Looking With and Beyond the Words in Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth

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Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

“Breathing with the Land, giving energy back into the earth, that is survival. Plug my body into the Nuna and soak her up, give her back love” (Split Tooth, p. 131). In a time of intense and ongoing resource extraction, Inuit artist, throat singer, and author Tanya Tagaq’s novel Split Tooth (2019) offers a perspective of life that dwells on the relationship between people and land in the northernmost part of Canada. The novel uses fact and fiction, prose and poetry, Tagaq’s own journals, Inuit legends, and dream-like visions, and invites readers to visualize the icescapes of the Canadian High North in their imagination while guiding them with descriptions and drawings from Chicano Comic book author and illustrator Jaime Hernandez.1 As the distinctions between, for example, prose and poetry, become fuzzier, the novel’s imagery becomes more poignant. Tagaq approached Hernandez to illustrate her book for, as she credits him in her acknowledgements, “his uncanny ability to see what my dreams look like” (Split Tooth, p. 193).

Scholars who work on text-image-relations, especially the usage of photographs in memoirs, have attested a voyeuristic, exposing quality to this medium, as it often functions as a type of revealing, witnessing, ‘factual’ material.2 Opposed to exposing or factualizing the descriptions, Hernandez drawings, however, are almost like gentle companions to Tagaq’s powerful words.3 The illustrations are like an invitation to think with instead of beyond the written word in Split Tooth. Ranging from illustrations showing laughing children to a skeleton, the land(scape) and its features are omnipresent.

Tanya Tagaq: Split Tooth. London and Toronto: Penguin 2019.

In Split Tooth, the Aurora Borealis are a central part of the story and play a key role in imagination, vision, dream and legend. They are described as mighty, among other things, because of their stunning prismatic colorful visuals, their sounds and their spiritual power. A night in the cold, for example, shows them flickering in the sky, when finally, “the Northern Lights grow larger still and begin to morph into faces, blurry, omnipotent, healing and death-dealing” (Split Tooth, p. 57).4 While this description of the Northern Lights overtly encourages us to think of them not only as meteorological phenomena, the drawings in the novel do not supply any of these characteristics at first glance. Instead, the monochromatic black and white of the drawing melt into the page, and we can use our imagination to think with both Tagaq’s description and Hernandez drawing.

Other times, readers are reminded to think about the impacts of colonial encounters in land. The dedication of Split Tooth reads “For the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and survivors of residential schools”; bearing this in mind, the book illustrates the harsh realities that are not only defined by the meteorological climate, but social climate as well. Split Tooth gives space to funny elements, mesmerizing landscapes, and their distinct features in comic-style illustrations, as well as to topics such as environmental racism, residential schools, domestic and sexual abuse, drug usage, mental illness and suicide. As Tagaq puts it in a reading of the novel (see below):

I just wish I could give everyone a little piece of what it feels like to live there and be there [the Canadian High Arctic, Nunavut Territory], and the Resilience of Inuit and who we are and how we live…5

Readers are thereby not only encouraged to visualize what it means to live in the Canadian Circumpolar North, but also what it means to bring forth the resilience to survive cold winters and encounters shaped by centuries-old hierarchical racist power relations. Current scientific research in the Arctic reveals, just like Split Tooth, that this is not a holdover from a colonial past, but an ongoing struggle: Indigenous knowledge is, most of the time, deemed less valuable in scientific practices.6 Tagaq’s prose widens this practice from knowledge production to the authority of seeing and observing. She questions whose authority it is to determine what is ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ and exposes colonialist double standards and absurdities, like in her description of a ship in the bay:

“There is an old debilitated ship across the bay, a reminder of the many failed attempts foreigners made to claim the Northwest Passage. I have never understood why foreigners will imagine themselves extreme adventurers while the stewards of the land observe with a chortle. We have always been here. Aren’t we adventurous? How presumptuous it is to assume than an experience is limited to your own two eyes” (Split Tooth, p. 117).

