An Emissary of the Between-World
A conversation with Louise Erdrich, whose stories occur in the "margin where cultures mix and collide"
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.
You return to the same characters over and over again, looking at their lives from different perspectives, telling their stories in different ways. Do your characters ever surprise you—by reappearing in your mind after you thought you were done with them, or by going off in a different direction than you originally thought they would? Specifically, was Father Damien also Agnes when you first wrote about him fifteen years ago in Love Medicine?
Yes, I am often surprised. I had no idea Father Damien was Agnes when I first wrote about him. Nor did I think that Agnes DeWitt was Father Damien when I wrote the story "Naked Woman Playing Chopin."
I have no explanation for why my characters continue on with me beyond the fact of my own consciousness. It must contain these people—at all ages, in situations that become accessible to me over time. Fifteen years isn't long for a writer to continue with her characters. I'm working on one big continuous novel anyway. All of the books are part of it.
In your new book Father Damien expresses the idea that Catholicism helped destroy the traditional fabric of the reservation, and many characters feel the tug between Catholicism and traditional Ojibwe beliefs. In your fiction, how do you reconcile these two faiths? Is this a tension that you've felt in your own life?
There is an immense and contradictory sorrow and love at the heart of this entire subject. Missionary work is essentially tragic. Those who enter the field from the religious side often do so out of love, and out of love they destroy the essence of the people they love. Of course, there are many sorts of priests and nuns—those who despise their converts included. My grandfather believed in the power of the traditional Ojibwe religion, and he also attended Catholic Mass. The priests where he lived (Turtle Mountain) were at the time amenable to a syncretic belief system. There is no tension in my own life regarding the two—I accept the Catholicism of many in my family. Ojibwe traditional practices are more meaningful to me, but I am not deeply religious anyway. That is to say, I do not have an assured faith. I am full of doubt. But even those who doubt can practice a faith, and can pray, and can try to act out of a tradition of kindness and love. My own emphasis is on how religion helps in this world and not how it might improve our standing in the next.
In The Last Report Father Damien asks, "What is the whole of our existence ... but the sound of an appalling love?" In your books you have written about love of God, of music, of land, of children, of culture, among many other kinds. In "Sister Godzilla" you write about a schoolgirl's fiercely protective love for her teacher. If one thing could be said to tie your work together, would it be the myriad forms of love?
I wouldn't mind that being said, although one could also point out that the work is also tied together by the unity of place, or by the failure of love to solve people's lives, or by the desperate wish to be back in our parents' arms, or to be home, or by the dreadful and persistent longing to know why we are on earth.
In 1995 you wrote a memoir, The Blue Jay's Dance, about your pregnancy and the first year of your daughter's life. What was it like to write memoir rather than fiction? Do you think you'll venture into memoir territory again?
Perhaps. The book was very carefully not about any one of my daughters. I'd always kept journals and used the jottings from the other babyhoods too—those early months of my older daughters. There was some desperation in the writing of the book—a longing for my home ground. New Hampshire depleted me—the isolation from family, from other people of Ojibwe or mixed background, the absence of sky and horizon. It was a beautiful place, but I was lonely there and cut off from many of my sources. So I focused on the babies and the woods. Actually, I hope I never have to focus that hard on anything but fiction again.
Much of your work has aspects of magical realism, even surrealism. To me, The Last Report, though there are certainly magical touches, seems less fantastical, more straightforward. Is this because the main character is someone from outside of Ojibwe culture? Or is it a reflection of the way your writing is evolving?
My work has never really seemed fantastical to me, and I haven't noticed a difference in this book, although it was interesting to me that the more unusual occurrences in the book were based on bits of historical research. I found mention of an early priest whose organ playing really did attract snakes. It was considered a great wonder. And every Ojibwe knows someone who's hitched a canoe ride on the rack of a swimming moose.
You have spoken often about the close working relationship you had with your husband—how at times you would work through ideas together, edit each other's work, and figure out aspects of plots. What was the creative process you went through to write this book?
Very much the same process as my last novel, The Antelope Wife. I wrote the first drafts longhand and then subsequent drafts were edited from computer print outs. Just endless drafts, endless reordering of the pieces, endless fiddling and brooding. Typical stuff, I suppose. I valued our work life tremendously. Now I've returned to the way I worked in the beginning of my writing life.
Could you talk about your new bookstore in Minneapolis?
The bookstore is called Birchbark Books. It is a little gem of a place, I think, put together with love and care. Once it was a dentist's office. My daughters and I passed the place and often fantasized about what a great bookstore it would make. Now here it is—a nonprofit independent bookstore. (Most independents are nonprofit anyway these days.) My daughters helped with the renovation and now work there on weekends. I have a great manager, Ray Burns, and we sell all sorts of Native art and jewelry as well as books. The store has its own confessional, which I found at a salvage warehouse. At last I can sit in the priest's box. I do most of the book-buying, and as a consequence I read a lot more contemporary fiction than I used to. In the last couple of weeks my favorite books have been Interpreter of Maladies, In America, Off Keck Road, Hummingbird House, The Name of the World, Lying Awake, and The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay. I like to review them for customers, local people. We sell a great deal of Sherman Alexie, Linda Hogan, and a wealth of Native children's books. Our specialty is Native Americana.
What are you working on next?
I will have another book out soon after The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse. Perhaps because it took so long to finish The Last Report, the next came in a powerful rush, all of a piece. It is called The Master Butcher's Singing Club, and it is a novel.
Chinua Achebe wrote in his recent book of essays, Home and Exile, "The twentieth century for all its many faults did witness a significant beginning, in Africa and elsewhere in the so-called Third World, of the process of 're-storying' peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all sorts of dispossession." Do you see yourself as a "re-storier" for the Ojibwe—a reclaimer of narratives that were never written down or were drowned out by what was taught in school about Native Americans?
The Ojibwe have been telling stories through and in spite of immense hardship, dispossession, and anguish. In fact, Ojibwe narrative has grown rich and subtle on the ironies of conflict. But these are the narratives Ojibwe people tell among themselves, and in Ojibwemowin. I wouldn't even begin to think of myself as a "re-storier" in that sense. I write in English, and so I suppose I function as an emissary of the between-world, that increasingly common margin where cultures mix and collide. That is in fact where many of my stories occur.
Primarily, though, I am just a storyteller, and I take them where I find them. I love stories whether they function to reclaim old narratives or occur spontaneously. Often, to my surprise, they do both. I'll follow an inner thread of a plot and find that I am actually retelling a very old story, often in a contemporary setting. I usually can't recall whether it is something I remember hearing, or something I dreamed, or read, or imagined on the spot. It all becomes confused and then the characters take over, anyway, and make the piece their own.