The Writing Life

By Margaret Atwood
Sunday, February 12, 2006

What is writing for? Writers -- unlike dentists, bricklayers and other practical folk -- are always being asked why they do what they do; asked, in effect, to prove their usefulness. It's an odd question, because language and mathematics are the two most potent and useful tools human beings have ever invented.

Sometimes, as a writer, you forget this. You can get stuck; you can start believing in your own superfluity. As you crumple up the first paragraph yet again and heave it into the wastebasket, you may feel that you're living in a paper house and speaking into a void.

At such times, it helps to get back to basics. If you want to learn, teach. At the end of last July, I travelled north to participate in Somebody's Daughter, a two-week camp for Inuit women that takes place in Nunavut, in the eastern Canadian Arctic. This project blends sewing, healing and writing in an unusual but very specific way.

Sewing and hunting are the foundations of traditional Inuit life. For many centuries, the Inuit lived in one of the most unforgiving climates on earth. Their tools were stone and bone; they wore skin clothing; they ate seal, caribou, polar bear, walrus, whales and fish. Men and women were interdependent: The hunters provided the meat, but unless the women made the clothing well, the hunters could freeze and die. Each set of skills was necessary for survival, and each was respected.

Then came the Europeans, and new tools and products and the gathering of a nomadic people into settlements; there was a break with traditional ways and a sharp increase in drinking, violence and suicide. In the old culture, sons were taught hunting skills by fathers and uncles, daughters sewing skills by mothers and aunts, but now -- after two generations of forced education in residential schools -- many younger people are cultural orphans. But many elders still remember the old ways, and the Somebody's Daughter camp aims to reconnect the generations.

Somebody's Daughter is run by Bernadette Dean, the social development coordinator for her district of Nunavut. Like many who confront similar problems, Bernadette knows that to improve the overall health of a community, you must improve the well-being and confidence of its women. The meaning of the camp's name is simple: Not everyone is a wife, not everyone is a mother, not everyone is a grandmother, but every woman is somebody's daughter.

The "daughters" -- women over 20 who, because of damaged families, never had a chance to learn traditional Inuit sewing -- go out on the land with a group of elders and teachers. They live in tents and make an article of clothing the old way: scraping, stretching and softening the animal skin first, then cutting the pattern with a curved knife (or ulu ) and sewing it with whale sinew, which expands to make a garment watertight. Learning this skill can bring immense joy.

But Nunavut now exists in the 21st century. Computers and office jobs are common, and for these and the money they can bring, literacy is needed. That's why two writing teachers were part of the group: Sheree Fitch, a veteran of three summers, and myself.

The campsite was on Southampton Island, at the top of Hudson Bay. The island is as large as Switzerland and has one settlement, which is home to fewer than a thousand people. It also has some 200,000 caribou and many polar bears. We traveled from Coral Harbour along the coast, arriving there on a 30-foot-long liner -- a trip of 60 miles that took more than five hours because of the large waves.

The landscape was spectacular. We set up our tents on the shore, with the sea on one side and the land rising up behind us. On the ridge were the remains of centuries-old Dorset culture dwellings -- circles of rocks with tunnel entrances -- with some fox traps and graves nearby. The ropes of our big canvas tents were tied to large boulders -- a good idea in view of the 80-mile-an-hour winds we soon experienced.

We had three expert hunters with us to provide food and to defend our camp. They immediately shot a caribou -- for food and for the sewing of mittens and kamiks; nothing would be wasted. We weren't the only hungry ones around, however: Through the twilight trotted a large male polar bear, attracted by the scent. The hunters chased it off, then took turns standing guard all night -- just as well, because the bear came back four times.

The next day, the women met with the elders and teachers in a large round communal tent, where they received the skins they would work on. "What do you want to make?" they were asked. Then, "Who's it for?" (Sizes vary according to age, patterns according to gender.) Sheree and I, the writing instructors, faced a difficult task. Sheree told me these women might be afraid of writing because of negative experiences at school or they just might not see the use of doing it at all. We also knew that the standard approach for college courses -- plumbing the depths of the inner you and so forth -- would not be very effective in a culture that places sharing well above self-regard. But this sewing question -- "Who's it for?" -- gave us a way in.

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