blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Excerpts from Interviews with Louise Erdrich


From a 1985 Interview with Laura Coltelli

LC: Your poems in Jacklight show a remarkable narrative power and a tense poetic language. What's the impact of the storyteller upon the poet?

ERDRICH: Probably it's more the other way around. I began as a poet, writing poetry, I began to tell stories in the poems and then realized that there was not enough room in a poem unless you are a John Milton and write enormous volumes of poetry. There was not enough room to really tell the story. I just began to realize that I wanted to be a fiction writer; that's a bigger medium, you know. I have a lot more room and it's closer to the oral tradition of sitting around and telling stories. But I think in the book you try to make the language do some of the same things, metaphorically and sensuously, physically, that poetry can do. So the poems had a real effect on the storytelling. But when I wrote the poetry I never had tried writing fiction before, so it was prior to all of the other stories.

LC: But do you consider yourself a poet or a storyteller?

ERDRICH: Oh, a storyteller, a writer.

[. . . .]

LC: Humor is one of the most important features of contemporary Native American literature. Is there a difference in the use of humor in the old Indian stories and in the contemporary ones?

ERDRICH: . . . I really think the question about humor is very important. It's one of the most important parts of American Indian life and literature, and one thing that always hits us is just that Indian people really have a great sense of humor and when it's survival humor, you learn to laugh at things. It's really there, and I think Simon Ortiz is one person who has a lot of funny things happen, but a lot of terrible things as well in his work. It's just a personal way of responding to the world and to things that happen to you; it's a different way of looking at the world, very different from the stereotype, the stoic, unflinching Indian standing, looking at the sunset. It's really there, the humor, and I really hope that beside the serious parts in this particular book, people would see the humor.

LC: Do you see, then, American Indian literature as a multiethnic literature?

ERDRICH: One of the big mistakes that a lot of people make in coming to American Indian literature is thinking, oh, if it's Indian it's Indian. It's just like being in Europe and saying French literature is European literature. Well, of course, French, Italian, German, any culture, has its own literature, its own background, its own language, that springs from that culture. The thing that we have in common is that English is a language which has been imposed on Indian people through a whole series of concerted efforts. Almost all American Indian writers speak English as their main language, as their first language, but they all come out of a different heritage, background, a different worldview, a different mythology.

LC: Do American Indian writers have a large audience among Indian people? Do Indian people see the writer’s work as a means to preserve their culture?

ERDRICH: My first audience that I would write for, that we write for, as a couple, is American Indians, hoping that they will read, laugh, cry, really take in the work. One of the problems is the distribution of literature. For instance, how many Indians can afford to buy Love Medicine right now? It's pretty expensive and it's the way publishing unfortunately goes on. One of our hopes was to have it available in a nice, cheap edition everywhere, so that people could get it easily.

LC: Does literature develop a sense of Pan-Indianness?

ERDRICH: Oh, yes, I think it does. There is a whole rich mine of Pan-Indian culture people circulate, and I am sure literature is certainly one of those things. Michael has had lots of mail from readers of Love Medicine, Indians from different tribes who have read it and said, "This is what happened here and it's so much like what happened to me, or to someone I know." It's a kind of universalizing experience. The book does touch some universals, which is what we’re talking about, Pan-Indianism. We wanted the reservation in Love Medicine to kind of ring true to people from lots of different tribes.

LC: American Indian literature in mainstream American literature. What's its place and its contribution?

ERDRICH: I don't distinguish the two. I don't think American Indian literature should be distinguished from mainstream literature. Setting it apart and saying that people with special interest might read this literature sets Indians apart too.

From Winged Word: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Copyright 1990 by the University of Nebraska Press.


From an interview with Robert Spillman in Salon

The harsh landscape of the Great Plains has always played a prominent role in your work. Is it ingrained in your fictive sensibility?

It probably is. I don’t feel at home in the writing -- I don’t know where I am setting down my feet or where the characters are -- unless I have this visual backdrop for them.

Your characters really linger in the mind. Do you ever feel like your characters get away from you or do you, as Nabokov has said, feel that your characters are "galley slaves"?

They're certainly not galley slaves. I cannot call them up at will. When I was younger I used to take it for granted that they would be there when I needed to write about them. That's not true anymore. I've used up a lot of the emotional weight of my childhood experiences. I have to keep replenishing. I don’t know where it comes from, but whatever it is, I find I need a lot more solitude than I used to, that I have to make a conscious decision to be reclusive and barricade myself. I find I have to make certain commitments to writing that I used to take for granted.

Morrison has stated that she dislikes being labeled a "black writer." Do you feel pigeon-holed or limited by being called a "Native American" writer?

It's an academic distinction. It's made to attract people to courses where you can lump authors together. There's a mixture of people and characters in native fiction. I'm mixed. There's no other way I would have the artistic truth and veracity to write about all those characters. Labels make a good headline I don’t dislike it, but I find it tedious.

online source: http://www.salon.com/weekly/interview960506.html


Return to Louise Erdrich