Today we’re pleased to welcome Nancy Campbell to the blog. Nancy’s How To Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet has just come out, and it’s wonderful to report that the edition is more than half sold already. Please enjoy Nancy’s essay, which gives some background on the book.
There is an island off the coast of Greenland called Upernavik, or ‘springtime place’. Its museum is the most northern in the world, and in winter it is one of the darkest places on earth.
I had just finished a series of poems about light—a collaboration with a photographer, considering the way light moves through space, how it is used by the camera to freeze moments in time—when an invitation arrived to be writer in residence at Upernavik Museum. I had an appetite for darkness, and was curious to see what kind of work I might make under these conditions.
The tiny plane in which I made my journey north struggled to land on the Upernavik airstrip in a snowstorm. Even once the winds had passed on the sky remained a dense indigo, only broken by stars and the lamplight that shone from homes scattered between the hillside and the harbour. But snow and ice have a luminescent quality, and many objects—distorted and concealed under slopes of snow—glowed from the darkness. I recalled the Inuit myth which describes how early arctic people saw by the light of candles made of ice before the creation of the sun.
Each morning, obedient to my alarm clock, I rose and made a cup of strong coffee, then sat with the lights off, looking out from my dark room towards the dark sea. I watched the icebergs gleaming faintly out on the horizon, and noted their progress south. In silhouette, the varied forms—domes and pinnacles, and a few great tabular bergs—looked like a new typography, a slow communication unspooling from the Pole. I felt I might understand its message, if I looked long enough.
The islanders certainly understood the ice. Their lives depended on it. The vocabulary for a variety of different ice forms in the Greenlandic language shows their awareness of its nuances: anarluk—black piece of calf ice; imuneq—hummocky ice; kassuk—bits of ice drifting in the sea; mitillivoq—ice that prevents a door from closing; nutarneq—new ice; sarrippoq—slippery ice; and siku—ice on the water, leading to sikuaq—thin ice.
I began to learn the language, copying down the same words over and over again. The loops and ascenders echoed the patterns formed in the shore ice.
The environment changed constantly, as if to illustrate my lessons. As the days grew brighter the moat of ice around Upernavik began to fragment. More icebergs drifted past, calved from glaciers further north. The islanders told me their concerns. Fishermen needed to walk across the ice to reach their fishing grounds, but a misjudged step on thin ice would propel them to sudden death in freezing water. It was a risky way to make a living. They could no longer read the ice, because its sounds and appearance did not conform to the rules their elders had taught them.
It is not only the ice that is disappearing from the arctic. The Greenlandic language that describes it so well is also vulnerable, and has been added to the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger. I decided to record the narrative of one young fisherman using his own language. I chose an alphabet book, traditionally an educational tool, to reflect my experience as a slow learner of Greenlandic. How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic is illustrated with images of icebergs, for those who chose to read neither English nor Greenlandic but just to view the horizon.
As January moved into February the skies that stretched between the snow-covered mountains and the ice-covered sea began to grow lighter. The sun appeared for the first time on Valentine’s Day. A golden line rose over the snowy peaks, rested there for a moment, and then slipped away. Once the sun had returned, the days lengthened at bewildering speed. By early March the long darkness was just a memory.