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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."

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