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Author of the Month

To thine own selfie be true

Joan Naviyuk Kane has always defined herself first and foremost as an indigenous poet. No longer
King Island, crowned (Photo: Ansgar Walk)

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Author of the month
Joan Naviyuk Kane

Selfie of the artist as a young woman

From the publisher
In her fourth collection, Milk Black Carbon, Alaskan poet Joan Naviyuk Kane writes of the dispossession and survival that mark the contemporary experience of many indigenous people, but of Inuit in particular. ... Kane is also the author of The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, Hyperboreal and The Straits.

From the book

The Dolls
There is another old story:
the women’s bodies were bent in toil, 
they worked very hard.

A woman would dance very hard like a man.
Acting like men, they would strut like men.
They pretended to be whatever we could conceive.

Ice pressure ridges were forming all around us.
Pressure ridges were building with great intensity.
I felt quite shy about it too,

from times long ago, beyond memory.

Uniplaaguruq samma suli:
Pigitpaktaqtut aġnat,

Aŋutitun sayuapaaqtuq aġnaq
Aŋutitun ilipłuni, sayuapaaqtuq aŋutitun.
Suŋuaqtuanigliqaa piraqtut. 

Iuqpaktuk aqqataani.
Tavra Kanŋuzukaluaqłuŋa tuaq,

isaaq imam qaŋasaq.

This is the third instalment in an on-going Author of the Month series, in which we highlight the author of a current Arctic-related release, or an author with a body of work relating to the region.

If you google ‘Joan Naviyuk Kane’, among the first pictures that come up is a selfie (see image, below right.) The picture seems to date back to 2010, but it is an appropriate depiction of the approach Ms Kane, a poet, has taken in Milk Black Carbon, her fourth published collection, released in February. 

According to the publisher’s description, the poems take up a range of personal topics, including “motherhood, marriage, extended family and its geographical context in the rapidly changing Arctic”.

SEE RELATED: Born to be Greenlandic

Ms Kane hesitates on the question about whether this means the poems are autobiographical, but then settles on an explanation: they contain autobiographical details, but they are about more than just her. As for the person in them, she is not someone who exists outside of herself.

“The thing about poetry is that I can use it to get as far away from myself as possible. In that respect, I’d say they are about the self that I wish that I had constructed,” she says.

An Iñupiat, Ms Kane tells the story of the Arctic through her poetry, but, as she explains it, she is not writing a travelogue. The Arctic, rather than a thing to be described, is something that is there: in the background, overshadowing, underscoring. It is a place where everyday stories unfold.

A native of Nome and long-time resident of Anchorage who has studied in Boston (Harvard) and New York (Columbia), Ms Kane admits that the Arctic is a place that contains her history, rather than her past or her present. In spite of this, she explains that it has defined her as a poet, and not always of her volition.

“Until now, I haven’t always felt I have the right to write about something normal – about putting my children to sleep in the city while the snowploughs drive by,” she says. “This was especially apparent in my first book, in which I was preoccupied with establishing my legitimacy. I had this feeling that, if I wasn’t writing about the Iñupiat experience, then why was I writing at all?”

SEE RELATED: Thanks to Millie, the language has not been lost

Perhaps not so ironically, settling in as a writer independent of her background has occurred at the same time as she has gained confidence writing in Iñupiat, a language she learned from her mother, though only imperfectly, given her detachment from the culture it arose from.

Ms Kane’s family arrived in Nome after leaving King Island (Ugiuvak) in the 1960s. She was born in Nome, but grew up in Anchorage. Prior to 2014, she had never been to King Island.

“Before the first time I went, I was told I would understand so much more of the language and the King Island dialect once I had been there. I didn’t believe it, but it was true. Being there gave me a glimpse of what I couldn’t understand growing up in a town.”

She tries, through her own efforts and her mother’s, to expose her children to Iñupiat. But she recognises that what was a struggle for her may be futile for her them. Thrice removed from the generation that lived on King Island, it may be too far in their past for them to ever really understand the language spoken there, even if they become fluent.

“When they ask my mom about words, it is always words from their world, like ‘airplane’. Traditional food and hunting are absent from their lives, so how can they ask about the words to describe them?”

SEE RELATED: Adopt-a-language

One might assume that writing books like Milk Black Carbon, which in a few instances, has both English and Iñupiat versions of poems (see example at right) is a way for Ms Kane to leave something of the language behind for her children. She herself is uncertain this is the point.

“I’ve written it for myself, certainly. Them? I don’t know if they’ll read it. If they don’t, it won’t be because they don’t understand the language, but because the words are irrelevant to them. If they do read it, it won’t be because we’ve taught them the language, but because they feel a part of the culture.”