An interview with Louise Erdrich about her writing, authenticity and being a voice for Native American culture.
Author of the novels Love Medicine and Tracks, Louise Erdrich is widely recognized as one of today’s most important Native American voices. But I would say she is simply an important voice. I first discovered her writing when I was in high school and, so taken with the gorgeous rhythm of her words, I would hide her books under my desk and read through trig. I loved the way her stories dreamily flitted through time and from character to character, and in that way told the story of a whole community and all its connections. Still an admirer, I hooked up with Erdrich while she was on tour for her novel, The Plague of Doves.
Andrea Miller: In your poem “Advice to Myself,” you say, “pursue the authentic, decide first what is authentic then go after it with all your heart.” What is authentic to you?
Louise Erdrich: Authentic to me is the relationships I have with my family, my children, my friends, my parents, my ancestors, my animals, and my Earth—our Earth. There are times when relationships are not authentic, and that’s the killer. But you can make relationships authentic—you just have to work at it. When you have inauthenticity you are lying in some part of your relationship. Our whole culture is lying about its relationship to the Earth, yet as individuals we can try to start being authentic in our relationship with it. It’s so easy. All you have to do is start having a garden and growing things.
Andrea Miller: Does your Ojibwe teacher teach you Ojibwe language or spirituality?
Louise Erdrich: Well, my teacher is a language teacher, but I can’t say that is anything limiting because what he has taught me is how to exist, really how to exist. Because the language is everything. It has the spirit in it. Each word is kept by a spirit, which means that when people begin to learn the language they are beginning to pray, to become part of a community. When people learn the language, they are on a path. They don’t know it at first but the more of the language they learn, the more of the Ojibwe worldview they take in, and the more they begin to treat the world with the respect and kindness of the old Ojibwe. Learning the language is a way of becoming Ojibwe. It sneaks up on you though.
Andrea Miller: Do you feel a connection to Buddhism?
Louise Erdrich: My main connection to Buddhism is through the late Ani Pachen, a Tibetan nun. Ani wrote a book called Sorrow Mountain and when I started my bookstore I felt that everybody should read it, so I sent it to people. I met Ani in person when a friend of a friend brought her to Minneapolis. She taught me so much through her physical presence. For more than twenty years, Ani was imprisoned by the Chinese communists in a tiny cell where she did her practice. She was a hero, a magnificent woman who was modest and self-effacing and had a great sense of humor.
So for me, Ani is Buddhism. Buddhism is not my tradition but I think all traditions incorporate the qualities that she had. My Ojibwe teacher incorporates them, too. He also is kindness—enormous kindness, compassion, and humor.
Andrea Miller: Your writing always has touch of humor to it.
Louise Erdrich: My whole family loves to get together and tell stories, and humor is always part of it. You can’t just talk about serious subjects all the time. You have to laugh at yourself. Part of loving people is being able to let them poke fun at you and telling funny stories about things that have happened. That’s really what keeps people sane. The people I’ve met who have been through the worst, who have suffered and endured injustices, are always funny. They have this ability to find the absurd in the world and enjoy it—a way of enjoying the uncertainty. If you didn’t have a sense of humor in an airport, you would fall down on the tile floor and cry.
Andrea Miller: It can be pretty painful.
Louise Erdrich: It’s easier, though, if you have a seven-year-old daughter like I do. She’s hilarious. Having her along on this part of my tour has been great because she reminds me that instead of just staring off blankly and becoming moody, which I tend to do, I could be playing the way she is. She plays with everything. If she’s eating something, she makes it into a joke or a story. I think she has that basic sense of story that is in all of us. She always wants to know more and see more and think more.
Andrea Miller: What do you do to get your creative juices flowing?
Louise Erdrich: I drink a lot of tea.
Andrea Miller: (Laughs)
Louise Erdrich: No, I’m serious.
Andrea Miller: I believe you. It helps me too. I’m drinking some right now.
Louise Erdrich: So am I—some great tazo tea. Tea really does it for me.
Andrea Miller: Is there anything that squashes your creativity?
Louise Erdrich: I make sure I don’t try to clean the house. If I’d started cleaning, I would never have become a writer. It’s a female choice—you can either have a clean house or you can be a writer (laughs). If you’re cleaning your house, stop. I leave my house very messy.
Andrea Miller: But you have a bookstore.
Louise Erdrich: I don’t manage it. I have a daughter who works there. She knows all about selling now. Book selling is going to change drastically. We’re looking at a time in which the medium of the book—the physical presence of the book—is changing, and the way people buy books is changing. But I really believe that it is important to have a bookstore that is a visible presence, a place where people can go and connect over books. Buying and reading books on-line is good and interesting, but I think we need both the virtual and the tangible. That’s why I have the bookstore. I also have it because it’s a place for distributing and selling Native language materials. It’s very important to have people learning Native languages to try to keep them alive.
Andrea Miller: So you specialize in books by Native Americans?
Louise Erdrich: Yes, that’s what makes us special compared to other bookstores. But we’re also a general bookstore because we serve a wide clientele in our neighborhood—anybody who wants to come in to find a book. So we’re careful about choosing our books. We have a great children’s selection and we also sell Native American jewelry and art.
Andrea Miller: I understand you work with translating and publishing Native American texts?
Louise Erdrich: Yes, we’ve published one memoir in Ojibwe and we have the rights to several other books with our Birchbark Press, and we’re now going to continue publishing other works all in Ojibwe.