Friday, June 24, 2011

At Dartmouth, Erdrich Talks About Rewriting 'The Antelope Wife'

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed. Photo courtesy of Richard Stamelman.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer 

   Walking out of Dartmouth's Cook Auditorium into a gray drizzle last Wednesday, a woman who had just listened to Louise Erdrich reading her yet-unpublished story, The Ojibwe Week, blinked a few times.
   "I hardly knew whether it would be day or night out here," she said to no one in particular, seemingly shaking the vivid images out of her head before tugging up the hood of her rain jacket and walking off briskly.
   As is often the case for Erdrich's fans, many of the 200 or so people who gathered in Hanover to hear her read were transported, feeling later as if they'd just emerged from a movie theater and were slightly disconcerted to find themselves still in New Hampshire and not, in fact, carried off to some other place. Though colored with dreams and folklore, the world Erdrich creates again and again in her writing is perfectly recognizable, even ordinary. But it's so well imagined that when we put the book down -- or when Erdrich's unhurried, melodic voice stops reading from it -- we see our own reality in a slightly different light.
   "Her books are haunting," said Dartmouth senior Phoebe Gardener after the reading. "One summer, the summer I was reading The Antelope Wife, I literally had to stop reading it for a while and come back to it because it was too real for me."
   It was a story from The Antelope Wife that Erdrich chose for a public reading as part of her week-long fellowship at Dartmouth -- but not from the book she published under that name in 1998. Instead, in a nod to oral storytelling traditions, Erdrich is in the middle of rewriting the acclaimed book from a different angle. The Ojibwe Week is a story from that effort; it will be published in Granta magazine.
   "Stories are like seeds that the rest of the book can grow out of," Erdrich said. She said she liked the story The Antelope Wife began as, but didn't care for the way the characters' stories unfolded. So she's rewriting, using the original story as a germ from which to retell the greater tale.
   "It's still called The Antelope Wife," Erdrich said during an interview later in the day. "It's the same story but goes off in a different direction than the original book."
   A 1976 Dartmouth graduate and author of dozens of novels, books of poetry, children's books and non-fiction, Erdrich has returned to the school many times, most recently to serve as a Montgomery fellow from April 30 to May 8.
   "I really feel this profound connection to the beauty here," she said. "I've returned over and over and over so that I really have friendships that go back for many, many years with people (in the Upper Valley)."
   Much has changed over the years; when Erdrich graduated in 1976, her class was the first to have matriculated women.
   "It's more diverse in every way (now)," Erdrich said. "I think that the most lasting and most wonderful change is that I see a lot more ease and fellowship and intellectual companionship. ... When I was here that was somewhat true, but there was a great deal to get through in that changeover. I feel now that I was very lucky to be a part of it."
   The Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment brings Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winners to Dartmouth to meet with undergraduates and sit in on classes, offering one-on-one interactions that can be as rewarding for the fellow as for the students.
   "I feel I have hundreds of names and faces in my head," Erdrich said. "There are gatherings every day where students -- mainly undergraduates -- get together with the fellow and ask questions and exchange thoughts and information and, really, sparks fly. It's a wonderful idea, this idea that you bring someone in -- not particularly me -- but this person comes parachuting into Dartmouth College and students get to come and ask any question they want."

