Silence in the Igloo

                  The other day, while making Christmas cakes, I heard a radio interview with Inuit writer and storyteller Michael Kusugak.  Michael’s story Baseball Bats for Christmas remains one of my favorite seasonal books.  Feeling dyspeptic with the mallification of the winter celebration?  Listen to seven-year-old Arvaarluk’s description of Christmas in Repulse Bay on the Arctic Circle: “Christmas was a time when you took your most favourite thing and gave it to your very best friend.”

         I’m sorry to mention the “C” word when it is not even December yet, and that’s not really what I’m musing about.  Really, I’m musing about experience, imagination, and research. Michael said something about wind that made me pause over my mixed peel.  He was remembering being a kid, out hunting with his family, sleeping in an igloo.  He said that it was completely quiet, even if there was a blizzard outside, because with the round shape of the igloo, “there was nothing to catch the wind.”  He went on to say that when he grew up and went south and watched movies set in the north and he heard the wind whistling and howling he was mystified, wondering “where does that noise come from?”  In a world without trees and high-tension wires there is nothing for the wind to howl against.  The movie makers got that wrong. 

         When we write about things we have not experienced we imagine and we research.  A detail like this, the silent igloo, can make us feel intimidated.     It is the questions that we did not think to ask that can trip us up.  British writer Gillian Cross has a funny piece about this in which she tries to get a child character to go out and play in 1842 but she can’t seem to get him dressed or speaking.  “How could I advance my characters a step if I had to check for Historical Correctness at the end of every sentence?”  We can certainly be paralyzed by such considerations.  But there’s another side to this.  What about that wind that encounters no resistance? What about a wild but silent storm?  What about a place that is quieter than we have ever experienced?  Does this idea, this small accuracy about the real world, give your story-making instincts a nudge?  As usual, anything we find out about, anything, is potential material and the aspects to our job that are the most intimidating are simultaneously the most inspiring.

         Here’s the whole interview:  (Tune in just to hear Michael tell, in Inuktitut, the world’s shortest story.  Inuktitut is a lovely language to listen to, with a kind of chiff on the edges of the consonants.)

 – Sarah Ellis


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7 responses to “Silence in the Igloo

  1. I love this. I remember sitting with Michael in a motel in Fort Providence, North West Territories, listening to him sing Saint James Infirmary Blues in Inuktituk. He also sang one of those blues songs about catching a freight train and recalled as a kid wanting to hear what a train sounded like. We all have these aural histories, don't we. But how many of us ever get to hear a winter silence?

  2. I love the onomatopoeic sounds for bubbles and bird cheeps and the flow of story into story. Sarah I loved as well your small detail of pausing over the mixed peel. Maybe the greatest challenge in crafting setting is knowing where and how to place the silences.

  3. Sarah. I loved your post. I was dreading the winter, and it seems sometimes I dread winter because that's what people in Syracuse do. But perhaps I might approach winter just a little differently, be more curious to hear the next snow storm. Just how loud or quiet will it be?

  4. I am trying my level best to believe that wind itself doesn't make any sound, only the resistance to wind makes sound. That is a strange thought, especially if you think of the way language gets applied to wind – the wind howls when it's wild, moans when it's wounded, lashes when it's angry, bites when it's mean. We grow up believing the wind is embodied; its silence is almost counter-intuitive — but quite wondrous. So is a house made of ice. What a world. My favorite line here: "…anything we find out about, anything, is potential material and the aspects to our job that are the most intimidating are simultaneously the most inspiring." Quite right.

  5. Silent wind. So unexpected. And resistance causing noise is something to ponder, too, in lots of other areas of life. I love his story at the end of the interview about the old woman who came to a presentation with a pillow, and when he finished telling stories she thanked him and said that she hadn't heard those stories since she was a girl. A priest had forbidden any of the stories or her language to be spoken. Debby Dahl Edwardson's book echoed in my mind during this wonderful interview. Thank you, Sarah!

  6. Howling wind has been much on my mind these past three nights as a blustery storm has set our dog roaming the house. I expect we would get better sleep in an igloo on the tundra, but can't imagine Izzi as a sled dog, curled in the snow to sleep through a blizzard, no matter how quiet the wind.But back to your topic of getting the details right. I just read THE 1000 AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, which begins in 1799, and I had to wonder how the author, David Mitchell, could have possibly gotten the details all right. Mostly it rang true, but this joke seemed an anachronism: How do you make a Yorkshireman? Start with a Scot and squeeze out all the generosity. Is it accurate that my Scottish forebears were such tightwads that the stereotype goes back all those years?One of the things I am thankful for is our blog. What a tasty buffet it offers. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

  7. This post reminds me of some of Zen's most profound teachings, Sarah. It's not just the wind, is it, that relates to us via resistance? Life itself, every bit of it, is colored by our insisting on being "other," separate, apart from. The engine of story itself, conflict, is born of resistance. So much to think about here, so much to feel. Thank you.

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