The “solid part”

  • Lesley Choyce (Editor), Theresa Meuse (Editor) and Julia Swan (Editor)
    The Mi’kmaq Anthology Volume 2: In Celebration of Rita Joe. Pottersfield Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Keavy Martin (Author)
    Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer Hardwick

In her poem “The Solid Part of One’s Identity” Rita Joe writes that “The solid part of one’s identity / Is communication.” Joe’s words get to the heart of The Mi’kmaq Anthology Volume 2, which is dedicated to her memory. The book is a follow-up to 1997’s The Mi’kmaq Anthology, which was edited by Joe and her colleague Lesley Choyce, and it furthers Joe’s great wish “that there will be more writing from my people, and that our children will read it.” Like the original anthology, Volume 2 both highlights and complicates the “solid part” of Mi’kmaq identity.

It is important to note that “solid” does not necessarily connote rigidity. The essays, poems, traditional stories and autobiography in Volume 2 clearly show that the Mi’kmaq people share a unified language, culture, and in many respects, spirit. However, their identity is built of innumerable experiences and ideas, and the texts show a great deal of diversity. The works touch on a multitude of subjects—governance, land, death, residential schools, friendship—and are alternately infused with pain and joy, struggle and celebration. They highlight a nation that is as complex and adaptable as it is unified and rooted. At times, the pieces in the anthology are so diverse that it is hard to shift from one author to the next; for example, moving from Marie Louise Martin’s imagery-laden poetry to Marie Battiste’s personal essay on education and activism feels somewhat jarring. However, once past these initial moments of transition it is easy to see the connections that tie each piece together—relationships to land and family, resistance to colonization, appreciation of and commitment to the lasting value of traditional teachings, and a struggle to find the best way forward as individuals and as a people. Together, the pieces that editors Theresa Meuse, Lesley Choyce, and Julia Swan have gathered offer a nuanced and thoughtful depiction of the multiplicity and complexity of the Mi’kmaq people’s “solid identity” communicated in their own words. It is a fitting tribute to the life and legacy of Rita Joe.

In her book Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit LiteratureKeavy Martin also grapples with the difficulty of locating, depicting, and engaging with “the solid part” of a peoples’ identity. Martin seeks to examine “the ways in which Inuit texts adapt to new contexts and, in doing so, powerfully challenge the academy to rethink its own ways of being.” To do this she mixes analysis of unikkaaqtuat (traditional stories), songs, and inuusirmingnik unikkaat (life writings) with discussion of Inuit nationhood and Inuit knowledge (also called Inuit Quajimajatuqangit or IQ), and personal anecdote about her experiences as a non-Inuit southern scholar working to understand Inuit ways of knowing. As with The Mi’kmaq Anthology Volume 2, the material in Stories in a New Skin is both startlingly diverse and deeply connected; Martin’s exploration spans historical periods and touches on the social, political, cultural, linguistic, and economic. For those who are unfamiliar with Inuit life this can be overwhelming, and readers will likely have to go back and forth through the text to keep track of history, concepts, and people. However the disorientation serves a purpose—readers are forced to trade western and southern ideas about genre, linearity, and even literature for Inuit concepts in order to engage with the material offered. Martin is a great guide for this work; her translations of Inuit words and ideas manage to be clear and understandable without being overly conclusive, and she chooses sites of analysis that are both accessible and challenging for unfamiliar readers. She is the first to acknowledge that reading Inuit literature through the lens of literary criticism is not unproblematic, and that it is impossible to offer a comprehensive overview of such a rich literary tradition (if that term is even appropriate). However, she does offer an excellent introduction to the topic, and asks questions which will guide the reading of Inuit literature for years: what would a truly Inuit form of literary criticism look like? How can southern readers engage with Inuit literature in a way that acknowledges its connections to land, family, spiritual life, and community? How can readers come to embody its lessons?

Ultimately, Martin’s book shows that communication—in a variety of forms—is central to the “solid part” of Inuit identity, and that this identity (much like Mi’kmaq identity) is not easily definable. Thankfully, as Martin notes “the stories are there to guide us.”



This review “The “solid part”” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 167-69.

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