What’s Foreword Face Off? Glad you asked.
Here at Foreword, we’ve long craved to know more about the authors of some of our favorite indie books but the pace of magazine publishing always kept us moving on to the next book, next review, next feature story.
Then we had the idea of reformatting this weekly newsletter to facilitate an intense Q&A between the author of a fantastic new indie title and the reviewer who wrote the review for the pages of Foreword Reviews. Voila!
So say hello to Carolyn Marie Souaid, author of the incredible Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik, and Constance Augusta Zaber, Foreword reviewer extraordinaire. The Face Off conversation is below this week’s Special Features and Featured Reviews.
One of the things that struck me while reading Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik was the way in which your use of language, which managed to be both spare while also deeply emotional and bodily, evoked not just the physical depiction of the North but a real sense of place which is developed between land and people. Can you speak to your understanding of the relationships between language and sense of place, between cultural identity and the land?
One of the advantages of writing a novel is that the canvas is much larger than the canvas of a poem, which allows for the rich and comprehensive packaging of a world. Novelists can afford to wander off on tangents, spend an entire chapter describing the mole on a character’s face or the texture of a particular kind of snow. The thing is, some gap will always exist between language and place. The task before the novelist is to shrink that gap as much as possible, to cultivate the most accurate relationship between those two variables, which is what I attempted to do.
One thing I wanted to explore in this novel was the evolving narrative of place and belonging. I chose to depict it using the contrasting languages of the land and of the city, the languages of silence and of noise, of purity and impurity, of simplicity and clutter. As a girl from the suburbs, Yasmeen fantasizes about living across the river in Montreal, where people wear high heels and a purse over their shoulder and are constantly on the go. Later, as a young woman who’s just come through a bad breakup, she becomes disillusioned with the big city, which she equates with dirt, noise pollution, and crumbling infrastructure. What now draws her is the unspoiled quietude of the North, the vast, unobstructed sightlines of the tundra.
Because she embraces it without reserve, I was hyper aware of my relationship to language as I was defining her relationship to the land. I paid close attention not only to diction but also to sentence rhythms. In the early pages, descriptions of the land feature sweeping, all-encompassing cadences and beautiful images of the untouched landscape. As Yasmeen’s relationship with Joanasi erodes and she falls out of love with the land (in the segment called Thaw), her attention focuses away from the pristine beauty and onto the detritus—the diapers and rotting carcasses and cigarette butts poking through the grey slush of spring. I divided the novel into four sections – Rain, Snow, Squall, and Thaw – as a chronological marker of her year in Saqijuvik. Not only did it make sense structurally, it provided a kind of shorthand—using the language of the seasons—by which to convey her evolving (and devolving) relationship with Joanasi and with the North.
I was also interested in Yasmeen’s rejection of her Middle-Eastern culture and how she chooses to replace it. She hates the traditional cultural values she’s been raised with and yet she’s attracted to a strikingly similar set of beliefs when she gets involved with Joanasi—producing babies, staying home, subservience to a man. They have a potent sexual relationship, which she begins to accept as the only genuine connection between a man and woman. Her physical connection to him gives her a sense of belonging and she transfers this onto the land. She embraces the hardships caused by inclement weather and the difficult terrain. She allows the physical geography of the North to shape her attitudes and identity until she becomes “more Eskimo than the Eskimos,” to quote her professor. In this way, the novel traces her journey from the “sand desert” of her Middle-Eastern roots to the “snow desert” of her adopted culture, two very different but very similar deserts. Of course, eventually, she rejects the second desert too. Her complicated relationship with Joanasi, echoed by her shifting relationship to the land, reminds her why she left home in the first place.
As your protagonist Yasmeen, a newly licensed teacher from the suburbs of Quebec, arrives in the isolated Inuit community where she’s been posted to teach, she reflects on what she sees as her responsibility: “she made sure her intentions were pure, a far cry from previous generations of whites who came north to effect change but who had brought dysentery, smallpox, and tuberculosis instead, decimating entire populations.” At this point Yasmeen appears to be more optimistic, almost romantic and naïve, than her more experienced colleagues but over time she’s confronted with a more complicated, at times violent, reality which brings her closer to the cynics. How intentional was this evolution for you? Was this the story which you wanted to tell from the start or did this element develop as you worked?
