Friday, July 14, 2017

A Kayak Full of Ghosts

Men whose intestines have been devoured float up to the moon. A fox trades wives with a worm. A man grows sick from eating too many heads. A woman carves a replica of her dead boyfriend out of blubber, and he comes to life. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts, author Lawrence Millman collects a cross-section of the strange world of stories from the peoples of the north, primarily from Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic. We've all read books of folklore and traditional tales before, but I'd hazard a guess that none of them were quite as macabre as this. In an interview with the author a few years ago, I asked him why he thought the Inuit of the north told stories so filled with flesh, with blood, and dismemberment; he replied that "in places where the material culture is very bare, the need to imaginatively transform the world is well nigh overwhelming. Whereas, if you go to someplace verdant, you don't have to perform any transformations, because the wealth is already there. In other words, when you have at your fingertips a voluptuous world, the imagination tends to be more mimetic than it would be when the culture and landscape are austere. Also, the fact that people are often skinning and cutting up animals somehow translates into the rather different types of dismemberment you find described in the stories."

I realize that for some in the class, the content of some of these stories may be very strange, even disturbing. But I would remind everyone that there are quite a few scenes in the Western tradition which are nearly as awful: The evil queen in Snow White is invited to the wedding, but then forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead; the little girl in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" is forced to dance day and night until a friendly woodchopper cuts off her legs -- and even then, she is met at the door by her still-dancing limbs. In order to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper, Cinderella's step-sisters cut off parts of their heels. Of course, we don't usually think of the details of the original stories, as we are much more familiar with the Disney versions, which clean up all the blood and whistle a happy tune -- but nevertheless they are there.

None of the stories in Millman's book are ever likely to be made into Disney cartoons -- there would be too much that would have to be (if you'll pardon the pun) cut out. But they have secrets to tell us all the same, secrets about the inner life of a people who managed to extract a living in one of the harshest climates on earth, and who knew all too well that to sustain life, life must be taken.

So pick a story from this Kayak -- and describe your reaction to it, recalling that sometimes, that which is disturbing also is that which has the most vital truth to tell.

22 comments:

  1. I don't have a favorite because like Professor Potter mentioned, they are rather strange and certainly would not be made into a Disney movie. Of the numerous stories in 'A Kayak Full of Ghosts', some of my favorites are those which humans transform into animals and animals transform into humans, even if just for a certain purpose such as to hunt, find a mate, or to travel to the afterlife. I did find the story of 'Him-Whose-Penis-Stretches-Down-To-His Knees' (pg. 81), 'The Sick Raven' (pg. 71), and 'The Hole in the Cliffs' (pg.188) to be rather funny at times. The story of 'A Tale of Motherlove' (pg. 84) reminded me of the epic story of Gilgamesh's journey to the Land of Cedars where he and Enkidu kill Humbaba.
    Some central themes I noticed here were:
    -Unwanted children/orphan children are bad and will bring you bad luck
    -Taboos are real, e.g. 'Every Taboo is Holy' (pg. 70)
    -Respect your elders
    -Cannibalism can be justified
    -Marriages are not binding and women can be traded
    ~Sally R. Nihill

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    1. I had to go back and reread 'A Tale of Motherlove' when you compared it to Gilgamesh. That is a book I can never forget. I agree it definitely reminded me of Gilgamesh. I found it odd though that she would cast a spell based of them looking up after they pissed. I actually found this funny.

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  2. There were a lot of stories to pick from however the one that spoke to me the most was a rather short one called "The Earth Will Know". This short story talked about how a woman gave birth to a creature and the people of the tribe killed the creature to find out what it was. They found out that the creature contained the soul of a pretty little girl. Because this story is vague, it can perceived in many different ways. The way I perceived it was, that the tribe people judged the girl on her appearance instead of what was inside. I also thought there was meaning in regards to "We don't like what we don't understand".
    - I would also like to mention "Old Age" and "The Sick Raven" as two other stories that had true meanings which can still be interpreted on today's society. Overall this book was a good read because it was interesting hearing a lot of cultural stories. As a kid I used to be really interested into Greek Mythology, so this book also made me reminisce on those past days as well.

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  3. danielle cascellaJuly 17, 2017 at 8:32 AM

    Out of the many stories to pick from I have to say I don't have one that stood out to me as I thought they were odd. I did feel "Old Age" showed meanings that could be related to todays society. "The Sick Raven" was actually funny sometimes. I did find interesting that in a lot of the stories humans transformed into animals and vice versa. As far as learning about culture these stories did paint a good picture.

