Guernica

Louise Erdrich: Reproductive Nightmares, Real and Imagined

Photograph: Hilary Abe.

On George W. Bush’s  first day in office in 2001—which also happened to be the twenty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade—the new president re-imposed the global gag rule, withdrawing US family-planning aid from foreign NGOs that provide legal abortion services or referrals. The same year, he also passed the Patriot Act, which was sometimes referred to as the “Anti-Terrorism Bill,” if only to mask the surveillance privileges it granted the government over American citizens—that is, anyone with a phone, bank account, email, credit reports, and a proclivity for Internet browsing. And that same year, novelist Louise Erdrich gave birth to her youngest daughter, Azure.

Feeling enormously perplexed and stricken by what she viewed as political backtracking, Erdrich turned to her craft. Erdrich’s past work, especially her fiction, often wrestles with social themes of family, justice, community, the duality of Native American experiences, and the burden of heritage. The writer was born in 1954 in Little Falls, one of the oldest cities in Minnesota, to a German American father and a French Ojibwe mother. Her parents met while her dad was teaching at a Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation, where her mother lived and where her grandfather was the tribal chair.

Erdrich’s rich relationship with her family and heritage cannot be disassociated from the worlds she builds in story. There is so much to learn about Native communities through art, and there is also the pure pleasure of Erdrich’s storytelling style, which has been called “rich but plain” and “a genre of one.” I read her stories and become replete in the same way I do at a concert when I realize the music is all around me, not just in my ears. One of my favorite lines about Erdrich comes from John Freeman: “Language contains meaning that is greater than our intended meaning—and Erdrich, of all the living American writers, uses that capacity to the greatest ability. Her work feels huge as a result.”

One of the first stories Erdrich published, “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” features an Ojibwe woman who encounters a stranger on her way home. This story became the first chapter in Love Medicine, Erdrich’s first novel, published in 1984, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Thirty-three years later—after the mainstream success of The Round House and LaRose—readers should literally brace for her newest novel, Future Home of the Living God, a book borne from the shared malaise of today’s, and 2001’s, politics.

In 2002, Erdrich began writing about Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a 26-year-old newly pregnant woman who was adopted and raised by well-meaning white Minneapolis liberals who give Cedar a letter from her Ojibwe birth mother. Cedar decides to drive north to the reservation to meet her birth mother, Mary Potts, a devout Catholic, and Mary’s husband Eddy, a wise depressive who is writing a collection of essays and observations that explain why he isn’t killing himself today.

Political crisis is the muted soundtrack to Cedar’s private story: we learn through Cedar’s adoptive father Glen that the president is threatening a state of emergency; through a talk-show host that “evolution has stopped”; and through DNA experts that dogs, cats, horses, and pigs aren’t breeding any longer. Another rumor: women have stopped giving birth to boys. Soon after, pregnant women are plucked from their homes to be sequestered in hospitals, to give birth under the surveillance and care of the new government, which calls itself The Church of the New Constitution. Cedar figures people will always want ammunition, cigarettes, and alcohol, so she stocks up on apocalypse currency and goes into hiding.

Future Home of the Living God, structured like a journal that Cedar intends on sharing with the child in her womb, is a work of speculative fiction and, as such, is a slight departure from Erdrich’s previous writing. Future, in Erdrich’s words, “extrapolates a new reality from” the world we’re currently bumping up against. Though the world is invented, its parallelism to today is eerie, at times dizzying.

When Erdrich and I spoke spoke over the phone—she in our shared home base, Minneapolis, and me calling from Brooklyn, where I was visiting for a book festival. (She’s confused, at first, why I’m not sitting down with her. “You would be having tea with me,” she says, “which is actually very nice.”) During our conversation, she told me that she deliberately made her book’s time period vague. “It could be happening in a few years, or it could happen in twenty years, or it could happen tomorrow. It’s something that’s happening in some undefined future.”

Or, as it I heard it the first time around, before adjusting the volume on my recorder: “It’s something that’s happening.”

Joanna R. Demkiewicz for Guernica

Guernica: It was interesting to learn that you started this project in 2002, the year after George W. Bush passed the global gag rule and the Patriot Act, which are crucial to this story. You started writing at that time, but then you put the book away for a few years and wrote The Round House and LaRose.

Louise Erdrich: Yeah, I think it was about eight years. I had to reconstruct it. I came back [because] I really couldn’t go back to the book I was working on after the election. In November, I just had to finish this book. I was compelled to finish it.

Guernica: Knowing that Cedar has been with you for so long—even if there was an interim where you worked on other projects—I’d love to talk about how her character nestled her way into you, both creatively and politically.

Louise Erdrich: I think she was there all along. I feel a kind of tenderness for her, knowing how vulnerable a woman is at that time. And I had just had my youngest child, so those memories were very, very close to me, and so is she. The difference in age between my oldest and my youngest is like seventeen years, so I also had older daughters. I was very focused on what it was like to grow up a woman, to be a woman, to have a child. Of course, I felt extremely fortunate to have had been able to make this choice, to never have the choice forced upon me, and to make it full-heartedly and wholeheartedly.