Very intentional. I knew from the start that I wanted to tell the story of a young, idealistic woman whose appetite for adventure takes her to an “exotic” place—in this case, Northern Quebec. I was interested in tracing her physical and emotional journey as she tries to erase the cultural differences between herself and the Inuit people. From the beginning, Yasmeen is convinced that she is nothing like the other Qallunaat (non-Inuit people from the South), past and present, whose interactions with the local population are informed by colonialism either directly or indirectly. Yasmeen believes she can have a loving relationship with Joanasi—a man who has one foot in the traditional past and the other in the modern world. He is knowledgeable about the land and how to survive on it. (Note: the “inside” joke that only native speakers of Inuktitut will catch is that Joanasi’s surname, Maqaittik, literally means “one who goes out on the land.”) He knows how to build an igloo and how to hunt for his food. He is a good provider and a surrogate father for his siblings. He is a compelling storyteller and holds down a regular job at the village radio station. In her mind, he is the ideal Inuk. Being with him, she feels she can shrink the immense divide between the cultures; she believes with every fibre of her being that in intimacy all differences are erased and that from there, genuine acceptance of the other is possible. In some ways, it becomes her mission to prove to the other teachers (and to herself) that her intentions are pure; that in no way is she guilty of inflicting the colonial practices of the past. What she doesn’t recognize is that Joanasi is flawed, as all people are. She turns a blind eye to these flaws because he is necessary to her; he is her subject, like the hamsters in her eighth grade science project that she tried, unsuccessfully, to train. If she “gets it right,” she proves her theory that Whites and Inuit can intersect as equals (note here the underlying racism in her thought process). But her inability or unwillingness to acknowledge his faults—he has an alcohol problem and a violent streak—leads her into dangerous emotional terrain.
The element I introduced in the later drafts had to do with Yasmeen’s character itself. Initially she was a young Syrian-Canadian woman running away from her mother’s overbearing traditional values—girls don’t have unmarried sex, girls get married and raise children, etc. Yasmeen isn’t a virgin but she is fearful of her mother and hides her social life from her. Then I realized that the more compelling story would be that of a strong feminist going up north, someone who would never accept being a stay-at-home mother while her husband goes to work. I began to focus on the emotional arc of a feminist whose erotic desire for a hunter changes her profoundly, leading her back to the traditional gender roles she previously rejected: man as provider, woman as submissive. With Joanasi, she embraces an intense physicality that includes providing for his sexual needs at his whim, birthing and breastfeeding a houseful of his babies, eating the raw flesh of the animals he hunts. As the story progresses, so does her appetite for this way of life. But eventually the competing (irreconcilable) forces within her come to a head and she understands that continuing down this road will only lead to disaster. Unlike her alcoholic father, Yasmeen pulls back before she loses her way entirely. I liked this parallel with her father, which developed as the story grew—how they both “play with fire” in their own way, although the father lets it kill him while his daughter eventually gets a grip and saves herself. (Note: Their shared surname, Haddad, is “Smith” or blacksmith in English: one who heats with fire to shape and hammer metal.) What Yasmeen has in common with her mother is the fact that she too has chosen an alcoholic partner, but what saves her is her decision to be pro-active and choose a different ending for herself.
So much of Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Moqaittik explicitly grapples with concepts of identity, particularly insider/outsider identities, whiteness, and colonialism in North America. These are the kind of issues which I think many authors are so nervous to take on that it can stifle their writing. Was this something which came up for you in your writing? Were there moments throughout the process of bringing this novel from early drafts to a published work where you found yourself having to be consciously aware of how your own identities related to your work?
This novel was thirty years in the making, so these weren’t just issues I began to think about in the last couple of years. The story had been percolating ever since I returned from my three-year teaching stint up there. Initially I couldn’t write anything about the northern experience because it felt like a betrayal of the people I had come to know. I had so much material and yet I was paralyzed. Five years after I returned, in 1990, I gave it a first go, in a creative writing class, writing and publishing a short story called “Men of Stone” which was essentially the template for this novel. In the early 2000s, CBC Radio contacted me. They were looking for 13 minutes of new poetry for a series they were doing called “Home & Away.” The poems I produced for that show ended up being the start of a book called Snow Formations, which focused on the intersecting worlds of White and Inuit people. But neither the short story nor the poetry, I felt, did justice to the subject. I needed the larger canvas of the novel to further develop the themes I was interested in. In 2013, I wrote what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft” during a seven-week writer’s residency at The Banff Centre, and then I picked at it for another few years.
