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Split Tooth

by Tanya Tagaq

As a vocalist and composer, Tanya Tagaq cares little for conventional rules of engagement. An Inuk artist from Iqaluktuutiaq, Tagaq’s performances are innovative and face-meltingly intense, and she has collaborated with a wide array of music’s weird geniuses from Björk to the Kronos Quartet. It’s no surprise, then, that Split Tooth, Tagaq’s literary debut, defies categorization. Formally identified as fiction, it is in fact a thick braid of lived experience, philosophy, poetry, and traditional knowledge.

To unpack Split Tooth’s labyrinthine structure in a single review is a challenge. On its most straightforward level, it tells the story of an unnamed adolescent girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s, although this time frame is communicated only through subtle clues. Tagaq instead foregrounds the inherent timelessness of a place that seasonally cycles between 24-hour day and perpetual night: “Life pops forth brightly and death is a soft exhalation … not so much living and dying as glowing and darkening.” This view of time as cyclical rather than linear is key to the story and is alternately grounding and disorienting.

In much the same way, by moving seamlessly between traditional stories and the central narrative, Tagaq effectively frees readers from the shackles of reality. A story of Sedna the Sea Goddess, for example, provides a counterpoint for references to the seismic testing that began in Nunavut in the 1970s. Panarctic Oils conducted a series of surveys at this time using dynamite along the coast north of Clyde River. The following spring, hunters noticed devastating effects on the local wildlife: they found that the seals were deaf and had pus oozing from their ears. As Split Tooth’s protagonist puts it, “Humans have damned themselves and it has nothing to do with Satan, it has only to do with greed.”

In the traditional Inuit story, Sedna, who comes from a time “before Christianity … when the land was our lord and we were her servants,” was killed by her father and sank to the bottom of the sea. Sedna’s father cut off her fingers; the spilled blood formed into organisms that helped her live under water. In her disdain for humanity, Sedna would hide sea creatures from hunters and fishermen, causing widespread famine, unless she was placated by Shaman. “What will Sedna do when she hears the seismic testing?” muses Tagaq’s protagonist.

The destruction of Inuit land in pursuit of profit is only a fraction of the picture here. In the scene that follows the tale of Sedna, Tagaq brings issues of northern food insecurity sharply into focus. The protagonist’s despondent assertion – “Another day another dollar” – is a capitalist slogan; she relates her daily duties stocking shelves at the Nunavut Northern Store with typical teenage malaise: “I smell a thousand hands, toss a thousand sighs into empty boxes for disposal. Wipe off dusty fingerprints from expired cans of whole chickens. We sold out of Klik.” This sullen tone, however, belies her deeper function in her job: “Turn your head the other way if the shoplifter is too thin. Many hugs. Heartfelt greetings … We shuffle down the aisles and take stock of the community.”

This juxtaposition of the banal with the harrowing is one aspect of the theme of interconnectedness that runs throughout Split Tooth. In Tagaq’s vision, life and death, tenderness and violence, everyday existence and the spectacular spirituality inherent in nature are one and the same. This philosophy is often expressed in soliloquy-like speeches by the protagonist:

I can recognize darkness because he is my brother, my maker. I can drink lightness because it is the only way to survive. The lightning comes from below this time and rips out of my throat for the world to see. They all see my rabbit and I have trained her to hunt. In her perfect glory she is shy and extroverted, chaste and perverted, my sweet near-death more alive than ever.

What is striking is how deeply appropriate this approach is for a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Adolescence is a time of vast emotion and practised detachment – an opening of perception that is empowering and terrifying all at once. Young women are coming to understand themselves as sexual beings and – as with the rabbit in the passage above – as both predator and prey. There is the beginning of an understanding of their place as part of nature – which is both agony and ecstasy. It’s in this context that the sections in Split Tooth cast as poetry feel most at home:

Love me. There is still a child inside. The shaking rabbit.

Cleanse me. Wash the blood off. I am still working. I survive still. I am stronger now.

Worship me. I am boundless. I stood up. I am worthy.

Though the protagonist’s coming-of-age story, generously and lovingly documented by Tagaq, is the anchor, Split Tooth is not a book that can be fully absorbed in one sitting. It’s possible to sink deeper and deeper into the narrative with each successive reading. Like a smirking teenager, Split Tooth blithely gives typical literary expectations the finger, daring us to see and experience narrative as chaotic, emotional, and deeply instinctive. And it succeeds.