By Naomi Fontaine
In Naomi Fontaine’s Governor General’s Literary Award finalist, a young teacher’s return to her remote Innu community transforms the lives of her students, reminding us of the importance of hope in the face of despair.
After fifteen years of exile, Yammie, a young Innu woman, has come back to her home in Uashat, on Quebec’s North Shore. She has returned to teach at the local school but finds a community stalked by despair. Yammie will do anything to help her students. When she accepts a position directing the end-of-year play, she sees an opportunity for the youth to take charge of themselves.
In writing both spare and polyphonic, Naomi Fontaine honestly portrays a year of Yammie’s teaching and of the lives of her students, dislocated, embattled, and ultimately, possibly, triumphant.
Naomi Fontaine is a member of the Innu Nation of Uashat and a graduate of the Université de Laval. Her first novel, Kuessipan, was made into a feature film that debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Manikanetish is her latest novel published in 2021.
Tim Nicholls Harrison will read Manikanetish by Naomi Fontaine. Tim is the CEO / Chief Librarian at the Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library. He has worked there for over 33 years and is passionate about supporting our local communities and encouraging life-long learning. Tim enjoys spending time with family and friends, writing, reading, studying magic, sipping scotch and playing basketball. Friendly disclaimer: not all at the same time and some activities have been limited by the pandemic.
BY TIM NICHOLLS HARRISON FOR SOUTHGREY.CA — With award winning author, Naomi Fontaine as our knowledgeable and descriptive guide, travel with us to Uashat, over 1600 kilometres northeast of Grey County. Located above 50th parallel in Northern Quebec, Uashat is home to the once nomadic Innu. We will experience our visit via her protagonist Yammie, a young Innu woman returning to the community after fifteen years to teach at the First Nation high school of 200 students.
Uashat, located on the western outskirts of the City of Sept-Îles, is one sector of The Innu community of Innu Takuaikan Uashat mak Mani-Utenam (ITUM). The other sector, Mani-Utenam, is 16 kilometres east of Sept-Îles. There are approximately 3,000 Innu living in the two sectors. For comparison, the City of Sept-Îles which began when European explorers first visited the region has a population of approximately 26,000.
Uashat means bay. A short video explanation can be found at www.nametauinnu.ca, from Memory and knowledge of Nitassinan, a website where Innu elders pass on their skills and knowledge to younger generations.
Over the coming weeks, we will learn more about the geography and history of Uashat. We will discover the people and their lives through Yammie’s insights into her community, the students and their families. We will travel far with Naomi and Yammie, thousands of kilometres, to bring these lessons of sadness, hope, community and resiliency closer to us. Looking forward to the journey.
Through the narrative of Yammie, a young Innu woman’s return to her community of Uashat, author Naomi Fontaine weaves a powerful story of rebirth, reconciliation and resilience. There are many stories about the saviour teacher that rescues and empowers their young students by encouraging them to rise above their harsh and bleak lives. This is not one of those novels.
Instead Fontaine, using a choppy and poetic writing cadence, authentically brings us into the Innu community, the school, its teachers, students and their parents, and lets us appreciate the growth and transformation that Yammie experiences.
While the story of Manikanetish is set in the Uashat high school and includes the classroom studies, activities and field trips, Fontaine ensures that we understand that the learning is not simply transactional. It is transformative because it relies on the relationships that develop.
Fontaine, a Governor General’s Literary Award Finalist, has crafted a moving story of hope, reunion and small personal triumphs. One that begins…
“The return is inevitable. To this tiny little village and the thorny, sandy landscape surrounding it that l’ve been contemplating ever since childhood, lasting memories.”
By travelling to Uashat with Yammie, the reader learns not only about life in the North, but about the universal struggle that occurs when we seek to navigate our own internal landscapes, to understand who we are, who we want to be and who we are becoming. We discover in the knowledge and maturity of Yammie’s students, the richness and connectness of the community, one made stronger by Yammie’s own participation and personal growth.
“This was before. Before Marc’s absences. Myriam’s hunched shoulders. Melina’s raw, secret talent. Rodrigue’s rebellion. Mikuan’s timid laughter. Before tumbling into the void. Suddenly. No chance of turning back. This was before me.”
The above quote is from the beginning of Manikanetish. It is how Fontaine first introduces us to some of the remarkable characters that populate the book. When reviewing a book and writing about the characters, it is often too easy to give away the story, to ruin the experience for the prospective reader. This review leaves that joy of discovery to you.