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    1. I agree Old Age could possibly be related to today's society. As I read Old Age my mouth just dropped open. The thought of ever giving piss to anyone let alone my mother is crazy

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  4. I enjoyed reading these short stories because they are so different. I would not say I actually have a favorite but there are a few that stuck out to me. Page 81 Him-Whose-Penis-Stretches-Down-To-His-Knees. I found this to be funny as he went from him whose penis stretches down to his knees to him whose penis barely peeps from its cave. Page 82 I Am Only Shit! This one confused me a bit as I thought whales were attracted to menstruating women. Skeletons on page 198 also stuck out to me. The family of skeletons were living just fine until a hunter made a comment that made them so ashamed that they retreated to the grounds never to beat their drums again. They are all interesting and I am happy that I read them.

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    1. I liked this skeleton story as well. I personally felt that the hunters could represent the white Europeans, the skeletons could represent the Inuit. The creativity, music, and jovial nature was mocked and shunned. Therefore the culture was lost. Sad story, but poignant.

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  5. The story I chose was “The girl who married her dog” page 28-29. My first reaction was open minded until I read the line” now its penis got stuck inside her”. That was a big wow for me. I was taken aback, but continued on with the story. Once I finished I absorbed the tale, and concluded it directly related to the white Europeans bringing favorable things to the Inuit. The dog husband myth could be seen as Inuit tribes offering their daughters to obtain desirable goods from the white Europeans. I feel that this story or the “dog husband” myth could be paralleled on other tribal mythologies. It could all be linked to the origin of the white man. I enjoyed this book on a whole, and found the mythologies curious and different from our own.

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  6. The story that stood out to me the most was "The Earth Will Know", the story was chilling. The story was about a deformed baby, as I was reading it, I had goosebumps. It was gruesome, and left me in awe. As much as the story was disgusting to me, I was also very intrigued and wanted to finish it. All the tales has interesting outcomes, the stories has a different side of how you view the world, and some of the tales were very comedic as well. Another favorite of mine was Of Giant and Human beings, it had a very interesting plot on inter species "parties", I thought it was funny and creative. I never would have put those two ideas together to make a tale but wow, it was an humorous read.
    -Leuyen Huynh

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  7. There's DEFINITELY a lot of parallels you can make to fairy tales and ghost stories from Europe and what not, although these seem more sexually-oriented under certain circumstances. Both are thoroughly gory in imagery, however.

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  8. I wish there were more books like this one! I really enjoyed reading the different tales in this book and I did not want to put it down. I was not disturbed nor think the stories were gruesome because every culture is different and each culture has a history of its own. The tale that I liked the most was The Man and His Wife Who Raised the Dead. The couple in this tale were very smart when they decided to use the corpse to help them get food instead of eating him. He was raised from the dead and became their son and helped them supply with the food they needed. However, there’s a moral to the story… the son who had been raised from the dead took the couple with him to the ice mountains where there was unlimited food. “The old man and woman had never seen so much food in all of their lives” they were told by the son to not touch it, that him or his wife would feed it to them. If the old couple was to touch it things would go bad for them. The couple was so overwhelmed with what was in front of them that the old man touched the meat. Due to the old man’s actions, everything disappeared, the son decayed and there was nothing that the couple could do to bring him back to life. They were then lonely and with no one to feed them. This makes me think of how sometimes we are not happy with what we have, we always want more. Also, how sometimes we grow impatient and end up making the wrong decisions in life.
    -Laura Ramirez

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  9. The story that I liked the most came from page 58, "Qalaganguase, Who Had No Strength". This story tells about a weak boy who is visited by ghosts. These ghosts prove to be family members who are there to take him over to the other side as he is too weak to continue on. I found that I liked this the most because the child was so weak that he could not go out with the rest of the group so he was stuck alone at home. While there he develops a relationship with ghosts that he must be secret about but he tells anyways. By telling he grows weaker and joins them as ghosts. I believe that this story is true of a lot of children who are able to see spirits on the other side and have a connection with them. I also liked this because it was almost as though the family was there to take him home with them. For whatever reason, this story really resonated with me.

    -Amanda Crawley

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  10. Through out the reading of "A Kayak Full of Ghosts", I wasn't able to pick a favorite story. As mentioned before, these stories are found to be very strange and this definitely wasn't a lie. However, there were some stories that did stand out to me, "The Entrail Thief," "Him-Whose-Penis-Stretches-Down-To-His-
    Knees," and "The Old Man Who Ate His Grandson. The collection of all these stories is amazing but at the sametime disturbing. There are stories that show a feel of terror and hunger with people that have a need to strangle their own children or causing harm to their spouse.

    It would be interesting to have Disney make a horror film from any of the Disney films that we are familiar with and show that side of the story that is said to be kept quite.

