Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic by Sean A. Tinsley and Rachel A. Qitsualik

Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic
Sean A. Tinsley and Rachel A. Qitsualik
Illustrated by Andrew Trabbold
2011
191 pages, speculative fiction, indigenous

Many thanks to Inhabit Media for providing a review copy of this book, and to my mother for sending it to India as a Christmas present last year! 

This collection includes nine innovative speculative fiction stories that are inspired by traditional Inuit society and folklore.
To a degree, our point, in crafting these fantasy stories, was to draw upon Inuit culture and lore, writing original fiction utilizing the unique creatures and concepts that Inuit once (and, in some cases still do) fear or revere [sic]. Our main purpose, however, was to illustrate a sort of cosmological thinking particular to Inuit culture - a mystic tradition, if you will, that is not unlike the Arctic itself: barren to the superficial eye, yet filled with riches for those willing to fix a deep and non-judgemental stare. - Authors' introduction

“Elder”


Pigliq, one of the Humble Folk, is a poor sleeper – he can’t fall asleep properly, and his friend has to dream clothes for him. This leads to ridicule and complaints. But when his people awake from their latest slumber to find a terrifying new threat, it’s up to Pigliq to save them all.

Besides tapping into a fantastically unique race of humanoid beings from Inuit mythology, Pigliq’s unique plight – not being able to sleep, and therefore to dream – is compelling. He is considered disabled and is bullied for his differences from his peers, but in the end his "disability" is what allows him to fight when no one else can.

“The Qallupiluq Forgiven”


The Qallupiluq is a terrifying shapeshifter from Inuit mythology, who has the prerogative to kidnap and eat anyone who says its name.

This story was one of my favorites in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Anthology Vol. I.


“Oil”


Suqqivaa, as the elder of two wives, cooks and cleans and maintains the family's lamp while her husband wastes all of his attention on the younger wife. How did things come to this state?

In traditional Inuit society, the women of the family were in charge of large soapstone lamps fed with blubber or oil (video link), which were used for light, cooking, and drying clothes. Suqqivaa's job of feeding oil to the lamp is a central image in this story. How does she follow or flout women's traditional role? This story has a great twist ending that demonstrates Suqqivaa's self-sufficiency and creativity. This is probably my favorite story in this collection.

“The Final Craft”


One of the last members of an immortal race has created a machine that will save his people from their enemy, the Drillers. But in his last moments he turns his attention towards the humans, who have always worshiped his race. What will happen to them if he activates the Final Craft?

More science-fiction than other stories in this collection, this tale brings up a great moral dilemma: should the Gods save themselves, or should they save those who have always worshiped and relied on them? What makes a race worth saving? While there’s not much new material here, it was an enjoyable read.


“The Moon Lord’s Call”


The Animal Folk have been called to a gathering on the moon, and have sent four of the Bee Folk as their representatives. One, Tuki, is more foolish than the others – but she may be the one that can save them all.

This is one of several stories in this collection that deal with the Animal Folk, a piece of Inuit folklore stating that animals are also people and can even take on human form when necessary. The Animal Folk have a close connection with the power of the land. Using their special powers (or just their brains), the Bee Folk are expected to provide a solution to a puzzle that threatens the very makeup of the universe.

“The Wolf Wight’s Dirge”


A group of Wolves who had known Human form suddenly find their innua, or humanity, draining from them. While struggling to retain the little that is left, they go on a desperate search to discover the reason for this sudden reversion into normal wolves.

The descriptions of these constantly shifting creatures caught between wolf and human form are truly haunting. The reader feels the urgency, the desperation, that makes the pack track down the source of their despair. But their current condition does not come from their enemies: the source is much closer, maybe even within themselves…

“Slippery Babies”


Pilaaq, she is told, has been very sick for a very long time. Her husband is caring for her. She does not even remember when she wasn’t sick. Her fevered dreams have melded into reality so she cannot tell what is real anymore. And are those strange noises just in her dreams?

This was a terrifying story. At first, I liked that Pilaaq’s husband was caring for her; it was a nice moment of gender equality that I don't see often enough in literature. But then I realized that his “care” might be causing her illness, the source of which is truly frightening.

“Ghost Flesh”


When Saala arrives on a strange beach, food-less, tool-less, and in a stolen boat, he must struggle to survive. The beach is empty of life, filled with thousands of seashells and blockaded by impenetrable cliffs. How did he arrive here? And where is here?

This story has a great twist at the end that I did not see coming at all. You need to read it for yourself.

“Drum’s Sound” 


Kavinnguaq is the mute, adopted son of two elderly Angakkuq, or shamans. When his father dies, his mother is taken by some sort of dark creature. As the entire camp is slowly taken over by this menace, the young boy finds himself alone in the arctic wilderness.

This story explores the dimensions of emotional pain - an adult's and a child's - and what can happen to a whole community if it gets out of hand. The monster that takes over the camp struck me as a good metaphor for depression.

Loneliness 


Many of these tales convey a sense of loneliness (or alone-ness) and isolation, of living in a very small and remote community with only a few others. The characters have a sense of independence and an ability to take care of themselves if they are alone in the wilderness. In “Drum’s Sound,” for example, a small child flees his camp and lives by himself for several days. However, his actions are constrained by the emptiness of the landscape: the strange sickness has taken over his entire community, but he does not have the ability to travel to another one by himself. He is truly alone with no possibility of help from outside. This places him in a situation that is very different from the protagonists of much of Western speculative fiction (especially Tolkein-esque fiction), where there is usually an army or some other backup waiting in the wings to appear when needed. The crisis in this story is thus both more urgent and more accomplishable by one person.

This theme of loneliness also appears in stories about being the last of the characters' kind. “Elder,” “The Final Craft,” and “The Wolf-Wight’s Dirge” all deal with what must be very terrifying to people who live in small communities: something has placed the entire community in peril, and there is no way to solve it. I can only imagine how a small community would deal with something like that.

I highly recommend this collection of speculative stories. It is the best of what I look for in diverse speculative fiction: imaginative stories that engage with a range of ideas, emotions, and tropes from non-Western sources. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone who is interested in fantasy, or anyone interested in a different perspective on the "cosmological thinking" of Inuit culture.

Further Reading: 


"Storytelling" from Inuit Art Alive 
The Internet Sacred Text Archive has a few collections of Inuit myths that are in the public domain
Download "Never Alone," a videogame developed in cooperation with the Inupiat and based on their legends


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