Growing Up Inuk

  • Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley and Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley
    Why the Monster. Inhabit Media (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Aviaq Johnston and Toma Feizo Gas (Illustrator)
    Those Who Run in the Sky. Inhabit Media (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Hailing from Canada’s Arctic region, authors Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley and Aviaq Johnston know their land and their people—a truth that becomes self-evident when reading their respective young adult novels, Why the Monster and Those Who Run in the Sky. Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, an established writing couple, have published several retellings of traditional Inuit myths and legends. Aviaq Johnston, raised in Nunavut, is an emerging voice in Inuit fiction. Both of these novels feature a young male protagonist who must negotiate between his life as an individual and his responsibilities within his community, all while navigating the transition to adulthood. Although they take different approaches to telling their stories and exhibit two distinct styles, both books invite their readers in, not only to their stories, but to the Inuit communities of their narratives as well. Both weave Inuktitut language into their texts skilfully in order to pay homage but also to teach their readers, and their authors reveal intimate relationships with community in their descriptions of characters, places, and practices. These stories act as manifestations of the Inuit principle of Tunnganarniq—creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for strangers and family alike.

Aviaq Johnston’s first foray into the world of the young adult novel, Those Who Run in the Sky focuses on a young Inuk hunter named Piturniq (Pitu) who learns he is destined to become a shaman, like his uncle and grandmother before him. After being separated from his beloved family and camp, Pitu discovers that he has been transported to an alternate reality—the world of the spirits. In order to get home, he must rely on his shamanic intuition and his uncle’s basic teachings. Pitu is an engaging character. And while his situation is unique as an Inuit shaman, his human concerns are globally appealing and relatable. As a young adult, navigating the sometimes confusing shift from boyhood to manhood, Pitu struggles with his obligations to his family and his tribe, and also with his new role as a suitor to the beautiful Saima. How can Pitu negotiate his responsibilities within his community, his unexpected responsibility as a shaman, and his personal hopes and dreams for his own life? This question is central to Johnston’s novel. She encourages her young audience to recognize the parallels between their own lives and Pitu’s, while at the same time appreciating the specificity of a culture that, for many Canadian readers, is a familiar mystery.

In Why the Monster, the Qitsualik-Tinsleys create a quasi-parallel universe called “Sky Time.” This alternate reality includes “everything that was. And was not. Being. Non-being. . . . One living imagination, dreaming only of itself.” As I read the novel, I began to wonder if the Sky Time universe is actually just the same reality we all participate in, observed from a uniquely Inuit perspective. The story centres around Huuq, a misfit Inhabitant of the Land, who struggles to find his place and identity. Unlike Johnston’s Pitu, however, Huuq does not initially feel bound by a strong sense of responsibility to his community. Instead, Huuq takes pride in causing minor havoc amongst his camp as a means of entertaining himself. Huuq’s mischievous side eventually leads him to trouble, as he is transformed into a monster by spirits called Its. Huuq, like Pitu, is exiled from his camp after the shaman, Akiraq, decides it is not safe for him to stay. The young man must stand on his own for the first time in his life. I expect that many young adult readers, boys especially, will relate to Huuq. The Qitsualik-Tinsleys artfully present him as a simultaneously flawed but lovable character, wrestling with his identity and place in his world.

Readers of these books will be reminded that no matter our locations, humanity is linked by a universal struggle to understand who we are and where we fit in. Johnston fittingly employs straightforward, economical language, whereas the Qitsualik-Tinsleys tell their story in descriptive, poetic prose. As a secondary school teacher, I enthusiastically recommend both of these novels for young readers between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. In particular, I encourage teachers working with Indigenous students to incorporate these books into their syllabi, and share the important sentiments expressed by Johnston in her dedication: “[F]or Indigenous youth everywhere, you deserve a story where you can be the main character.” Indeed, both Johnston and the Qitsualik-Tinsleys, in the characters, content, and language of their stories, create spaces and necessary opportunities for Indigenous youth to step into the spotlight.



This review “Growing Up Inuk” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Jul. 2018. Web.

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