When I wrote “Men of Stone” and Snow Formations, there was little talk of cultural appropriation and so the only worry I had was general aesthetic criticism. But with the Joseph Boyden controversy (for more information, see: https://thewalrus.ca/why-is-joseph-boydens-indigenous-identity-being-questioned/) and recent public debate around who is allowed to tell a particular story, I was nervous about how my novel might be received. Sending out the manuscript, I was striking while the topic was still being hotly debated. Several publishers rejected it—some asking me, “Isn’t it time to hear the Indigenous story?”; some reprimanding me for cultural appropriation (even though it’s clearly evident that I’m telling the White story). Others accusing me of both at once, although I am not at all sure how that is possible. Either I’m guilty of pilfering the Indigenous narrative or I’m guilty of perpetuating the White one. It can’t be both. I feel that some of these publishers, while doing due diligence to put a stop to cultural theft, were also going overboard, trying to protect themselves from overly zealous critics who have probably never even met an Indigenous person. Frankly, it would be disingenuous to set a novel in the North and omit any reference to alcoholism, substance abuse, and violence. Publishers such as mine (Baraka Books), who refuse to allow excessive political correctness to cloud their judgment, make it possible for all voices to be heard. For me it has always been clear that I am writing about the impact of colonization on a culture. Each of my characters, in one way or another, has been shaped by the aggressive assimilation policies of past governments. This is a culture whose babies were stolen from them in the 1960s for adoption by White families, a culture whose children were forced to go to residential schools, where the clergy mercilessly abused them, a culture whose sled dogs were slaughtered by the Canadian RCMP in the 1950s in an effort to force them into a sedentary lifestyle. People who misread the book will accuse me of cultural stereotypes without acknowledging that the White characters—the misfits and Mother Teresas and money-makers who go north to work, collectively known as the 3 M’s—are not necessarily portrayed in a positive light.
Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Moqaittik is set in the mid-1980s, which I suppose is technically far enough back to describe it as (near) historical fiction. I personally have a love-hate relationship with historical fiction as I find that in setting the period it’s easy for authors to go overboard to the point where the setting becomes intrusive, overshadowing the story. On the other hand, when I read books like Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik, where the period is so smoothly woven into the work, I find that there’s something powerful in the possibilities which the genre has to offer for how we understand our contemporary society. From the point of view of craft, how important was the time period for you in telling this story and how did you approach it? Returning to your exploration of difficult questions of culture and identity, are there freedoms which historical fiction allows a writer in dealing with issues which are so relevant and painful in our own contemporary time?
Even while I was writing poetry, I always connected to what Canadian writer Mordecai Richler (Barney’s Version, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) said about wanting to be an honest witness to his time and place. In this case, I wanted to be an honest witness to the Northern Quebec of the 1980s because that’s the period I was familiar with, having lived and taught there. Communities in the North have evolved a great deal since then and setting the story in the 2000s would have required returning there for research purposes. Given the high cost of travel—it costs between $2500 and $3000 to fly from Montreal to a village north of the tree line, which is still in Quebec!—it would have been next to impossible to do this. I would have had to rely on the Internet and telephone or email interviews for information. Today, for example, Nunavik has airports, flush toilets, and indoor swimming pools, which was not the case in the 1980s. One tool that helped me enormously with the writing was the detailed journals I kept while I was there.
Although the infrastructure in the North has improved since the 1980s, many of the themes and issues I deal with peripherally in the novel remain unchanged. Some have even worsened—consider, for example, overcrowded housing, the high rate of suicide, increasing substance abuse and domestic violence, the high cost of living, the lack of social and mental health services, and a widespread feeling of hopelessness. I recently read that the difference in life expectancy between the Inuit and the average Canadian is thirteen years.
The difference between then and now is that the public has become more educated about these issues, and so they have moved to the forefront in the contemporary collective consciousness. Back in the 1980s, such painful issues were less front and center, but they did inform the behaviors of the people. I had to keep this in mind as I wrote, hinting at them rather than addressing them directly as the story unfolded. This wasn’t really a freedom I afforded myself as a writer as much as a desire for accuracy.
Let me give you an example: One issue I deal with in the book is the negative impact of residential schools on those who attended them. However, because the full extent of the tragedy was relatively unknown to the public in the 1980s, I had to present it in a way that was true to the times. In the novel, the character of Paulussie is a victim of the residential school system and his life has been shaped by his experience there. In one scene, he alludes to that period in his childhood. He is drunk. He is staring off into the void. In an early draft, I had Yasmeen reacting to his memory as a contemporary woman would have, slamming the priests who might have molested him. Every time I came to this part during the revisions, it felt untrue. I understood I had to find a way to suggest residential school to readers without labeling it “residential school” because naming it would have been more appropriate to a book set in 2015. Back in 1983, when I lived there, I never heard a local Inuk mention residential school; it was always just “that school” or “those days.” As well, their recollections were ambiguous, so an outsider was hard put to know what, exactly, was behind the emotion.
Lastly, what are you working on now?
I currently work full-time as an academic counsellor to Inuit students attending college in Montreal, so this has cut into my writing time in a big way. Prior to that, I worked as a substitute teacher to give myself the freedom I needed to work on my writing projects. Now what I have are brief intervals of time during which I have written a few short memoir pieces and some poems. I’m also toying with an idea for a novel set in the 1970s. But that’s still in its infancy. Since I gave myself thirty years to write the first one, I feel like I’m right on schedule.
Constance Augusta Zaber