Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth (2018)

In Short presents a 300-word and spoiler-free summary, intended to have a broad appeal; In Detail focuses on one aspect of the book which I found remarkable, which might interest those who have already read the book or those with an interest in the mechanics of writing; In Other Words contains links to thoughts on the book by other Shadow Jury members.

In short

When a musician steps off a stage and onto a bookshelf, everyone has expectations. Tanya Tagaq’s literary debut carries that weight of responsibility to listeners and readers: those who have heard her lyrics and those who have read other stories

Split Tooth emerges in a time and place where more people are espousing to want to understand the experiences of indigenous people and this is a story Tanya Tagaq feels compelled to tell, a story of trauma and loss .

Dedicated to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and to the survivors of the residential school system, here’s a woman who turns to art to address (and work to redress) a massive historical injustice.*

Literally, too, given that the illustrations of Jaime Hernandez are scattered throughout the volume, with the author’s thanks following the text: “for his uncanny ability to see what my dreams look like”. And dreams are important in this work, emerging from a culture which recognizes the power that these visions can contain and transmit: they are described in vibrant detail.

So there are mythic creatures swimming in open water, but also best girlfriends who communicate via paper airplane in science class.

There are wolverines and char, seals, rabbits and foxes. And there is pumpkin pie and caribou meat, and also muqtak and uujuq. “There are ten dried ptarmigan stomachs hanging from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments.”

And “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”.

The relationship between predator and prey is prominent in the work, and the question of balance and imbalance that simmers beneath that relationship and all the others described in this work is key to hearing Tanya Tagaq’s story:

“Sound can heal.
Sound can kill.”

*In detail

There is a lot of disorientation which accompanies readers’ engagement with this story. To begin with, readers who have no/little familiarity with the indigenous experience may find that their expectations are dramatically subverted by the raw recounting of a girlhood with some moments of tenderness and beauty but many more moments of harsh mistreatment.

The narrative voice challenges stereotypical indigenous representations. Other writers deliberately introduce characters who recognize the ways in which they, themselves, diverge from expectations. Like Riel in Louise Erdich’s Shadow Tag, for instance, who is self-aware in a novel which also positions the themes of vulnerability and violence at the core of her narrative:

“Indians wore powwow clothes all of the time and could talk to animals. Riel had to wonder why she couldn’t do any of these thngs. Maybe she could train herself. It could come in very handy to be an Indian, after all.”

Rather than being inherently and intuitively attuned to the natural world around her, the young girl in Split Tooth has not received traditional wisdom from an adult/elder and does not know how to interact with a nest of snow buntings she and her sister discover on the tundra. (In fact, she really does not know: this story ends very badly for the birds.)

Even these painful stories are often depicted in beautiful, spare language. (Julia Demcheson translates one small part of the story from Inuktitut as well.) And, of course, Tanya Tagaq is a songstress.

A songwriter can inhabit the role of poet and mythteller, which shapes a different kind of relationship with time.

Stories told in verses are not expected to be linear in the same way that stories told in chapters and bound and printed are expected to hold a shape (maybe not an arc, but a shape, a recognizable shape, one that readers believe they have encountered in stories in the past).

So once Split Tooth is bound and presents as a work shelved with the novels and short story collections (rather than with the illustrated volumes, whether coffee-table sized collections of artworks or comics), the idea of its author shifts along with readers’ expectations.

The perspective in this volume is all over the place and the concept of time is not only non-linear but seemingly shapeless. So the work is presented like a narrative but is not structured like one.

Take an observation like this, a child’s experience of violence between a couple, out-of-sight but not out-of-sound:

“Their love for each other was indistinguishable from the hate they felt for themselves. Sometimes children see more clearly than adults.”

In a song, in a lyric, even in an image, the child and the adult can inhabit the same time and space, so that a witness can observe the legacy of the past in the present.

But a work of prose that throws down an anchor in time, which whispers of another form and another shape, complicates the relationship between writer and readers with narrative expectations.

So, in this instance, for example, because the narrator is not clearly situated, readers fumble to orient themselves towards her. She is not-knowing enough to fully interpret for readers, because the sensory details are presented as though experienced by a child witness, but she is too-knowing in another way, stepping outside of the child’s experience to offer commentary that could not have been expressed in that time.

Because readers cannot locate themselves fully with either the child or the adult (who has experienced and who now remembers), the act of witnessing is fragmented, the full power of the pain not fully received.

These longer prose pieces in Split Tooth which are rooted in a specific time and place have a whisper of the raw emotion which characterizes books like Evelyn Lau’s Runaway (and Kim Thuy’s Ru, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina and Shay Youngblood’s Soul Kiss).

But the clarity exists in isolation without the sense of a shaped narrative (even one not shaped to satisfy traditional narrative arcs) to provide some sort of mooring for readers (in the absence of the author extending some other sort of invitation, affording readers the opportunity to connect in other ways).

The pieces, which are suspended in time, and the pieces which have no relationship to time: these are powerful and evocative, and complicated emotionally but not structurally. These others would, perhaps, have been better presented as lyrics, as songs, or, even in a bound volume with more white-space on the page than text.

In other words

Links to reviews from the other Giller Prize 2018 shadow jury members: Alison, Kim and Naomi (links live when available).

This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill.

On October 1st, five other books were advanced to the shortlist and one of those will be chosen to win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety.

2018-11-28T15:41:06+00:00

One Comment

  1. annelogan17 November 26, 2018 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    Great review! I was disappointed this didn’t make the shortlist, but I can see why it didn’t. As you pointed out, readers expectations will be difficult to manage with this one. her performance/reading from it was fabulous though!!!

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