In Split Tooth, Tanya Tagaq thereby creates a nuanced picture of the landscape of the Canadian High North as both a cultural visualization and a case-in-point textual example for a powerful blend of media and modes of writing, visualizing, and imagining. It refuses to create something to gaze at but becomes something to look with because of its hybrid form; it raises questions that go far beyond aesthetic concerns. The multitudes of visualizing the life of the Nunavut Territory in Split Tooth, either as an image in comic style, in legends, myths, dreams, in poetic descriptions of the icescapes or in warnings about the lethality of the cold, bring forth multiple possibilities for interaction, interpretation and reflection. Here, referring to ‘Visual Cultures’ does not have to mean feeding the reader or observer with ‘actual’ images or visuals, but encourages them to visualize and imagine the icescape of the Circumpolar North as more than the space of historic of polar expeditions, western scientific practices and colonialist narratives. After all, experience is not limited only to (your own two) eyes.


[1] For information about Hernandez work on Split Tooth, a passage in this interview from 2018 deals with his creative process in illustrating the book: https://www.psychedelicbabymag.com/2018/06/an-interview-with-jaime-hernandez.html).

[2] The most prominent scholars here are probably Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. Both of them, among others, however also state that photographs do not necessarily adhere to these functions, as photographs can be staged, only show a small glimpse of a scene and/or only a momentum. More indigenous scholarship is added to the curriculum on photographs and/or text-image relations as well, as for example by Historian Ned Blackhawk (e.g “‘An Age of Pictures More than Words’: Theorizing Early American Indian Photography,” in Nancy Marie Mithlo, ed., Horace Poolaw: Kiowa Photographer, Yale UP 2014, p. 65-75), Artist Sherry Farrell Racette (e.g.with Crystal Migwans [who now goes by Mikinaak Migwans] and Alan Corbiere, “Pieces Left Along the Trail: Material Culture Histories and Indigenous Studies.” in Chris Andersen and Jean M O’Brien, ed., Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies, Routledge 2017,p. 223-229.), and Art Historian Heather Igloliorte (e.g. as co-editor “Promoting and Protecting the Arts and Cultural Expressions of Indigenous Peoples. Experiences of Misuse and Misappropriation, and Emerging Tools and Solutions”, Gatineau 2021).

[3] Ever since the groundbreaking success of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus. A Survivors tale” at the latest, comic books and graphic novels have proven to wide audiences to be a functional medium for narrating serious topics of only being a medium used first and foremost for comic relief (even when serious topics are narrated and mediated through e.g. satire, funny elements are a quintessential part of it) and laughter-evoking punchlines. Inuit comic artists are also using the medium for indigenous storytelling, for example, Napatsi Folger, whose comic “First Contact?” was published in Carousel Magazine in 2021; or Ningiukulu Teevee.  

[4] The Aksarniq (Aurora Borealis) are often featured as a mythological element in Inuit storytelling as it is said that the souls of the dead/human spirits dance and play ball, which causes the aurora to appear. See here for example Neil Christopher, Louise Flaherty, Larry MacDougall et al. (eds.): Unikkaaqtuat: An Introduction to Inuit Myths and Legends, Iqualuit: Inhabit Media 2012.

[5] “Split Tooth – Tanya Tagaq”, YouTube Video, 6:42-52, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHbJ12O5sJE.

[6] See here for example Sheila Watt-Cloutier, The Right to be Cold. One Woman’s Story of protecting her Culture, the Arctic, and the whole Planet (Toronto, London: Penguin, 2015); Pitseolak Pfeifer, „An Inuit Critique of Canadian Arctic Research“, Arctic Focus, accessed 23. January 2023, //www.arcticfocus.org/stories/inuit-critique-canadian-arctic-research/.

Feature image: The image shows green Aurora Borealis in the night sky over Iqaluit, photographed by Abishek Indukuri in 2016. CC BY-SA 4.0, via wikimedia commons: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:October_nights_in_the_Arctic_(2).jpg
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Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz

Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz is a PhD student in American Studies/Comparative Literature in the Excellence Measure "Disruption and Societal Change" (TU DiSC) at Technische Universität Dresden, Germany. She is writing her dissertation on ecocritical readings of Arctic ice in contemporary literature.

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