Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Montreal poet Carolyn Marie Souaid has embarked an ambitious tale in her first novel, Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik. Set in a fictional Inuit settlement in northern Quebec in the 1980s, the story bucks the current trend of non-indigenous fiction writers of now stepping back from lending their voices to the realities of Canada's first peoples. Time will tell whether Souaid work will be labelled as cultural appropriation or cultural advocacy. However, in the absence of a wide body of literature written by Inuit writers, Souaid's novel does fill a gap in our understanding of the challenges facing Quebec Inuit communities. And given Souaid's very solid credentials of living among the Inuit and being an activist for their rights for decades, the author's story offers the ring of authenticity.
Souaid's protagonist, Yasmeen Haddad, is a Montrealer of Christian Syrian heritage. She like many of her generation rebels against the expectations of her immigrant parents to pursue a career as a well-paid professional. Instead, she opts for an education degree and right after graduation, accepts a job teaching in an isolated Inuit community. There is a clear sense of biographical overlay in the novel, leaving the reader wondering whether Souaid is recounting her own story from her years as an educator in the north.
Yasmeen Haddad arrives in her fictional Inuit community, with nothing but the best intentions, and is immediately drawn to the people there and the stark northern landscape. In her early twenties, this fascination with the north soon gives way to a sexual attraction to the local Inuit men, first toward one of her teenaged students and then toward, Joanasi Maqaittik, a skilled hunter and local radio station broadcaster.
While the events in the community and descriptions of Inuit life occupy a large part of the story, it is really Yasmeen's infatuation with Joanasi that provides the arc of the novel. Like many of the young Inuit men of the community, Joanasi is caught in the twilight of his people's dying traditional lifestyle and the birth of opportunities that the “benign colonialism” of the South offers him. Like many of his peer group, alcohol intrudes and distorts his life and transitions his frustrations into violence.
Yasmeen struggles with her lover's outbursts and descent into ebriety but cannot leave him. Joanasi's closeness to the land, his anguish and at times brutal possessiveness contrast sharply with the rather bland nature of the white male teachers in the community, one of whom expresses a clear desire for Yasmeen. Despite Yasmeen's disinterest in her white colleague, Joanasi's jealousy boils to the surface and drives them apart. Yasmeen becomes determined to prove her love for Joanasi and bridge the cultural differences dividing them. And for a while, harmony returns. Joanasi decides to visit Yasmeen in Montreal during the summer break. Yasmeen meticulously prepares a royal welcome for her lover, only to have her dreams shattered when he arrives intoxicated and belligerent. Disoriented by the big city surroundings, Jonasi descends into an uncontrollable rage and the story ends on a very bitter note.
Souaid's lyrical prose clearly nurtured from decades of writing outstanding poetry makes for pleasant reading. Her characters are also quite accessible, perhaps more so for those of us who have lived in Quebec's north. However, the plot is uneven with far too much exposition and a lack of tension and sub-tensions. There is little to keep the reader hooked on the story and one chapter chronologically blends into another in a rather flat tempo. As a fiction writer, Souaid has not reached maturity, but she does offer promise. The novel's end also offers little surprise, with most readers having foreseen it several chapters earlier. Despite these shortcomings, the novel is an informative and well-intentioned story offering readers a realistic glimpse into the lives of a people, with whom few of us have come into direct contact.
Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik is published by Baraka Books.