Home » Author Interview: Norma Dunning
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“I am an Inuk writer who does not write about the happily ever after because that has yet to occur for Inuit Canadians. The Alberta book community has allowed my voice to not only be spoken in print but to be heard and has given me a sense of home. I lived away from Edmonton for one year and discovered what it is like to not have people recognize me as a writer. When I moved back to Edmonton it truly was a homecoming for me because of the community of Alberta writers and publishers who have rallied around my work and who welcomed me back with supportive hugs. I’m never leaving home again.” —Norma Dunning
Dr. Norma Dunning is a writer as well as a scholar, researcher, professor, and grandmother who lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Her first book, the short story collection, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories (University of Alberta Press, 2017), received the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story and the Bronze for short stories in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. She is also the author of Eskimo Pie (Bookland Press, 2020), a collection of poetry and an Alberta bestseller. We sat down with Dr. Dunning to chat about her latest book, Tainna: The Unseen Ones (Douglas & McIntyre, 2021)
You are a professor, you’ve written an impressive amount of peer-reviewed content, and you have worked as a lead curriculum developer. How does your creative and literary writing fit in with your academic work?
I wrote Tainna while I was writing my doctoral dissertation. I always have to have something creative going on in order to keep at my academic work. If I’m not writing or working on something creative, something that is in opposition to academia I don’t feel well. I feel off and writing my own stuff without citations or memorizing social theory or research methodologies and having to lecture on those concepts enhances my creativity. I feel like my creative thinking adds balance to the academic because I know that I’m not a linear thinker and that my mind spins away into different realms and it is that creative part that feeds the academic part. It’s how I am able to have balance inside of myself.
What drove you to write Tainna?
I am southern born and raised and yes, I am a beneficiary of Nunavut. I receive a great many highly racial comments when I identify and at times I can find it all very ridiculous while also very sad. Unfortunately, Inuit are often thought of as a somewhat happy yet simple people but we are brilliant and sophisticated. Inuit women remain exoticized and at the same time treated as less-than which eliminates all of our hard work and successes. When I wrote Tainna I was thinking about the many thousands of Inuit Canadians who live beyond the tundra and the reactions that are issued to us daily and how very wrong it all is. I was also thinking of poverty and the very dark side of southern life which is rarely exposed. I thought it was time to bring that reality forward.
Why is this book important?
Tainna talks about all the things that no one wants to hear. Tainna takes you into the gutter and makes the reader think about racism and poverty and colonialism at its shiny best but Tainna also makes you think about love and acceptance and the beauty of our ancestors who never leave us and keep us here still.
Who are you trying to reach with Tainna? Who is your ideal reader?
Tainna is for everybody. She’s my third girl and she struts and she upsets people and hopefully she makes people have a good cry and then a big smile.
How long do your characters sit with you before you begin writing about them? Do they change after they meet the page?
My characters move in with me. They sit at my table and watch TV on my couch and when I wake up they are standing over me telling me to get up and get busy—they have stories to tell! I love them and they are very real for me, when they hit the page, it’s all them—no changes. I can see them in my head. I know what they look like. I know the nuances that are their movements and their crooked smiles. I know how they smell. The characters are very real but their stories stay inside of me for a very long time before I write them. They write their stories, I don’t.
In 2018, you won the Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction for Annie Muktuk and Other Stories. How does Tainna fit in with this book, and how are the two books different?
Receiving the Danuta Gleed Award validated my words, my writing, my work and everything that I had kept hidden in drawers for years. Stories that I loved writing but didn’t put out into the public because I didn’t want all the hurt and criticism that comes with publishing. With Annie I had more than my fair share of hurt and criticism and then the Danuta Gleed Award came along and took that big boot that had been drilled into my gut out of my stomach and made me stand tall again. I was living in Victoria and when I received the email the evening the award was announced I called my youngest son who lives in Vic and we went out and celebrated—and not at a Denny’s! Ha ha.
Annie Muktuk and Other Stories was an honouring of my Mom and her life. Tainna is an honouring to all Inuit who live outside of their land claims areas and who face modern-day life with humour and tenacity and with the strength of the giants that we are.
The character Annie Muktuk (from your first book) is revisited in Tainna and there is a sense of resolution. But is there more in store for her? And are there any other characters in Tainna whose story you are itching to get back to?
I loved all them but had a special love for Ittura and Chevy Bass. I liked that they could be beautiful spirits with the best of intentions but at the same time were protective and strong towards those who they loved. They became the ideal man but in spirit form. I don’t know if Annie and I are done with one another. I don’t think so. She’s the one who shows up unexpectedly and without an invitation when I’m out walking or buying groceries and I do ask her, “What do you want?” so I think she may just keep making an appearance in my writing over and over again but I love her and will never refuse her.