That’s why, in the beginning, [Cedar] talks about how she had an abortion, and her choice is now to embrace this [pregnancy]. That’s how all children should come about. I feel very strongly about that. I think what drives me crazy is the idea that women somehow are too childlike to make a decision.

Looking at the shape of the world, I see how we’re in a time where women are the subject of hatred, fear, and we have to fight that all the time. I feel that there are fights we take for granted. When I look at the world, I see that women are subject to cruelty. And that’s why the global gag rule means so much to me, that the United States wouldn’t stand up for the rights and health of women.

Guernica: In a letter accompanying advance copies of the book, you also mention that most Americans won’t see the effects of the global gag rule. And I agree, there’s a lot we take for granted. In the book, because Cedar is pregnant, there’s so much information she’s cut off from, because journalism is essentially dead and is being dictated by the fascist-like government.

Louise Erdrich: And that’s also what we saw. That’s kind of exciting for me, that you deciphered that from the book, because for me it was also about what happens when we don’t know our sources and information. When we don’t have them, or we don’t trust them. And that’s what’s happening, you know. The trust has been eroded. And when something cataclysmic happens, we need to have that trust in our information.

My thought in writing this book was: How do we respond to a huge catastrophe with a system of information that’s becoming increasingly centralized in the hands of huge, corporate, money-making concerns? Where do we go? And we have this dependence now in getting our news from the Internet, and for me that’s another thing that can easily become a thing of the past. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t how I grew up, so for me, all things are temporary. The Internet, which seems now so embedded and personal and crucial to our lives, isn’t at all—we really shouldn’t think of it that way.

So the book is about how we get our information when we don’t have our sources anymore. It’s about confusion, it’s about being isolated and trying to figure out why there are people who gather on street corners who try to sort through and disseminate information.

Guernica: Cedar’s lack of information is crucial to the story. When Cedar is on the reservation, they begin communicating by wolf sounds and calls.

Louise Erdrich: Yeah, it’s an in-joke comical reference to the code-talkers of WWII, and how theirs was the unbreakable code because they used oral tradition and indigenous language to communicate. And we still have wolves in Minnesota, so people could quickly invent a code.

Guernica: Because you have to. It gets to a point where Cedar is passed notes and then has to eat them because information is so policed.

Louise Erdrich: Right! Her mother, the eternal hippie, makes them on rice paper and tells her that they’re good and that they’re actually quite nutritious.

Guernica: Her adoptive mother, Sera, is such a compelling character.

Louise Erdrich: I loved writing Sera, oh my goodness. If things go right in a book, I like to see an evolution of character, an evolution of one person understanding another person. So Sera changes from what Cedar understands to be an unrealistic woman, an ungrounded idealist. She changes from this in Cedar’s mind to a tough guerrilla mom. She comes through for her daughter. And she also has the capacity to help her daughter become part of her birth family, but she has an insecurity and anxiety with her own role with her daughter. And everything is wrapped up because motherhood is the central terror at this point; it’s the central way to be caught and controlled. Everything really is wrapped up in different, faceted views of female bond and this sense of insurrection within a family.

 

Guernica: At one point, Cedar—who is very spiritual throughout the book, and becomes even more so closer to her due date—asks Sera what her version of hell is. And Sera responds, “Hell is what’s happening right now, here on Earth.” I was wondering if you could speak to the way spiritual thought is used throughout the book. I found it to be both a tonic and a kind of manipulation.

Louise Erdrich: I’m not sure where to even start.

Guernica: Fair.

Louise Erdrich: [Laughs] I wanted to write a book that was about evolution. There’s clearly biological chaos, but what is actually happening remains hidden from everybody. There isn’t some sudden moment where a baby is born and you say, “Oh, I get what happened.” It’s about how easy it is to take away the world that we think is so permanent and reliable. And how the first people who become vulnerable in a situation where there’s fear of reproductive panic are, of course, young women. I wanted to write the evolution and understanding that begins to incur between the mothers and daughters in the book.

Guernica: I was really taken with this line midway through the novel. Cedar learns that scientists have discovered that “folded quietly and knitted in right along with the working DNA, there is a shadow self.” And then Cedar says, “This won’t surprise poets.” This made me wonder: How can art, poetry, and literature understand and engage with evolution in a way that science and political dialogue cannot?

Louise Erdrich: I think one of the most fertile, unexplored areas for poets and fiction writers is the world of science. I become overwhelmed by the science world. In reading it, it’s poetry, it’s not fiction, really, because it goes beyond… You find things out that astound you. They go into the area of human awe and our inability to counter the transcendence with words. Very few people can, at least. Actually, my sister, Heid, does that in poetry, and it astounds me. That’s her ground. She loves to think about science and about the science of pregnancy, so she’s a real influence on me. Sometimes I sit down with her and her husband over a glass of beverage, and they love to talk about weird science-based scenarios. I’m very influenced by my family in terms of thinking about science and poetry. A lot of my family are physicians and nurses in the medical field.

