Louise Erdrich interview

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Jan 19 08:22:16 MST 2001

Atlantic Unbound | January 17, 2001


A conversation with Louise Erdrich, whose stories occur in the "margin
where cultures mix and collide"

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.

-Katie Bacon

Q: 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?

Erdrich: 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.

Q: How has learning Ojibwemowin changed the way you think about English?

Erdrich: 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.

Q: 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?

Erdrich: 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.

Q: 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?

Erdrich: 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.

Q: 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?

Erdrich: 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.

Full interview at:

Louis Proyect
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