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  11. As it was mentioned above, "A Kayak Full of Ghosts" can seem quite different from the typical folktale Americans are accustomed to hearing. This is due to Disney reinventing many of these stories, and tailoring the storylines to be appropriate and adored by children. Growing up, however, I do remember reading the "real" versions of stories such as Little Red Riding Hood. "A Kayak Full of Ghosts" demonstrates how culture plays such an enormous role in everyday life. These stories, as possibly interpreted by the outside world as cruel, are stories that have been passed down from many generations and are accepted and regarded in this society. Like many other students, I did not have a "favorite" story. I did find them interesting, and it was also interesting to keep in mind many of the central themes that surrounded some of the folktales.

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  12.  These stories are crazy and disturbing, most of the stories while reading I did not expect them to end the way they did. One particular story, on page 188, "The Hole in the Cliffs," was definitely a surprising tale. I did not expect this to end the way that it did. If you look beyond the craziness of the tales there are meanings to most of them. In this story I believe the meaning behind it is to listen to your elders and not to have your bad curiosities take you to do things you're not supposed to be doing. Overall this book gave me many good laughs and some of the tales I had to send to friends because of how insane some are. I almost wonder if they may have gotten lost in translation over the years since they are just so out there.

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    1. I agree about The Hole in the Cliffs. I also find it nice you are passing the book on as I plan to do the same. I read a couple to my mom because I knew she wouuld be amused by some. NOW she is excited about reading this book and she cant wait until this class is done so I can give it to her.

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  13. As I was reading "A Kayak Full of Ghosts", I quickly realized that many of these stories were very strange. Although the stories may have seemed strange, some of them taught a lesson. One story that really stuck out to me was on page 167, "The Greedy Eagle". This story really had meaning to it. This story teaches a lesson about being greedy. The eagle was being greedy and wanted to make sure he was all set for the winter. All he needed was one rabbit, that would last for himself and his wife for the whole winter. Instead of just taking that one, he insisted on taking two. The eagle was hurt when he was taking the rabbits. In the end the eagle died and the rabbits consumed the eagle. If the eagle was not greedy he would have never ended up being dead. If i had to pick a favorite, then I would say this one is my favorite. This story teaches a lesson to not be greedy.
    -Nadia Nada

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  15. As strange as these stories are, they were amusing to read. Some were hard to figure out if there was a lesson to be taught, but there were many that reflected age old themes, gluttony, greed, pride, vengeance. I noticed a few people mentioned "Him Whose Penis Stretches Down to His Knees". I was amused at that because it seems like a stereotypical man that thinks he is above the taboo and it won't affect him."The Earth Will Know" you can relate to almost any age or culture, just simply, just because it is ugly, unknown or different does not make it so. This creature was a pretty little girl. Does it mean everyone is beautiful on the inside? It's not the first time we've heard things like that. Don't judge a book by it's cover or other sayings.

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  16. They are quite twisted and reflect the harsh conditions of life in this part of the world. My favorite was how mosquitoes got a taste for human blood.Most are so short .The endings are pretty abrupt - with everyone dying (usually starving to death or being killed)
    Starving is clearly a huge fear in the North - and scrounging around for "food" (which includes eating excrement or fellow human beings) - seems to pervade every story. I also noticed that most of the stories involve family members, rather than friends. They are dominated, as the author says in his introduction, by the constant search for food in a barren land.

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  17. Muhammad Basit AzizJuly 23, 2017 at 5:56 PM

    I would like to comment about “How two men used Bible to unleash mass murder in Arctic”. This is a story of two Inuit who claimed that they were Jesus and God and nine people in the community lost their lives. In 1941 on the Belcher Island, 27-year-old young Inuk named Charlie Ouyerack claimed that he was Jesus and Peter Sala, who was the best community hunter claimed that he was God. They asked the people of the community that everybody would be able to fly soon so they can kill their dogs, they also forced some of the people to remove their clothes to greet the end of the world. Six of them died because of exposure and by the time messianic cult run its course, nine Inuit died. After reading this story, the most important question which arises in my mind is that how he convinces other people to believe that he is Jesus and, they should perpetrate horrible crimes in the community. After some research, I found in Lawrence Millman’s new book “At the end of the world,” that if ones parent told their kids that white people had eight legs like spider then they would believe them so they have to do all those things what Ouyerack is saying to them. If they don’t do it, their life would be in danger. I think a lot of people were afraid in the same manner

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  18. I found each story in this book more disturbing than the next! I know that many cultures take pleasure in reading and telling scary/disturbing stories but I found these stories very sexual. I remember one of my favorite books as a kid was called Tales from the Dark and it had tales of things like a woman cooking her husband and feeding him to the neighbors and a girl who had spiders living in her face but nothing as disturbing as the stories in A Kayak Full of Ghosts. I wonder why these stories are so vulgar and sexual?
    -Heather Souza

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