In Fond Remembrance of Me: A Memoir of Myth and Uncommon Friendship in the Arctic

In Fond Remembrance of Me: A Memoir of Myth and Uncommon Friendship in the Arctic

FROM THE DUST JACKET: Howard Norman spent the fall of 1977 in Churchill, Manitoba, translating into English two dozen "Noah stories" told to him by an Inuit elder. The folktales reveal what happened when the biblical Noah sailed his Ark into Hudson Bay in search of woolly mammoths and lost his way. By turns startling, tragic, and comical, these inimitable narratives tell the history of the Arctic and capture the collision of cultures precipitated by the arrival of a hapless stranger in a strange land. Norman himself was then a stranger in a strange land, but he was not alone. In Churchill he encountered Helen Tanizaki, an Anglo-Japanese woman embarked on a similar project -- to translate the tales into Japanese. An extraordinary linguist and an exact and compelling friend, Tanizaki became Norman's guide through the characters, stories, and customs he was coming to know, and a remarkable intimacy sprang up between them -- all the more intense because it was to be fleeting; Tanizaki was fatally ill.

Through a series of overlapping panels of reality and memory, Norman recaptures with vivid immediacy a brief but life-shifting encounter and the earthy, robust stories that occasioned it.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Howard Norman was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1949, and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He studied zoology, linguistics, and folklore at Indiana University and the University of Michigan. "My undergraduate degree," he said, in a recent interview, "was through the Honors College. My graduate degree was a master's degree in folklore at Indiana University's Folklore Institute. That was partially sponsored by several groups in Canada who wanted me to keep working for them, but I felt I needed a grounding more in linguistics and folklore. Partly, too, it was my own curiosity and the thought that maybe it would be an interesting experience. At Michigan I simply wrote and translated. I worked on many translations before arriving at the period in which this memoir takes place. The Michigan scholarship was a hodgepodge kind of scholarship. You were supported for general artistic endeavor. It was wonderful and rare and, in my life, tremendously surprising. Leaving there, I went up to the Arctic to return to work for museums and to write articles on natural history." Mr. Norman was introduced -- in 1981, at a Thanksgiving waifs-and-strays dinner -- to poet Jane Shore, the woman who would become his wife. Hosts for the dinner were Fresno poet Philip Levine and his wife Fran. Mr. Norman has taught in various universities; has written children's books and travel and natural history articles; and is the author of five novels, including The Haunting of L., The Bird Artist, and The Northern Lights. He is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. He lives with his family in Vermont and Washington, D.C.

"When I met Helen," Mr. Norman said, in answer to my question, "I was 29."

"You seemed younger in the book."

"I probably was -- I worried about that, but I think I worried about it because I wasn't ready to embrace the fact that it was the truth. But I was, especially in relationship to Helen and in relationship to many people I knew, quite uneducated in a way, even though I had been places. Helen became a model for me of what, of how, one could feel any given day. She packed a lot into each day."

How, I asked, did Mr. Norman become interested in translation?

"I don't think it was translation that interested me to start with. As you get older I think you look back with psychological insight, which only applies in retrospect. At the time there's an energy that may be incited by or borne out of certain psychological circumstances. But you would not assess it that way. You would only be acting in relationship to it. If you had, as I did, a claustrophobic and inwardly collapsing family life, then, from early on, probably subconsciously, you feel an escalating sense of needing open spaces. Combine that need perhaps with a boy's fascination with Jack London and so forth. But that was formalized and in a way implemented by going to work for museums. It was only much later that I realized it probably was partly because I was daydreaming out into the wilderness.

"I think that's why when I met Helen, and she was working on her treatise, 'Incidents of Choking in Inuit Folktales,' that I was so moved. There is the paradox that you could be in a space that's the widest space in the entire universe but can feel choked by anxiety and choked by your own nature, so to speak. I understood something about that, although I must admit that at the time, I was not thinking in those terms."

"You didn't have the words yet. You were too young."

"Which is why it's been the most decisive paradox in my life to return to these journals, 30 years after the fact. I think that the impetus partly was having a daughter who was really extraordinary and very pointed in her inquiries about who her parents were. In a way there's probably a little bit of that at work -- 'This is who I was.'"

"You must have been somewhat amazed when you found the old notebooks from which In In Fond Remembrance of Me emerged."

"I was. It happened because I had 500 or 600 boxes of stuff, archival stuff, up in Vermont. I had forgotten about these notebooks. When I looked at them, it wasn't amnesia, actually, it was just something set aside in one's memory for a while. And then returning to them. I really didn't do that much -- some of the language is different but basically the chronology is very precisely drawn from the original circumstances."

