Erdrich’s works examine Native American, mixed heritage
By Anisha Mohin, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Louise Erdrich ’76, who is the acclaimed writer of 13 novels and is in residence at the College as a Montgomery Fellow, will engage in a public conversation with Native American studies professor Bruce Duthu this afternoon to discuss the themes in her works and read from her recently published book “Shadow Tag.”
Erdrich is a significant contributor to the field of contemporary American literature. Her first novel, “Love Medicine,” was awarded the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award and her 2009 novel “The Plague of Doves” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
“Erdrich is one of the most important, prolific, influential and captivating voices in contemporary American literature today,” Native American studies professor Melanie Benson-Taylor said. “I didn’t say ‘Native American literature’ because her significance is, and should be, appreciated in much wider terms.”
During her time as a Montgomery Fellow, Erdrich will join several Native American studies, creative writing and English classes, according to Benson-Taylor.
“I think there’s a gravitational pull between her and this place,” Benson-Taylor said. “She’s such an important alum, and we probably wouldn’t let her go more than a few years without luring her back for something or the other. It’s a real privilege to be able to have her here as often as we do.”
In her lecture, Erdrich will focus on her new book “The Roundtable,” slated for publication in October. She will read a piece about medical ethics, which is an issue at the core of the novel.
“The story poses a personal dilemma that utterly changes the lives of everyone in the novel,” Erdrich said.
Erdrich also has two other books coming out later this year. The next book in her “Birchbark House” series, which tells the story of a young Ojibwa girl living on an island in Lake Superior in the mid-18th century, will be published next August, she said.
After that, a completely rewritten version of “The Antelope Wife,” which is set in contemporary Minneapolis and tells the story of a mysterious women through interweaving historical myths, will come out in September, she said.
Erdrich said she draws inspiration for her stories from a wide variety of sources.
“It is not difficult to be inspired,” she said. “Narrative comes from examining one’s own life, hearing the stories of others, from newspapers, from reflection. The difficulty lies in the steps after inspiration. That’s where a writer needs patience and a somewhat compulsive streak about rewriting, editing, thinking, rewriting.”
Erdrich said she believes in the philosophy “write what you know.” She was born into a large family with a mixed heritage. Her mother’s side of the family is Turtle Mountain Chippewa and her father’s side is German, she said. As a result, many of her stories and novels are about the “conflicts, the attractions, the idiocies, the crimes, the joys of people who are of mixed backgrounds.”
“Sometimes, I concentrate on one side, sometimes the other,” she said.
Erdrich’s literary techniques, particularly her tendency to return deliberately to the world of her characters over and over again, continuing their stories into subsequent novels and generations, have earned her comparisons to authors like William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, according to Benson-Taylor. “Louise Erdrich’s work and its vibrant, passionate, humorous, revisionary and visionary capacity seems to me uniquely poised to offer us a real way forward in the field of literature,” Benson-Taylor said. “In a contemporary environment where our entire lives, our beings and our relationships have been constituted by words, stories, representations and images that often subsume us, Louise Erdrich’s marriage with the vibrant worlds and words of her writing is inherently hopeful and life-affirming.”
Erdrich said one of her favorite things about being a writer is the ability to work in a comfortable, familiar environment.
“Being a writer means that I rarely have to wear panty hose,” she said. “Also I was able to work in the same house with my babies. This is a great benefit, [but] it does mean that I have had to develop a fierce amount of concentration.”
Although she spends much of her time at home, Erdrich said she is constantly working.
“That’s one of the other great things about being a writer,” she said. “Every sensation, even the most ordinary, can go into a person’s writing,”
When she is not writing, Erdrich said her favorite thing to do is spend time with her daughters. Her daughter Aza Erdrich Dorris ’11 is graduating this year.
“I’m hoping that from now on I get to spend more of my life span with Aza,” Erdrich said.
Erdrich’s Montgomery Lecture will take place at 4:30 p.m. today in Cook Auditorium.