Author: Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley
Publication date: 2014
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
A nomadic Inuit hunter, Kannujaq, happens upon a camp of the Tuniit people, who are under attack from fierce, bearded warriors from over the sea. Kannujaq must discover the camp’s history in order to help the people defend themselves; but in doing so, he learns that the invaders’ motives might not be quite as they first appear.
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What did I find out?
One of the book’s central characters is a young shaman boy, Siku, and I discovered a great deal about the different ways in which shamans lived and worked in that society. Because Siku is young, he is believed to have greater strength and be more connected to the Land (Nuna) than adult shamans; this makes him particularly special. We see him living alone, in relative privacy compared to the other camp members who inhabit large family dwellings; this is partly due to their fear and partly so that he has space to work his magic. As the story progesses, we discover that his mother is a shaman too.
I will be featuring shamans (of a sort) in my own novel, so this has been a fascinating study for me. The book has highlighted aspects of shamanism in this particular society, which I will compare with its practice in other cultures, and which I will take into consideration when planning my own characters. I am at the point in my writing where shamans are about to come to the fore, so this is very timely.
What do I now see differently?
The story of Skraelings is told by narrators who occasionally speak to us directly, commenting on the events taking place. Right at the start of the book, they highlight the differences between our world and that of Kannujaq: this is a story set in the old Arctic, over a thousand years ago, and they take pains to point out that things that seem perfectly normal to us would have felt very strange, if not incomprehensible, to Kannujaq.
Kannujaq, then, is presented to us as a strange, alien character – and yet we are clearly meant to see the world from his perspective as he encounters a people who are equally strange and alien to him. That we are able to identify with Kannujaq is down to the writers’ skill in describing his perspectives, thoughts and feelings; and by the end of the story, we even feel that we know the Tuniit and the invaders from over the sea. The strangers are no longer strange.
As my novel features characters who are also ‘strange’ (vampires, werewolves, ghosts etc), this is a particularly useful lesson to learn: I will need to ensure I focus on their humanity as much as (if not more than) what makes them different.
How will this inspire my writing?
In some way, everything I’ve written about above is either inspiration or learning for my writing: facts about shamanism; how to depict sympathetic strangers. But I had one more, completely separate, lightbulb moment. The book reminded me of an idea I had a few years ago for a (different) story, set in the frozen wastes and featuring a camp of people with their own peculiar customs. As with my novel, this story teeters on the boundary between medical science and fantasy, but whereas the novel falls definitively under the heading ‘fantasy’, I think this other story will remain deliberately vague. Or perhaps it’s sci-fi rather than fantasy?
I know that I’m also being deliberately vague in this description of it: that’s because it’s not fully formed. I started to develop it a bit more last year when I was attending a local playwriting group; so to some extent it has evolved in my head as a dramatic production. However, as I do want to write more short stories (see earlier posts!), this is a helpful reminder of one idea that it’s perhaps time to take out and dust down: in whatever format it chooses to emerge…
A musical interlude
I was initially tempted to assign People Are Strange by The Doors to this book, but then I remembered that I’d allocated it, retrospectively, to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from year 1 (you’ll see this if you’ve bought the book: the music tracks are in an appendix). So I had to find something else.
Given the short space of time I’d allowed myself for this blog post, my subconscious hasn’t had its usual freedom to noodle around and make connections, so I’m not entirely happy with this choice – but it will do. The ‘Big Country’ in this song does at least give me a sense of the Arctic wastes and Kannujaq’s wanderings, even if the country in question is probably Scotland rather than Canada.