In his new book Mr. Norman writes of his encounters with Helen and also of his attempts to interview the Inuit elder about the Inuit Noah stories. I said how smart I thought it was to put those interviews and stories in this book. The interviews, I added, "give the book a present as well as a past tense."

"I didn't want it to seem like an artifact. Of course, Faulkner is right, 'The past isn't even the past.'" Mr. Norman paused, then added, "I think it was largely to choreograph the psychological motif such as haplessness, such as the inability to look at where you really are, a kind of vulnerability to the physical landscape and to being a kind of stranger in a strange land. So, that when we were trying to coordinate the stories with the text, my editor and I, we talked about this. We didn't want to force a connectiveness or a synchronicity but to keep it more impressionistic. So that's how that's structured."

"Not only do you read here these Inuit creation myths, but the present-tense narrative of your life is a creation myth too -- a coming-of-age story of which you are the subject."

"I hadn't thought of that. I would agree fully. And not only would I agree fully, but if you wouldn't mind, I would enhance it by saying that I was very aware at the time. I think I might have failed a little to say this strongly enough. But about two or three weeks into being there, I understood very, very clearly, lying in bed one night and staring at the ceiling, that I needed to savor this experience, that it was not something that I should allow to escape me. How to do that was another question. But the fact that I should do it and the fact that this was a highly idiosyncratic situation had very little to do with Helen's medical condition [Helen was dying of cancer].

"It's only in retrospect that there is an understanding of a kind of acceleration of things, but at the time, while in retrospect it seems like two months was a short period of time, at the time it was really a very, very large amount of time."

Once Helen and Mr. Norman parted, Helen returned to her home in Japan. She wrote to Mr. Norman from there. "Yes," he said, "I knew her longer in her epistolary life than in our regular life together, which was not really together but sort of separate."

"Helen was a wonderful influence on you as an artist."

"Oh, yes. In a lot of ways she is the second most remarkable person I've ever known. A third next to my wife and daughter. She intensified life for me in a way that I had not expected and haven't really felt since."

"And," I said, "at a point in your life where you didn't have any sense of what was going to happen to you or who you were going to be."

"No, I actually did not. My complete sense of myself was that I would take the next thing offered. I was so reactive, using modern-day lingo. I think I was primarily grateful to be earning a living. And there was very much, and still is, a utilitarian element to my life. From the outside someone might have thought I was doing something quite exotic, but close up, it was really the work at hand and the work allowed and the work offered. I knew a lot of people like that. It was not rare in my circles."

Referring to Mr. Norman's interview sessions with his rather difficult and somewhat hostile Inuit tale-teller, I said, "Those sitdowns at that kitchen table did not seem all that exotic."

"They were very tough. They were very confusing to me because to separate wanting to be liked and wanting to do good work is not necessarily something that comes naturally to people."

"And you were having so much trouble with the language."

"Oh, tremendous troubles. I still do. But I knew that the rewards were terrific. I had a chapter in the book which I left out because it didn't quite succeed, which was about Helen retranslating something that I couldn't get right. I didn't include this chapter because it made it seem too much like she was a schoolmarm, sort of tapping my wrist with her ruler. That wasn't entirely inaccurate, but it was not nearly the whole demeanor of that evening. I couldn't get it right."

I asked Mr. Norman about translation.

"Then and now, the thing that connected the beginning work with the present work was never a problem of getting help with the original. You could always find people to tell you what this or that word meant. I don't know if I refer to this in the book or not, but translation is certainly the attempt to find the equivalent and not the substitutes in your own language.

"And that was the thing: how inventive were you in your own language? And so the initial process was twofold. It was obvious on the level of needing to start from scratch with another language, but in the sense of starting from scratch or dealing with a very basic sense of inventiveness in your own language was far more difficult and still remains that way. This will sound sentimental, but I have long wondered what translation Helen would have accomplished, had she lived, because she was taking on very large projects when she died. She had very unusual projects to do.

"She was a linguist. Her world, her philosophy, was born of language, and she came from a mixed family. I think that probably had some influence. Although I don't know that she ever said that. I've spoken to her brother since, and he made the offhand comment that everybody was good at languages in his family. I think one can't underestimate what an extraordinary thing that is. You know, especially if one struggles with language. I don't think it comes easy to many people. But Helen had a great ear and was a good mimic."

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