   It would take some digging to find a critic who actually criticizes Erdrich, with The New York Times reviews over the years calling her work "masterful" and "emotionally resonant" and literary great Toni Morrison writing that its "beauty ... saves us from being devastated by its power."
   As an author, Erdrich is frequently categorized: she's called a Native American writer (one of the first to transcend the genre to appeal to a broad audience, a claim she humbly shrugs off); a feminist author (she creates strong, almost ferocious female characters imbued with intuition and sexuality); and a writer about minorities and the oppressed who's equally embraced by critics, professors and book club readers. But like most people, she dislikes the labels.
   "Literature lives on if it has something in it that's immediate to all human beings no matter what your background," she said after her reading. "I think that the human thirst for narrative is insatiable. We yearn for that story."
   Her success may also lie in her background, which has given her a wealth of practical experiences to draw upon as well as an emotional aptitude that manifests itself in her achingly flawed characters.
   "It's hard to write comedy into books where your characters are also heartbreaking," she said. "But I hope to God there's humor in (my) books."
   Likewise, it's difficult to write about Erdrich's literary success without also referencing her own somewhat heartbreaking personal life; though she writes mostly fiction, the two go hand in hand. Erdrich's resilience, the guarded, composed face she puts on in public coupled with the raw emotion and poignant humanity her own experiences have lent to her characters affords readers a sense of intimacy with her, an adoration that goes beyond her talent as a writer.
   Born in 1954 to parents of Ojibwe (or Chippewa), French and German ancestry, Erdrich grew up in North Dakota, where her parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Her grandfather, who lived on a nearby reservation, told her Ojibwe stories. Her deep connection to the Great Plains is apparent in her stories, in which the land is always an important character.
   After Dartmouth, Erdrich worked a variety of blue collar jobs, from traffic flagger to truck stop waitress.
   "I learned so much from those jobs," she said. "When you've got a job that you think is going nowhere and you're really tired of the people around you driving you crazy, just take notes. Every conversation you hear is unrepeatable."
   Later, after getting a Masters of Arts from Johns Hopkins University, Erdrich returned to Dartmouth as a writer-in-residence. She began to collaborate with her future husband, the late writer Michael Dorris, who was chair of the Native American Studies program there, and the two began gaining recognition for their work together.
   Erdrich and Dorris became a creative power couple, beloved in the literary world but bound for tragedy in their personal lives. After collaborating on The Broken Cord, a book exposing the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in native populations, their adopted son Abel, who was born with FAS, was hit by a car and died at the age of 23.
   When asked if giving a voice to the people affected by FAS has helped alleviate the problem in the past two decades, Erdrich said it's hard for her to know.
   "I think it's unquestionably raised awareness," she said. "The knowledge of what happens during pregnancy has come a very long way from what it was 30 years ago. So yes, I think that book made the story very human."
   Erdrich and Dorris divorced in 1995; in 1997, Dorris committed suicide. The following year, Erdrich published The Antelope Wife.
   If the decision to rewrite a book first imagined in a time of such grief was taxing for Erdrich, the audience last week didn't see it. Indeed, with three of her daughters in the audience (including Aza Erdrich Dorris, who will graduate from Dartmouth next month), Erdrich seemed as pleased to be reading her story as the audience was to be listening to it.
   Many watched with fond half-smiles, delighting at Erdrich's occasional jokes and the grace with which she gestured with one hand, like an orchestra conductor, while holding her manuscript in the other.
   Erdrich began the evening by welcoming the crowd in Ojibwan, which she said she is "a very poor but enduring speaker of." Then she launched into the reading. Told from several perspectives -- a trend in Erdrich's writing -- the story follows the familiar characters of Klaus, Richard Whiteheart Beads, Rozin and Sweetheart Calico through a week in contemporary Minneapolis.
   Like much of Erdrich's work, the story takes on a feeling of magical realism, with the stuff of everyday life -- stopping by a bakery for a treat while bringing the kids to school, grabbing a beer after a day's work -- seamlessly intertwined with ancient dreams and the echoes of Ojibwe myths.
   Montgomery Endowment director Richard Stamelman, in his introduction before the reading, described Erdrich as a writer who "emerges from her native background and the region and history of her people" with a unique style that blends the "magical past and hardscrabble present" through an intimate "knowledge of land and its deep roots in dreams and myth."
   In vivid imagery, Erdrich recalls the character of Sweetheart Calico, wearing a T-shirt that could belong to anyone in their low-income housing development (black, with an airbrushed eagle, wolf and buffalo charging under a sky filled with lightening against the backdrop of an American flag); a silent woman who disappears without a trace and leaves antelope tracks instead of human ones.
   The story is partly about this seductive, mysterious woman -- the antelope wife -- but more than that it's a nuanced record of the lives of six people living together in a cheap apartment in Minneapolis, joined by a shared past. And it's about language: "how the Ojibwe language has been invaded in some ways by European concepts like the industrial work week," Erdrich said.
   Other images jump out from the story: a dog described as "secondhand ... a used, thrift store dog;" and a vision of Richard Whiteheart Beads and Klaus covertly stacking rolls of environmentally hazardous carpet from an shopping mall in an abandoned barn.
   Though most people in the audience had never seen a barn standing alone on the desecrated prairie, filled from floor to ceiling with rolls of carpeting, the image came to mind without difficulty: the two men gingerly putting the last roll into place on a Friday afternoon, trying to avoid a "carpet quake" so that they could pocket their paycheck and go get a beer.
   The Ojibwe Week is not a traditional story with a beginning and an end, a plot that carries the characters, but a series of illustrations, a parade of detailed observations of scenes from everyday life. After 45 minutes, Erdrich, standing tall and serene with her auburn hair pulled back into a beaded barrette, finished the story. She clasped her hands and smiled a close-lipped smile.
   Today, Erdrich lives in Minneapolis, caring for her youngest daughters, writing while they're at school and helping run a bookstore, Birchbark Books -- a venture she said is "not a viable business if you want to become a wealthy person at all."
   "But when people want to be in a bookstore, they really want to really be in a bookstore," she continued. "And the thing that I think people really love about small, independent bookstores is you never know what to expect. They're eccentric, and every single one is different."
   Erdrich says she understands why people order from Amazon. "When you need a book and it's winter up here and you don't want to leave, you order it online," she said, though she noted that one can order online from a small bookseller as easily as one can from Amazon.
   "Amazon does not hold readings. Amazon does not support literacy in the community. Amazon does not have a physical place or presence where you can congregate in order to talk about books," she said.
   It's the culture that orders from Amazon and gets its stories from nationally syndicated media that Erdrich rebels against in her books. If there is something that characterizes her writing beyond a certain lyrical style or a predilection to write about Native American characters in the modern world, it is her insistence that landscape and history and culture derive from a specific place, and that we must somehow find a way to hold onto that.
   "I think people cling to their differences and those things won't ever be erased entirely," she said.
   Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305

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