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Interview by Louise Erdrich with Joseph Bruchac
SOURCE: "Whatever Is Really Yours," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and the University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 73-86.
In the following interview, Erdrich discusses her process of writing and storytelling and emphasizes the importance of her heritage in her work.
It was a sunny day in New Hampshire when Louise Erdrich and her younger sister, Heidi Erdrich, a student in Creative Writing at Dartmouth, met me at the airport. We drove to the house her sister was subletting from Cleopatra Mathis, a poet and teacher at Dartmouth. Louise and I sat out on the back deck above a field where apple trees were swelling toward blossom, two horses moved lazily about their corral, and we could see the hills stretching off to the east. Louise is a striking woman, slender with long brown hair. She is surprisingly modest—even a bit shy—for one whose early accomplishments are so impressive: a powerful first book of poetry from a major publisher, a first novel which won critical acclaim, a National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1985. But as we spoke, her voice was clear and her convictions as strong as those of any of the complex white, Indian, and mixed-blood characters who populate her work and her memories.
[Joseph Bruchac:] That poem ["Indian Boarding School: The Runaways"] is among the ones I like best of yours. It does two things I see as characteristic of your work—juxtaposes the two worlds and also hints at a natural unity which is broken yet hovering somewhere in the background. Why did you choose to read that particular poem?
[Louise Erdrich:] It might be something as simple as that the rhythm is something I like. Probably I chose it because I've been thinking about it on the way over here because it's the one I knew by heart and it started me back on remembering when it was written and the place where I grew up.
I like the rhythm, but the subject matter, too, has a special meaning.
It does, even though I never ran away. I was too chicken, too docile as a kid, but lots of other kids did. This, though, is a particular type of running away. It's running home; it's not running away from home. The kids who are talking in this poem are children who've been removed from their homes, their cultures, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by any sort of residential school or church school. Many kinds of schools were set up to take Indian children away from their culture and parents and loved ones and re-acculturate them. So, it is about the hopelessness of a child in that kind of situation. There is no escape. The sheriff is always waiting at midrun to take you back. It's a refrain and it's certainly the way things were for a long time. I guess now that the boarding schools have finally started serving a positive purpose, the current Administration wants to cut them. They're finally schools that can take in children who have nowhere else to go. They do serve some purpose, but naturally they are threatened. It's just a damn shame.
It seems to me, too, to be a metaphor for the things that are happening with American Indian writing and culture in general. People have been dragged into the twentieth century, European/American culture and frame of mind and running away from that means running not away, but back.
Yes, running home. That's true. I have a very mixed background and my culture is certainly one that includes German and French and Chippewa. When I look back, running home might be going back to the butcher shop. I really don't control the subject matter, it just takes me. I believe that a poet or a fiction writer is something like a medium at a seance who lets the voices speak. Of course, a person has to study and develop technical expertise. But a writer can't control subject and background. If he or she is true to what's happening, the story will take over. It was, in fact, hard for me to do that when stories started being written that had to do with the Chippewa side of the family because I just didn't feel comfortable with it for a long time. I didn't know what to make of it being so strong. It took a while to be comfortable and just say, "I'm not going to fight it." "Runaways" is one of the first poems that came out of letting go and just letting my own background or dreams surface on the page.
In my own case, being of mixed ancestry, I'm sometimes surprised how strongly those voices speak from that small percentage of my ancestry which is American Indian. That seems to be true of many other mixed-blood writers of your age and my age, that for some reason that's the strongest and most insistent voice.
I think that's because that is the part of you that is culturally different. When you live in the mainstream and you know that you're not quite, not really there, you listen for a voice to direct you. I think, besides that, you also are a member of another nation. It gives you a strange feeling, this dual citizenship. So, in a way it isn't surprising that's so strong. As a kid I grew up not thinking twice about it, everybody knowing you were a mixed-blood in town. You would go to the reservation to visit sometimes and sometimes you'd go to your other family. It really was the kind of thing you just took for granted.
One reason I like Jacklight so much is that it does deal with both sides of your family—the sections in the butcher shop are very real. They're no less strong than the sections which take place on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. When did you first begin to write, to write poetry or to write anything?
