Drawing on both lived experience and cultural memory, Norma Dunning brings together six powerful new short stories centred on modern-day Inuk characters in Tainna. Ranging from homeless to extravagantly wealthy, from spiritual to jaded, young to elderly, and even from alive to deceased, Dunning’s characters are united by shared feelings of alienation, displacement and loneliness resulting from their experiences in southern Canada.
In Tainna—meaning “the unseen ones” and pronounced Da‑e‑nn‑a—a fraught reunion between sisters Sila and Amak ends in an uneasy understanding. From the spirit realm, Chevy Bass watches over his imperilled grandson, Kunak. And in the title story, the broken-hearted Bunny wanders onto a golf course on a freezing night, when a flock of geese stand vigil until her body is discovered by a kind stranger.
Norma Dunning’s masterful storytelling uses humour and incisive detail to create compelling characters who discover themselves in a hostile land where prejudice, misogyny and inequity are most often found hidden in plain sight. There, they must rely on their wits, artistic talent, senses of humour and spirituality for survival; and there, too, they find solace in shining moments of reconnection with their families and communities.
I dislike short story collections because they are like riding a children’s roller coaster, many ups followed by many downs with not real excitement anywhere. In my view, an author who compiles a collection of short stories has copped out on many levels: stories that were not going well, so they just needed termination as quickly as possilbe; stories in which the author lost interest or got bored; stories that just didn’t work; lousy stories that they author didn’t want to just dump into the wastebasket. Short story collections don’t work for me.
Tainna doesn’t work for me either but it was awarded the “Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction”…which must mean something. I am not so sure. Many in our society today bend over backwardness to acknowledge and compliment anything relating to a minority group, be they Indigenous, Black, Asian, disabled, whatever. It’s as if belonging to a minority automatically bestowed on them the label of “exceptional” or “excellent” or “above average.” Just because it originates with a minority does not inherently make it special. It is like an employer I know who was hiring and one candidate was Black but had average credentials compared to superior ones with other candidates. The employer agonized over the Black rationalizing that he would be carrying on any racism or bigotry experienced by the candidate by rejecting. Fortunately for the employer the decision was taken away when the Black was hired elsewhere.
The point of all this is that the written work is not good just because it was written by a member of a minority or because it deals with minority issues (injustices?). Given all that, lets assume all the check marks were checked in the criteria for the award. Belonging to a minority should not be a criteria. Social equality is universal. Minorities belong to the whole not to a part.
Lets get back to the book
The author deserves credit for revisiting and confirming the stereotypical views about Indigenous held by many in Canadian society: drunks, drug users, traffickers, homeless, jobless, prostitutes, street people. Their numbers meeting those criteria may be disproportionate but that disproportionately does not deserve the repetition it is given throughout the collection. That’s the bad.
The good is the writing, in many areas. The author is adept at engaging the reader, at drawing out empathy and sympathy from the reader. One can’t help but feel sorry for how life has evolved for many characters in the stories. The abuse and mistreatment they have suffered is not justifiable, nor should it be. One wonders about the rationale behind so much emphasis on the negative aspects of their lives. Say it, point made. Now stop picking at it like a scab healing to a dry protective layer but being scratched to open the wound again. Why? The wound is there. Scratching away its healing layer does nothing to alter its original infliction.
Some of the stories engage but that engagement is subjective, relative to the personal views and biases of the individual reader. Some of the stories are attractive and interesting, more because they are well written rather than they have anything in common to be shared mutually by many readers. Reading about Indigenous folklore, traditions and myths about their ancestors is colourful and engaging. It definitely brings colour to the stories but the stories themselves seem to move from sadness to morose and more base. There is no tale of resurrection and glorification based on ancestral glory. The collection is one that seems to ride a wave of “we’ve suffered injustices, we’re hard done by, feel for us but we’re going on.”
In my view, this is not an uplifting book of short stories at all. If that is how it was intended, it succeeds and may deserve the award it received.