Tungijuq. She’s also the mother of two girls. And the intellectual mission that anchors her life’s work bubbles, like the cool alert of fizzy water, through Split Tooth, which was culled from scraps of poetry, dream journals and observations jotted down over the past 20 years. “All of my work is about inching public discourse toward government change,” she explains. “Revolution happens by garnering public opinion, [and] we’ve made a lot of gains in my generation.”
Split Tooth is a short mythobiography about a teenage girl living in a small Nunavut community in the 1970s, where, she writes, “the air is so clean you can smell the difference between smooth rock and jagged.” Tagaq’s music is intensely corporeal and so is her writing. She grew up reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s awed realism, to get “an idea of the formalities that didn’t exist in my culture.” In Split Tooth, blood is in the air and on the ground, bringing both fear and comfort. Creatures and natural phenomena are anthropomorphized and figure alongside the archetypes of bildungsroman: beleaguered parents, loyal sidekicks, mean girls, local drunks, the crush. Time passes in cycles of 24-hour sunlight and 24-hour night. Tagaq’s poetry and prose are sometimes punctuated by guileless humour and, more often, the violence perpetrated by people and nature. Split Tooth is Tagaq’s story, “but it’s also not.”
“This book was written for my own heart, and because I’m Inuk – because I’m an Indigenous woman – I’m assuming others will find alignment with it,” she explains. “But also, whoever wants to feel these things, to heal from it or get insight into what it feels like to be an Indigenous woman, it’s like right on.”
Although the pages are set with simple line illustrations by Jaime Hernandez, Split Tooth bears no resemblance to the current fad for trite, decorative poetry. While reading, I mostly thought about Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, a novel that also takes a Dadaist approach to regional folklore and mythology. Emezi and Tagaq give voice to the spirits of their traditions, Igbo and Inuit respectively, and tell unsettling, transcendent stories about the violence licking at the heels of girls growing into adulthood. Both sets of spirits serve compassion and menace; they push back and decolonize the flattened representations of complex traditions.
Tagaq grew up with the story, “That if you whistle at the Northern Lights, they’ll look down and see your mouth and cut your head off and use it as a football,” she says, laughing. “So kids would whistle and sing at the Northern Lights and run away, scared.” In Split Tooth, Tagaq’s aurora borealis commits a truly human sin. “A lot of cultures acknowledge darkness without it being evil, because through truth and acknowledgment people reap change,” Tagaq says. “I’m worried that people might take my version of this myth as traditional, but I guess that’s not my fault if I can’t write a fictitious book.”
She’s referring to the widespread assumption by critics and readers that the writing of non-white people and women is often pure autobiography. Sheila Heti, speaking about her novel Motherhood, recently described this as “not given the respect of being a craftsperson … making deliberate choices.” Moreover, in developing a mainstream cultural canon, outsiders have shaped aesthetic and moral narratives of Indigenous peoples. Tagaq points to the 1922 film Nanook of the North, and we briefly discuss Inuk writer Mini Aodla Freeman’s vital 1978 memoir Life Among The Qallunaat, which was initially suppressed by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Like any other art form, says Tagaq, “literature has been infected by the long arm of colonialism.”
This insistence on documenting the amoral calamity of nature and the immoral rot of humanity has made Tagaq the target of a variety of zealots, from vegans to racists. And while elaborating on the darkness inhabiting Split Tooth, she also hedges against tone policing from her own community: “In Nunavut as well, you have to acknowledge that sexual abuse is rampant, because people were horrifically abused in residential schools. You have to openly talk about it in order for people to think, ‘This is not good.’”
Tagaq’s emotional intelligence is aspirational. It’s the pathological prompt behind her music. Developing this story – including the audiobook, which she performs to a whimper – and transcribing that instinct into words might be the most difficult thing she’s done. “Now people get to judge my intellect, which is terrifying,” she says.
And then, again, Tagaq dissolves the discomfort with an observation of how weird it is to be human. “It’s like if you spend a long time working at being comfortable going topless in public, and then all of a sudden you have to take your bottoms off!” She says with a laugh. “It’s a different feeling.”