Well, my Dad used to pay me. Ever so often he'd pay me a nickel for a story. So I started a long time ago. Both my Mom and Dad were encouraging, incredibly encouraging. I had that kind of childhood where I didn't feel art was something strange. I felt that it was good for you to do it. I kept it up little by little until I got out of college and decided, this great romantic urge, that I was going to be a writer no matter what it cost. I told myself I would sacrifice all to be a writer. I really didn't sacrifice a lot, though. (laughs) I took a lot of weird jobs which were good for the writing. I worked at anything I could get and just tried to keep going until I could support myself through writing or get some kind of grant. Just live off this or that as you go along. I think I turned out to be tremendously lucky. Once I married Michael, we began to work together on fiction. Then it began to be a full-time job. It's a great thing, a miracle for a writer to be able to just write.
That's something seldom talked about, those persons who enable you to be a writer. It's very hard when you're on your own to devote yourself completely to writing, even part-time.
Michael and I are truly collaborators in all aspects of writing and life. It's very hard to separate the writing and the family life and Michael and I as people. He's also a novelist and has just finished his first novel. It's called A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and it's in the voices of three women; a young girl, her mother, and the grandmother speak. Very beautiful—and unusual, intriguing, interesting for a man to write in women's voices. I think it is because he was raised only by women.
The male voices in Love Medicine are very strong and legitimate. The book ends with a male voice.
Yes. I don't know why that is, but they just seem to be. You don't choose this. It just comes and grabs and you have to follow it.
In one of your poems, "Turtle Mountain Reservation," I notice how strong your grandfather is, how strong his voice is. A storytelling voice, a voice connected to the past in such ways that some people may think him a little crazy—in the poem Ira thinks he is nuts. I wonder if that voice of your grandfather's has made you appreciate more and relate more to the voices of your male characters?
He's kind of a legend in our family. He is funny, he's charming, he's interesting. He, for many years, was a very strong figure in my life. I guess I idolized him. A very intelligent man. He was a Wobbly and worked up and down the wheat fields in North Dakota and Kansas. He saw a lot of the world. He did a lot of things in his life and was always very outspoken. Politically he was kind of a right-winger sometimes, people might say. I think he gave Tricia Nixon an Anishinabe name, for publicity. I always loved him and when you love someone you try to listen to them. Their voice then comes through.
His voice is a combination of voices, too. He can both be in the Bingo Parlor and then speaking old Chippewa words that no one but he remembers.
I think this is true of a lot of our older people. People who aren't familiar with Indians go out to visit and they can't believe that there's somebody sitting in a lawn chair who's an Indian. It's kind of incomprehensible that there's this ability to take in non-Indian culture and be comfortable in both worlds. I recently came from Manitoulin Island, a beautiful place. People are quite traditional and keep a lot of the old, particularly the very old crafts. There is a great quill-work revival. I don't know if you're familiar with the kind of quill-working done up in Ontario, but this is really the center for it. But people live, even there, incorporating any sort of non-Indian thing into their lives to live comfortably. That's one of the strengths of Indian culture, that you pick and choose and keep and discard. But it is sometimes hard because you want some of the security of the way things were. It's not as easy to find the old as it is to find the new.
In the poem "Whooping Cranes," legend-time and modern times come together, when an abandoned boy turns into a whooping crane. There's a sort of cross-fertilization of past and present in legend.
And natural history. The cranes cross over the Turtle Mountains on their way down to Aransas, Texas. We always used to hear how they'd see the cranes pass over. No more, though. I don't know if they still fly that way or not.
In some of Leslie Silko's work you see that mixing of times. Someone may go out in a pickup truck and meet a figure out of myth.
Don't you, when you go on Indian land, feel that there's more possibility, that there is a whole other world besides the one you can see and that you're very close to it?
Very definitely. Crossing the border of a reservation is always entering another world, an older and more complicated world. How do you feel when you go back to Turtle Mountain?
I feel so comfortable. I really do. I even feel that way being in North Dakota. I really like that openness. But there's a kind of feeling at Turtle Mountain—I guess just comfortable is the word to describe it. There are also places there which are very mysterious to me. I don't know why. I feel they must have some significance. Turtle Mountain is an interesting place. It hasn't been continuously inhabited by the Turtle Mountain Band. It was one of those nice grassy, game-rich places that everybody wanted. So it was Sioux, it was Mitchiff, it was Chippewa. They are a soft, rolling group of hills, not very high, little hills—not like these (gestures toward mountains)—and there were parts that my grandfather would point out. The shapes were called this or that because they resembled a beaver or whatever kind of animal. He even incorporated the highways into the shapes because some of them got their tails cut off. (laughs) Even that people can deal with. Not always, though. There are many places that are certainly of religious significance that can never be restored or replaced, so I don't want to make light of it.