Guernica: It’s not central to the book, but you mention briefly that winter has vanished. And at one point, Cedar has this memory of the last winter, and I just sobbed.

Louise Erdrich: You did? I sobbed, too. Because I thought, do we really understand that we’re losing winter?

Guernica: What do you think fiction can do to communicate environmental and climate demise?

Louise Erdrich: I think it will be central to a great deal of fiction. And it has been. I’ve been reading Octavia Butler and Wentworth M. Johnson, and I’m reading the Dune trilogy again. It’s a desert planet with a pastoral past in which the planet was green. And it has a mixture of all of our religions and all of our hierarchical tendencies that Frank Herbert thinks about, and I think that’s one of the great works. And also The Handmaid’s Tale, which obviously I’ve thought about a lot in finishing this piece; I thought about the sense of claustrophobia in that book. Those are some of my touchstones. I don’t read science fiction religiously. Like, for a lot of people, that’s what they read. But it is kind of where I started becoming a fiction writer.

Guernica: Reading these books specifically?

Louise Erdrich: Being entranced with the idea that you could make your own world in fiction. That was always something I wanted to do. But, of course, then I started reading poetry and then I wanted to do that [laughs]. My fiction is usually very place-specific. I make my own places in fiction, and that was something I wanted to do from the beginning—to have my own worlds.

That’s what I was getting at, that we always do create our own places in fiction, and they’re always based on real places, but they’re fictionalized because you make your choices on what to include.

Guernica: At one point Cedar says, “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful. I think it may be our strongest quality.” What gives you hope as a writer living amid tumult?

Louise Erdrich: I might not be able to use the word “hope,” but I could certainly use the word “optimism.” I’m very optimistic. I don’t feel that it helps to be pessimistic. At some point in my life I made a conscious decision that I would try to be optimistic—not blind to anything at all—but to always hear the way that had the best chance for happiness. And that’s the way I try to live. Living with the effort to make joy is the only response I can give to the darkness that we are experiencing. One week everything is disintegrating. One week everything’s under water.

We haven’t really absorbed much, like we haven’t absorbed what it is to get factual news. It’s very hard to track down what’s real and what’s not real. We haven’t absorbed what climate change is doing. Because whether people associate it or not, fear of immigration is completely related to climate change, because the mass migrations that are happening, the war in Syria, all of these structural human migrations are related to climate change. As soon as there’s a crisis, there are people who take charge and want to control others. Climate-change catastrophe and human migration and immigration are great for corporate and governmental control over people, and we have to contend with that. I should say, I see corporate control behind everything that the government is working on right now.

We have a huge struggle for our sense of what a democracy is. We’re not living in reality when we think we have some sort of democracy. We’re really on the edge. We have two presidents who lost the popular vote but won the election. This is not working.

Guernica: In the letter included with advance copies of your book, you mention how writing this book feels so immediate when you see any picture of a group of white men making a decision on women’s bodies and climate change.

Louise Erdrich: When you see that Exxon—it’s not just Exxon, but let’s just take them—never paid for ruining the lives of people and ruining some of the most pristine parts of the world, and you see them in charge. You see the guys standing around signing… It does make you laugh and cry at the same time.

Guernica: It’s so easy to sink into despair. And Eddy—his memoir is about why he isn’t killing himself. That itself is such a serious topic. Suicide is totally unfunny. But the way he approaches it is so wry and funny.

Louise Erdrich: Yes! To decide against suicide on the basis of a gas-station cappuccino [laughs]. I think my favorite might be when he gets the little stones in his shoes. Because stones in Ojibwe are animate, and somehow whatever spirituality I have might be based on stones, because they bear within them—well, they’re entire beings—the ancientness that we can never grasp. The fact that, as well as by a cheap cappuccino or a paper raft of gas-station nachos, he’s saved by these little stones, these little beings. That’s why I loved writing Eddy.

Guernica: Why Eddy? Why his memoir? How did his character come about, and how did you see him fitting into the bigger narrative?

Louise Erdrich: There are lonely geniuses living in small towns and on reservations. I wrote Eddy as one of these very interesting isolated people. He connects in a surprising way with Cedar, is part of her rescue work. Plus, he decides to live another day after eating gas station nachos, so I had to love him.

Guernica: To broaden the picture a bit, I wonder if you could talk about how you consider this book a departure from your earlier work in fiction—or do you consider it a departure at all? Is this your first book that materialized as a response to specific political and social realities that troubled, and still trouble, you?

Louise Erdrich: All of my books are responses to political reality. This one just extrapolates a new reality from this one. I have written fantasy and speculative fiction. The Antelope Wife won the World Fantasy Award in 1999. But yes, this book is a departure. Strangely, as most horror and dystopian writers know, it is comforting to write a world you hope won’t come true. Soon as I say that, I must also say that a great deal of this book is true.