Welcome to another riveting Indigenous Month installment whereby we do you the great service of raising your anthropological IQ. What’s that you say?
But I don’t want to celebrate diversity. I’m only interested in people who look like me and think like me.
What? Seriously? Alright, sonny, put down that joy stick, pull up a chair, and say hello to Aviaq Johnston, an Inuk writer from the farthest reaches of Canada’s north. You want to talk native? You want to talk indigenous? You want to talk original American? She’s a direct descendant of the first daredevil humans to walk across the Bering Strait connecting Asia (now Russia) to the Americas some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. Rather than heading to the warmer climes of Florida or Argentina, a few hearty souls stayed way up there by the Arctic—and those are Aviaq’s kin.
Hannah Hohman, a stellar Foreword editor and reviewer, caught up with Aviaq via email to ask a few pertinent questions about Those Who Run in the Sky, Aviaq’s recently released young adult novel that reads more like a mythical legend describing demons and monsters, young shaman and pet polar bears. We love the symmetry of a conversation between an author and the reviewer/critic who spent the hours reading and writing about the book, even before it was released to the public. In fact, we like that author-reviewer face off so much, we’ve revamped Foreword This Week to feature new interviews every Thursday.
Check out Aviaq and Hannah’s conversation below.
Your descriptions of Inuit culture aren’t overly detailed, as if readers might have some familiarity with the life and times of the Inuit, their tattoos, and so on. Will you talk about some of the early decisions you made in deciding how to best tell this story to a young Western audience?
My earliest thought was that I wanted to write a story that I would have enjoyed when I was growing up. This meant that the story was to be written for Inuit youth first and foremost. I wanted to represent my culture in a way that immersed the reader within an Inuit community. Putting the notion of familiarity with the culture and relationships throughout the story allows for readers to understand the way a community worked, and still works to this day. There is a strong connection to each other, while also a strong sense of working to thrive through hunting and relying on one another. I wrote it as descriptive as I felt was needed, but if I were to go deeply detailed and literal it would read like a textbook. My story is a taste of the old ways and culture of Inuit, and readers always have the handy internet and libraries at their fingertips if they would like to learn more.
You did a beautiful job interpreting mythical creatures and stories that have long existed in Inuit history. How did it feel to make these myths your own? Were there constraints that might not be apparent to readers?
There are so many different versions of Inuit legends and creatures across the north. I stayed as close to the version of the creatures I heard about growing up, but in a couple of ways I was also inspired by cartoons I watched as a child. When I was writing about the giant that Pitu encounters, I was thinking of the Abominable Snowman from the Loony Tunes. With all the different versions of creatures and stories in Inuit history, I didn’t feel constraints in terms of making them my own. I’ve been telling stories about Qallupilluit, the women who live in the ocean and steal children, since I was eight years old. Growing up, I struggled with my identity as a young Inuk (singular term for Inuit), because of my mixed heritage. I never felt like I was enough to be a part of my own community. However, I had a strong connection to Inuit stories and legends, and this helped me bridge the gap I felt in myself. Making the myths my own was another way for me to stay grounded within my culture, community, and identity.
The spirit world that Pitu is swept into is filled with demons and terrors. Is this reflective of Inuit spiritual beliefs?
Yes, the terrors are very much so reflective of Inuit spiritual beliefs. Historically, Inuit believed that every living thing had a soul, and souls had to be respected in order for you to live a good life and to have a peaceful afterlife. Traditional Inuit beliefs are that there are several forms of the spirit world, and I happen to only write about one of them. As well, Inuit legends are typically scary and a little bit gory. Our stories were created to prevent children from doing dangerous activities, such as ice hopping or wandering off alone on the land. From these stories, taboos were also created, and these taboos ensured that people were treating the environment and animals with respect, or else the spirits will become angry. Basically, Inuit traditionally used fear as one of their tools to create people who are thoughtful and well-rounded.
The wizened old shaman that Pitu meets in the spirit world is a fantastic character. Readers might draw the conclusion that he offers Pitu a frightening vision of his own future should he remain trapped. Can you talk about the relationship and how the shaman enabled Pitu to complete his own journey?
Elderly characters tend to be my favorite in any book I am reading, and grumpy old men are usually my most beloved favorites. The old shaman does show a scary future, but it isn’t necessarily Pitu’s future. Throughout the story, there are themes around Pitu turning to dark spirits, and Pitu remains confident that he will always be a responsible man and ultimately a good shaman. He maintains his fear and caution of his new powers as a shaman and of spirits. The old shaman offers Pitu a look at the corruption that comes with great power. This reinforces his own feelings towards staying true to himself and being comfortable in who he is and in his wisdom.