As in the Four Corners area.
Yes, I was thinking of Black Mesa. In the case of those hills at Turtle Mountain, there was that resilience because they were places which had a name, but not places—such as Black Mesa—much more vital to a culture and a religion. Catholicism is very important up there at Turtle Mountain. When you go up there, you go to Church! My grandfather has had a real mixture of old time and church religion—which is another way of incorporating. He would do pipe ceremonies for ordinations and things like that. He just had a grasp on both realities, in both religions.
I see that very much in your work. A lake may have a mythological being in it which still affects people's lives while the Catholic Church up on the hill is affecting them in a totally different way. Or you may have someone worrying about being drafted into the army at the same time he's trying to figure out how to make up love medicine—in a time when old ways of doing things have been forgotten. It seems similar, in a way, to Leslie Silko's Ceremony, where there is a need to make up new ceremonies because the old ones aren't working for the new problems, incorporating all kinds of things like phone books from different cities.
You may be right. I never thought about the similarity. This "love medicine" is all through the book, but it backfires on the boy who tries it out because he's kind of inept. It's funny what happens until it becomes tragic. But, if there is any ceremony which goes across the board and is practiced by lots and lots of tribal people, it is having a sense of humor about things and laughing. But that's not really what you're saying.
Who knows? (laughs) Anyway, I don't deal much with religion except Catholicism. Although Ojibway traditional religion is flourishing, I don't feel comfortable discussing it. I guess I have my beefs about Catholicism. Although you never change once you're raised a Catholic—you've got that. You've got that symbolism, that guilt, you've got the whole works and you can't really change that. That's easy to talk about because you have to exorcise it somehow. That's why there's a lot of Catholicism in both books.
The second poem in Jacklight is called "A Love Medicine."
I was sort of making that poem up as a love medicine, as a sort of healing love poem. So, I suppose there are all kinds of love and ways to use poetry and that was what I tried to do with it.
There are several things I see in Jacklight. One is an urge toward healing, a desire to ameliorate the pain, create something more balanced, even if it means facing difficult realities. Was that a conscious theme?
I don't think any of it was very conscious. Poetry is a different process for me than writing fiction. Very little of what happens in poetry is conscious, it's a great surprise. I don't write poetry anymore. I've in some ways lost that ability. I've made my unconscious so conscious through repeated writing of stories that I don't seem to have this urge to let certain feelings build until they turn into a poem.
Another theme I see strongly in Jacklight, and in all of your writing, is the theme of strong women who become more than what they seem to be. Transformations take place—in some cases, mythic transformations.
That is true of women I have known. We are taught to present a demure face to the world and yet there is a kind of wild energy behind it in many women that is transformational energy, and not only transforming to them but to other people. When, in some of the poems, it takes the form of becoming an animal, that I feel is a symbolic transformation, the moment when a woman allows herself to act out of her own power. The one I'm thinking of is the bear poem.
That's a really wonderful four-part poem.
Oh, I'm so glad! But, you know, she's realizing her power. She's realizing she can say "No," which is something women are not taught to do, and that she can hit the sky like a truck if she wants. Yes, it's transformational. It goes through all of the work I've been doing lately. Part of it is having three daughters, I think, and having sisters. I have an urgent reason for thinking about women attuned to their power and their honest nature, not the socialized nature and the embarrassed nature and the nature that says, "I can't possibly accomplish this." Whatever happens to many young girls. It happens to boys, too. It happens to men, no question. In the book there are men—maybe not so much in the poetry, but in the fiction—like Lipsha, who begin to realize that they are truly strong and touch into their own strength. I think it's a process of knowing who you are. There's quest for one's own background in a lot of this work. It's hard not to realize what you're doing. And you say, "Funny thing, I have so many characters who are trying to search out their true background. What can this mean?" One of the characteristics of being a mixed-blood is searching. You look back and say, "Who am I from?" You must question. You must make certain choices. You're able to. And it's a blessing and it's a curse. All of our searches involve trying to discover where we are from.
It makes me think of Jim Welch's wonderful scene in Winter in the Blood when that old man turns out to be his true grandfather.
Oh yes, yes, Certainly.
In that same light, there's a similarity there with Leslie Silko, though I don't mean to imply that you've copied anything of hers.
No, no, that didn't even enter my head. She's working out of a whole different tribal background. She was a discovery for me in a particular way I don't think any other writer will ever be. I'm very attached to her work.
