I recently came across a small item hidden in the stacks of my local library. Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine vaulted me into the world of the Native Innu people of northern Quebec. The descriptions used in the book are vivid and bold. And they completely engrossed me to another reality than my own.
I’ve invented lives. The man with the drum never told me about himself. I wove a story from his gnarled hands and his bent back. He mumbled to himself in an ancient, distant language. I acted like I knew all about him. The man I invented – I loved him. And the others lives I embellished. I wanted to see the beauty; I wanted to create it. Change the nature of things – I don’t want to name them – so that I see only the embers that still burn in the hearts of the first inhabitants.
The blurb on the back of this book uses the phrase “with poetic restraint and documentary-like eye” to describe the writing inside it and that is the perfect phrase to talk about the writing. We are given an insider’s eye to life with the modern-day Innu in small manageable doses and learn so much about them.
In the big cities, it’s easier to be nobody. The people on the street know nothing about you. They glance at you, no more, then think of something else. A few months back, you left the reserve and the village that knows you, your family and your friends, and went to live like a stranger in the emptiness of the city. Your apartment belongs to you alone, along with the used furniture you bought for next to nothing. you have a round wooden table that sits in one corner of the kitchen and two empty chairs. A sofa covered in blue velvet. The fridge rumbles and freezes your food instead of keeping it cold. The bedroom window looks out on the storefront of the building next door. At night, you hear the cars going by on the expressway. It’s different than where you’re from.
There is some shock value here. Descriptions of scenes that will stun out of many people’s comfortable existence. They are carefully crafted sentences of dire scenes.
Not many people are out walking during the day, just some women with their strollers. A fifteen-year old girl is dragging her round belly from a blue house to a beige one. She has circles under her eyes. A long night spent waiting for her boyfriend. The date the welfare cheque arrives will determine whether he’ll show up. A pickup truck moves slowly up Pashin Street. Doors stay open all day long from June to September. At night, kids run in packs. Cases of twenty-four. Shouting late at night, fighting early in the morning. The doors are locked now. In winter, snowmobile tracks run down both sides of the street. When the wind is cy, no one goes out walking; car engines never stop running. At the end of Kamin Street, there’s a little girl with almond eyes. Raspberries grown behind her house in blue springtime when the asphalt dries. This is the centre of her world.
This isn’t an easy read at times. Paragraphs need to be read and reread to grasp the complete meanings. But there are profound thoughts here that have universal meanings and need to be said.
It’s not easy to try to understand the life of a person you’ve never met. In your fruitless attempt, you hit a wall so violently you lose all understanding. Better stand back from the carved stone if you don’t want to crush the man underneath. You recognize yourself in the name, but you don’t know where it comes from or anything about his existence. You regret coming here: an unknown woman on dead ground. You’d be better off leaving.
There is an ancient belief among the Innu: They say that if a father never saw his child, the child has a gift.
Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine is a brilliant piece of literature. It describes a difficult reality that many of us are unfamiliar with yet many of the feelings described are very familiar to us.