Agnes DeWitt, the main character of Louise Erdrich's upcoming novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (to be published in April), arrives at the North Dakota Indian reservation where she will spend the rest of her life on St. Dismas Day, 1912 (March 25), just as an epidemic is ending. "Ever after that day," Erdrich writes, "Agnes was to mark St. Dismas upon her calendar because it was the first day of her existence as Father Damien, the first day of the great lie that was her life—the true lie, she considered it, the most sincere lie a person could ever tell."
Agnes goes on to become well-loved as the reservation's priest, despite her efforts to convert people from the traditional Ojibwe beliefs to Catholicism, and through her eyes we hear of the adventures, loves, and tragedies of the people she lives among for the next eighty-four years. The anguish Agnes feels over her decision to mask her true sex in order to become Father Damien Modeste is a variation of a theme Erdrich has been exploring ever since her first book, Love Medicine (1984)—the idea of a split identity, whether sexual, cultural, or religious. And not only the theme is familiar: readers of Tracks (1989), The Bingo Palace (1994), and other books by Erdrich will recognize Father Damien, Nanapush, Margaret Kapshaw, Pauline Puyat, and many other characters in The Last Report. But Erdrich's works are not sequels in the traditional sense. Rather, they are an intricate web of stories, told from different points in time and different points of view, one whose pattern only becomes clear when you step back and view it from a distance. (Erdrich's interlocking plots are complicated enough that there are several books that set out to explain them.)
Those who have read The Beet Queen (1986) or Tales of Burning Love (1996) will also recognize the main character in "Sister Godzilla," Erdrich's short story in the February Atlantic. This time, Dot Adare is a twelve-year-old troublemaker in the class of Sister Mary Anita Groff—a gracefully athletic nun whose jaw protrudes like a dinosaur's, much to the heartless amusement of her sixth-grade class. Dot forms a school-girl crush on her teacher, and one can almost feel the heat of her emotions: her stinging shame and embarrassment, her red-hot anger at the cruelty of her classmates, and her confused love for Sister Mary Anita. Erdrich is again treading on familiar ground, considering questions of religion and identity while adding another complex layer to the life of one of her characters.
Like many of her characters, Erdrich has a foot in two worlds. She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, near the Bureau of Indian Affairs school where both her mother, of French-Ojibwe descent, and her father, of German descent, taught. Erdrich spent a lot of time visiting her grandparents on the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation, but she didn't learn her tribe's ancestral language until she was living in New Hampshire with her husband, the late Michael Dorris, feeling cut off from her family and from Ojibwe culture. She decided to study her native language not only to quell bouts of homesickness but also, as she wrote in The New York Times last spring, because she felt that learning Ojibwemowin would help her better understand the High Plains landscape where almost all of her work is set.
Aside from her six novels, Erdrich is the author of two children's books, Grandmother's Pigeon (1996) and The Birchbark House (1999), and a memoir, The Blue Jay's Dance (1995), among other works. She lives with three of her children in Minneapolis, where this year she opened a bookstore called Birchbark Books. The following interview was conducted in writing.
You have written that the main reason you wanted to learn to speak Ojibwemowin, the language spoken by your mother's tribe, the Ojibwe, was so you could get the jokes. Could you talk about the role humor plays in the language? And what about the role it plays in your fiction?
Ojibwemowin is a marvel; the more I know the less I know I know. Words are constantly in a state of flux and invention, and a fluent speaker can inject humor into any subject or situation with a vowel, or a mere crumb of a verb reference. For instance, a friend of mine in describing a baby's frustration over not being nursed combined nishka (angry) and dodosh (milk) to make a word that translates as "milk rage"—nishkadodosh. I'll always be a beginner in this language, as it is surely one of the most complex on earth. As for humor in my fiction, I hope it's there. It's impossible to write about Native life without humor—that's how people maintain sanity.
How has learning Ojibwemowin changed the way you think about English?
For one thing, I've noticed English is extremely gender-based. There is no his or her in Ojibwe. English doesn't have the flexibility of true spoken Ojibwe. Because it has been written and scrutinized and coded a person can't (or people usually don't) make up words right on the spot, as can happen easily in a language based on oral tradition. But English is also a big, gobbling, greedy, thorny language, and a gift to writers because it absorbs all comers and yet retains its most ancient self.
The novelist Stewart O'Nan has written that you have accomplished for Native Americans what "Richard Wright and James Baldwin achieved for African-Americans ... Philip Roth for Jews and David Leavitt for homosexuals"—you have brought them into the mainstream of attention. Do you feel any pressure to write about certain themes because people think of you as a Native American writer? As more Native Americans have begun publishing books, do you feel freed in any way?
First of all, I only wish what O'Nan says were true. There seems to be very little mainstream awareness of Native Americans as contemporary people. Most people still think in stereotypes—the latest being the casino-rich Indian. I have not yet become acquainted with a casino-rich Indian. The Native people I know whose tribes run casinos work extremely hard and live modestly. As for pressure to write about certain themes, no. Anything I write about comes from inside and not outside pressure. Nothing works on paper unless I feel absolutely compelled to write it, and some of what I write as a consequence may work politically and emotionally, or it simply may not. I do feel pleased that many other Native people are writing books, extending the view of what a Native person is, and introducing the idea of tribal literature. Not "Native" literature, but literature based in one tribal vision. For instance, Ojibwe literature is very different from Lakota, or Zuni, or Santa Clara Pueblo, or Ho-Chunk, or Mesquakie literature. Each is based in an extremely specific tradition, history, religion, worldview.
In a Los Angeles Times review of On the Rez, Sherman Alexie was critical of Ian Frazier, as a non-Indian, "for writing about the Oglalas without stopping to wonder if the Oglalas want to be written about." What's your view of the right of a person from one group to tell another's story?
I will say that I wish The Atlantic Monthly had featured the work of Sherman Alexie on its cover, rather than On the Rez. Although I admire much of Ian Frazier's work, there was nothing groundbreaking about the depiction of yet another flamboyant Indian alcoholic. But there is something extraordinary about a Native writer of Alexie's talent and drive making movies and winning poetry slams and writing and participating in the discourse on race and literature with such exuberance. That is a story. But having said that, I do think parts of Mr. Frazier's book were heartfelt and perhaps did some good in depicting the desolate horror of drinking towns at the edge of reservations. I also think if we all stopped to wonder if the people we were writing about wanted to be written about, half of us would not be writing. Here's a question. Would a white man get away with writing an intimate portrait of a black pimp or junkie? Would an Episcopalian get away with writing about a Jew as a sort of colorful and twisted failure? Would such subjects be cover stories? Doubt it.