You don't write poetry now because you feel the conscious effort of writing prose makes it less available?
It sands away the unconscious. (laughs) You know, there's really not much down there. But what really sands away the unconscious is getting up in the middle of the night to rock your baby to sleep. When you live in isolation—I notice this whenever I leave—I dream poems. But when you get up at all hours feeding babies, you just don't have that kind of experience, you're just not able to let your unconscious work for you. However, I don't miss it. I'd rather have the kids than the tortured unconscious. Also, I have a very practical way of working. I just sit down and Michael works in one room and I work in the other and we just sit there as long as we can. I really have got more and more mundane about my work habits. There are times when I'm up at 4:30 and I feel like something extremely strange is about to happen—whether it's writing or not. Maybe I'm just crazy. But I sit down and, if something is there, it will be written. Usually, though, after the kids are taken care of, I try to write and very few poems come that way. Almost none. I maybe have three now since Jacklight, which I don't think I'll ever publish. Those poems now seem so personal. I just don't know if I can put them in a book again! (laughs)
I think you're tapping, though, the same sources for your prose that you've tapped for your poetry, even though the method may be different. I think the depth of experience, the types of metaphor, and the direction it goes are all on the same road.
I'm connected to the poems because you feel so protective toward your first outpourings. You want them to have some kind of continuity in their life. I think that is probably true. You can see the themes that were being worked with in Jacklight go on into the writing in other ways. The poem you mentioned, "Family Reunion," turns into part of "Crown of Thorns" once it goes into the fiction. A lot of them do that. The next book, which is The Beet Queen, takes place in that sort of butcher shop world and incorporates people who are and are not in those poems. It's a very different book but also one which I think flows naturally out of both Jacklight and Love Medicine.
What years did you write the poems in Jacklight?
All through '77 and '78. Then, once it was accepted to be published I wrote a few extra ones. I was so thrilled to be finally published. The manuscript went everywhere and I thought it would never be published. Then it was, and I was given this great boost. So I wrote some of the ones I really like, like the one about the bear and about living with Michael and the children, because I was so happy. I guess it was surprising. I thought I would live my whole life without being published and I wouldn't care, but as it turned out I was really happy.
When did you begin writing with Michael?
Once we were married. In '81. We began by just talking about the work, back and forth, reading it. He always—right at first before I got to know him—was the person I would go to with problems. I'd say, "Michael, should I get into teaching, should I quit writing? What should I do?" And he said to me, "Look, there's only one thing to do. Throw yourself into your work. Don't take any more jobs." And I did it. I just tried what he said. (laughs) At times I found myself in some unpleasant monetary predicaments. But I've been lucky. I think it is because we started working together. He had ideas for the whole structure of Love Medicine that became the book. We worked on it very intensely and closely, and I do the same with his work. We exchange this role of being the … there isn't even a word for it. We're collaborators, but we're also individual writers. One person sits down and writes the drafts. I sit down and write it by myself or he does, but there's so much more that bears on the crucial moment of writing. You know it, you've talked the plot over, you've discussed the characters. You've really come to some kind of an understanding that you wouldn't have done alone. I really think neither of us would write what we do unless we were together.
Didn't the genesis of Love Medicine, "The World's Greatest Fisherman," come about that way. Michael saw the announcement of the Chicago Prize …
Yes. Michael was flat on his back, sick, and he said, "Look, you've got to enter this! Get in there, write it!" And I did, brought it in and out to him, changed it around, together we finished it.
You have such a strong narrative line in all your work and stories seem so important to you, stories told by your characters in the poems, the stories of the poems themselves and then the structure of story in Love Medicine, which is, in fact, many stories linked together. What is story to you?
Everybody in my whole family is a storyteller, whether a liar or a storyteller (laughs)—whatever. When I think what's a story, I can hear somebody in my family, my Dad or my Mom or my Grandma, telling it. There's something particularly strong about a told story. You know your listener's right there, you've got to keep him hooked—or her. So, you use all those little lures: "And then …," "So the next day …," etc. There are some very nuts-and-bolts things about storytelling. It also is something you can't really put your finger on.
Why do you follow it? I know if there is a story. Then I just can't wait to get back to it and write it. Sometimes there isn't one, and I just don't want to sit down and force it. You must find that, too, because you tell a lot of stories.
Yes, there's something about a story that tells itself.
The story starts to take over if it is good. You begin telling, you get a bunch of situation characters, everything together, but if it's good, you let the story tell itself. You don't control the story.
This section contains 4,187 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)