Fontaine, creates convincing characters by writing about what she knows. Both Fontaine and her main character, Yammie are young Innu woman who went to university and studied to become French teachers. Fontaine is such a gifted storyteller that the reader is drawn into the book, enjoying the story itself, but wanting to know more. How alike is Fontaine to her literary creation? What happens next for the characters? Which parts might be real situations, real vignettes of people’s lives that Fontaine has skillfully crafted into the story?
While Fontaine populates the book with students, teachers and their families, Yammie learns and grows through her interactions with not only the school community, but also through reconnection with her Uashat aunts, uncles and other relatives. Let’s not forget her relationships / boyfriends either.
In the author’s poetic writing style, the characters come alive with nuance, individuality, and charm. They feel authentic and believable. Their stories, their development, their lives are as integral to the novel as Yammie’s story. The reader wants to discover more with little chance of turning back.
A major theme in Canadian writing is the land. Years ago, I was involved in a literacy project that had adult learners after attending workshops at the TOM, create mixed media landscapes. The students then wrote about the art that they created. It was a powerful learning opportunity for everyone that participated.
It is important to discuss the themes in Fontaine’s Manikanetish by first acknowledging the land involved. “Uashat” in Innu means “at the big bay”, yet the traditional grounds now provided to the Innu community is landlocked. The Innu community covers only 300 acres of the vastness of the north. In her writing, Fontaine moves us around the community of Uashat and beyond.
The themes of return, reconciliation and resilience are so strong in this novel, particularly because of the way that the characters interact, connect with and are nurtured by the land itself.
As readers we experience Yammi’s happiness and sense of belonging, best when she is away from the apartment and school — the settings for much of the novel. She seems to be the most grounded and fulfilled when she is visiting her relatives on the weekends and again when she takes her students on a field trip, 500 miles north of Uashat.
“We were in another country, far from our books and desks. Far, far from social media and the gossip of the reserve. And far from the pain and drama of family life. Farther away from anywhere I had ever set foot. And yet we were so close. So close to ourselves.”
Relevance for today
The past two years have been very challenging for many of us. We have been dealing with the pandemic, quarantine, isolation, social distancing, masks and more. Friends and family members have wrestled with Covid-19, the disease itself, our individual, community and national responses. It has been a time of introspection, compassion and resilience. Reading Fontaine’s book now seems appropriate. To immerse ourselves in a different place, similar in many ways to our life, yet distinct by its own land, distance and social connections. the novel can be read as current, except it is obviously pre-pandemic, a time and location that provides meaningful escape for the reader.
More importantly Manikanetish draws the reader into Yammie’s experiences, cultural identity and life journey. Recently, many of us have been startled to learn of the horrible transgressions our people and government have perpetrated on the First Nations for many years. The residential schools and the atrocities there, are just one of example of the systemic racism and genocide that has occurred. The recognition and understanding of the wrongness of much of the history that we have been taught has made people seek out more knowledge about the treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters. There is a desire to understand and work towards reconciliation. We may enter with a recognition that change is needed, we leave with an understanding that change may be more personal to ourselves than expectant of others.
Naomi Fontaine’s story offers some clarity and education about First Nation lives, specifically the Innu in Northern Quebec. The reader can identify with some aspects of Yammie’s life as a young woman, a teacher, returning to the community of her youth. The rhythm of the writing draws us further, though, as Fontaine helps us see the strength and resilience typified by so many of the characters within.
I came to this year’s Grey County Reads as a last-minute replacement. I am so glad that the book chosen for me was Manikanetish. It was truly a remarkable read and worthy of the accolades that it has received. Naomi Fontaine’s writing style makes the book a comfortable and enjoyable experience that draws the reader into the story. I must acknowledge that this is partly, I believe, an accomplishment due to the skillful translation by Luise Von Flotow.
As a final encouragement, I offer in Fontaine’s own words; hope, chocolate and possibly love.
“He leaves with his guitar in one hand, a cigarette in the other. He’s tall, slender, his dark hair is in a long ponytail. A three-day beard. Bright, animated eyes. He says we’ll see each other again. I’m helpless, like chocolate melting in the sun. I slip my phone number into his pocket.”
I hope you’ll travel the 1600 kilometres and visit Uashat. Take a chance. Pick up Manikanetish. Give it a read. I think you too, will be waiting for Fontaine to write a sequel and tell us more of Yammie’s life and circumstance. Manikanetish is in development as a Radio-Canada television series, but you want the enjoyment first of turning the pages and discovering the story on paper.