When Yvonne Harris taught at Nunavut Arctic College, or Silattuqsarvik as it’s called in Pangnirtung, an elder guest lecturer told her students a remarkable story of her forced marriage to an old hunter.
At that moment, the idea for Harris’ debut novel, Ashoona — Daughter of the Winds: an Inuit woman’s journey, was born. Now that novel has been released by Eschia Books of Edmonton.
The students, all young Inuit women, were interested in women and hunters. The story came out in the telling of the elder’s experiences on the land.
About her husband, Harris remembers her saying, “I hated his short neck, his squat body and the smell of him.”
Ashoona is the fictional retelling of that elder’s story to survive and thrive in a marriage to a man she did not love.
The story begins when 12-year-old Ashoona, who must wait two years to marry, is torn from her true love, 13-year-old James, and forced to marry the old hunter Qillaq.
As Ashoona travels with Qillaq across southern Baffin Island between Cumberland Strait and Foxe Basin, Harris presents the realities of Northern people in transition from traditional to western lifestyle.
“Ashoona is primarily a fictional character, although when I was writing, much of her personality, her grittiness and determination, was like me,” says Harris.
She acknowledges her friend Phoebe Sowdluapik for the “fortitude, beauty and intelligence of Ashoona”.
Prior to living in Pangnirtung, or Panniqtuuq as locals say, Harris lived in the Yukon for several years, where she worked as a regional planner and served as a city councillor in Whitehorse.
She also authored a children’s book series, a hiking guide to Hawaii, and a whitewater canoeing book. The avid paddler has completed seven Yukon River Quests, and was a long-time holder of the women’s record in her class.
In fact, the day after her July 31 book launch, Harris was on the Yukon River heading to Carmacks.
Harris’s love of historical fiction led her to write Ashoona as a novel rather than non-fiction. But, along with personal interviews, the story is grounded in eight years of research: every book Harris found on Inuit culture and original journals stored in the library in Iqaluit.
The Booker and Governor General’s award books also influenced Harris.
“I’m often disappointed with the lack of positive characters in those books.” Ashoona remedies that with her strong will and character.
In fact, it was the positive nature of Harris’s work that caught the attention of Kathy van Denderen, publisher of Eschia Books.
“She heard of the book and was able to get a Canada Council Grant to publish it,” Harris explains.
Eschia focuses primarily on fiction and non-fiction written by First Nation authors, or by authors knowledgeable about specific aspects of Canadian aboriginal history.
Van Denderen, a Yellowknife Dene based in Alberta, has a mission to celebrate the aspirations, successes and accomplishments of aboriginal people across Canada.
On the company’s website, van Denderen writes: “While First Nations traditionally have shared their stories orally, we believe these stories need to be written down so that they are not lost to future generations and so that those outside the Native community have an opportunity to understand the culture and tradition as well as the challenges still facing First Nations.”
Ashoona opens a window on an unexplored aspect of women’s lives in the North. Her story can be found at Mac’s Fireweed Books.