Before COVID-19, the Governor General’s Literary Awards ceremony took place each year in late November, held in the peppermint-striped ballroom at Rideau Hall, the GG’s official residence in Ottawa, ON. While the ceremony itself is very formal, the reception afterwards is a lively affair, buoyed by giddy authors unused to seeing each other in black-tie attire.
As the 2021 winner of the GG award for English-language fiction, Norma Dunning is hoping that this year’s event will be rescheduled for the spring, if only for the opportunity to shake Mary Simon's hand. In July, Simon was sworn in as the 30th Governor General of Canada and the first Indigenous person and Inuk woman to hold the position.
“I have met her at conferences, she used to speak on behalf of Inuit education quite a bit,” says Dunning, who in addition to her writing career, is a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB. “She has always worked on behalf of the Inuit. Most of Canada does not recognize that.”
Dunning received the prestigious $25,000 award for her sophomore story collection, Tainna: The Unseen Ones (Douglas & McIntyre), which weaves Inuit mythology with contemporary stories of Inuit who reside in the South and whose lives have been overlooked in many ways. It’s been a busy few years for Dunning: Tainna followed the release of Dunning’s poetry collection, Eskimo Pie: A Poetics of Inuit Identity (BookLand), which came out in 2020, and her debut book of stories, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, published by University of Alberta Press in 2017 won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for that year.
Dunning speaks to the IAQ about her writing, winning a major award, mentoring writers and her own career:
Inuit Art Quarterly: You have been acknowledged for your work before. Does winning the GG feel different?
Norma Dunning: Oh, yes. This is Canada saying, “You did a good job, Norma Dunning.” It's huge to have that kind of validation and that kind of recognition.
IAQ: Will this award change how you approach your writing career? How do you balance that with your professional teaching duties and everything else that you have going on?
ND: People will talk about how they're a disciplined writer, writing from six in the morning till 10, or something like that. I don't have that kind of discipline. It’s when I have the time, and if it means that I'm laying in bed at two in the morning thinking about it, I get up and write. We always catch up on sleep eventually.
Often it's just finding the time somehow. This past semester has been really hard because I have 125 students in three classes. But next semester, though, I will only teach one class, and then I'm writer-in-residence for the Edmonton Public Library.
IAQ: Has winning the GG resulted in more invitations for festivals and events?
ND: Even before the award, I was invited to the Shuswap Association of Writers’ Word on the Lake Writers' Festival (April 29–May 1, 2022). And I can hardly wait for this one: in June, I go to Lisbon, Portugal. It was set up for 2020, but then the world shut down. They do pop-up readings—they drive you someplace and you just stand and read. It’s really cool. Then in September, there's a small town outside of Paris, and every other year, they hold an international festival called Festival America.
Annie Muktuk was translated into French by [Montreal’s] Mémoire d’encrier last spring. When she launched in Quebec, she also launched in Europe, and has done incredibly well. That same publishing group made offers this week to translate Tainna and to buy the French rights. Eskimo Pie should be out this coming week in France, too, it's so wonderful!
IAQ: It must be so nice to have two books out now at the same time and showcase both your poetry and your short stories. I'm curious about whether this was a move from one form to the other, or how you decide to tell your stories?
ND: I will always write poetry first—my second collection will release next April. Right now I'm working on a nonfiction book as part of my two-book deal with Douglas and McIntyre.
I have it in my head that I have to publish every year—I’d better become disciplined! It’s been many years of writing. I think one of the things that readers don't really recognize is the amount of work and time that goes into creating one manuscript and how you write and rewrite, and then it goes to an editor, and after you've written it 100 times, they come back with more edits. But I've been very fortunate having good people support my work.
IAQ: Do you think that publishing at this point, later in your life, that your experiences give you more insight and confidence to tell the stories that you want to?
ND: I've always mentored writers, I've always had somebody or a group of people that I'm working with. And I think that people 40 and over, have so very much more to give. But people, often in their own heads, assume, “Oh, I'm too old to publish. I'm too old to go to university.” Don't limit yourself like that. So a part of my work as writer-in-residence with the Edmonton library is to form a group of poets who are over the age of 50. We are going to call ourselves the Near-Dead Poets Society. I've asked for some time during the Edmonton Poetry Festival for all of us to sit and write together and then perform a couple of poems each.
As we age, our voices diminish, our visibility diminishes. It’s almost like we start to become invisible. I don't think we should let that happen anymore.
IAQ: How did Tainna come together? Are these stories that you expect to be read collectively as a narrative, or as individual pieces?
ND: It was all based on Inuit who live in the South. I want that visibility for us. Part of it is based on how the Inuit that I know in the South are taken, and the very odd questions we have posed to us. We're supposed to be able to answer them with a straight face! When you identify as Inuit, you become different. You’re no longer just the student in the room or the lady who lives next door. Now you're something else. I don't think we measure other ethnicities the way Indigenous Canadians get measured.
“Do you speak your language? Do you practice your traditions? Do you eat raw meat?” People are always trying to put you into the position of proving yourself. And that's very unfair. What I tell my students—because I do teach some Indigenous students—is that when people question how you look, or whether or not you can speak what should have been your mother tongue, just ask them quietly, “Why are you asking me that?”
We have to shift the power in the conversation. And it's not being confrontational, and it's not being rude. It's just an honest question.
IAQ: How does writing help you shift that conversation?
ND: I think I bring issues forward that are very uncomfortable for the mainstream. I want them to think about spousal abuse, think about missing and murdered Indigenous women, and about the child-welfare system for Indigenous children and mothers. I hope people spend time with it.
This interview was conducted by IAQ Deputy Editor Sue Carter. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.