The PEN Ten with Heid E. and Louise Erdrich
In this week’s PEN Ten, guest editor Natalie Diaz speaks with Heid E. and Louise Erdrich, sisters who work with various mediums to contribute to and create space for indigenous and female writers to have a voice.
Presented as part of the PEN Ten Interview is the poemeo “Advice to Myself 2: Resistance,” Directed by Heid E. Erdrich, written and performed by Louise Erdrich, and filmed and edited by Elizabeth Day.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Louise Erdich (LE): My all time favorite place to work is where I can hear Lake Superior, one of the most resonant places on earth for me. Deep, cold, unforgiving, pure. Being near enough to hear the waves is a medicine for me. That said, I have written nearly everything in a cramped room filled with wooden toys, masks, antlers, saints, bells, and lots of paper.
Heid E. Erdich (HE): Much of my writing happens in my head while I am walking or driving or on a plane or train or in some way in transit. Memorizing a line works like mental trawling you get that tug and then you try to play it long enough to reel it in, to land the words. Land for me equals a chair in my office. All my chairs come off curbs or from yard sales or estate sales. After I finish a book, I can’t stand the chair and I give it away or return it to the curb from whence it came.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
HE: Arrests have been a big part of my life, but I’ve never had a ticket, even. At one point I was even a sworn Officer of the Law. Long ago. One year. Taught me hard lessons about control and powerlessness and divided thinking about who is right and who is wrong. Who needed help and how it could be given. What it meant to be mentally ill and addicted and enraged. And I learned the best swears of my life in that job. At times my help meant protection and justice for women and children. But it jaded me. I had to quit.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
LE: Motel letterhead paper, circular stones, old books, small town historical collections, 1950’s embroidery, the habits of birds, the Ojibwe language, certain words, the smell of bookstores, the ceilings in old libraries, weathered wood, fresh cut wood, ancient trees, baby trees, the colors of paint, the color blue, typewriters. I try not to include people in my obsessions.
HE: These may seem abstractions unworthy of obsession: archetype and stereotype, image and counter-image of Native people and culture. My writing always turns toward the way indigenous people and our objects, art, sacred relatives, even our languages and bodies are portrayed by others, kept in the past, imprisoned in museums and institutions—including literary institutions—and constantly presented by the other in terms the other understands, which is namely in the past. Our present selves are then invisible, obscured, like ghosts—made dead. Native youth struggle and often fail to find themselves reflected. Native women are caught in the myth of that first captured woodland maiden, captured in the sex trade of colonial imagination. Repatriations efforts influence me. Ways science intersects with creepy needs to keep and control and sell and display the indigenous body. Visual artists responses to all of this obsesses me. Writing in and out of Native representation has become my mode to resistance, my way to say we are here. Now. Always.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Why does it stand out for you?
LE: In The Bluejay’s Dance I began to talk about being a mother and about giving birth. I am always hungry for real news on what this is like for other women. I wanted to talk about the rawness, the isolation, about an ecstatic shame that keeps a certain silence even now.
HE: Writing about atheism in subtle ways. I’ve heard atheists are the most hated of humans, along with obese women and women perceived as bad moms. Writing about post-partum depression and infanticide in my second book of poems felt like a huge risk. Motherhood holds so much freight and you sign up for public criticism of your most personal values, your most causal acts. Any statement can be cause for attack. That whole gorilla-kid-zoo-mom thing—look at that. No don’t. And right now, writing about being white-passing and Ojibwe always feels a bit daring because I never know how it will come back to me, who will use it against me or co-opt it in some weird way. Writing this answer feels daring. When I write now and think of a future with politics the way they are in our country during this election, I wonder if even our little political pushes will put us at risk at risk of what, I don’t know. String theory at this point. Let’s not pull that string.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
LE: This question always throws me because I became a writer largely to evade responsibility. That said, I sometimes write opinion pieces because I feel compelled to speak out on issues of justice for Indigenous people. It is not my forte, really, but there is such a dearth of understanding about these issues. I do not enjoy writing opinion pieces or informative essays, but I guess you could say that every so often I become furiously engaged. In fiction, however, the story comes first and issues I care about have to be absorbed by the story in order to resonate with a reader. In that case, I follow the story wherever it leads.
HE: Truth-telling is always part of the answer, but I do not think it is just telling one truth, more like leading toward truth. Creating paths to truths, multiple ways.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
LE: It seems to me that being a public intellectual is crucial these days. Even if it is out fashion, we all have to fight for the freedom of conscience we have taken for granted in this country. We have to speak up as we see the erosion of all we hold dear. We have to defend an inclusive, sane, tolerant, racially, ecologically, and linguistically diverse world. We have to do something every day to defend our climate and take back a political system that does not represent the majority of people in this country. We have devolved out of a democracy into something we don’t yet understand. We give up so much to be comfortable I know I do. We are watched, spied on, categorized, controlled. It is almost impossible not to be controlled in a capitalist system when the people have so little control over institutions that are based on perpetuating inequity. We need women in power but also, women do oppress women it is a disheartening fact. Let me put it another way. We need stand-up women in power, women who will fight for the earth, for their childrens’ futures. We need women who don’t act like men.
HE: Collectiveness has such blurry edges with the hugeness of social media, but it also creates purpose for writers. When one shares a call to action or contributes to a public discussion, response collects instantly these days. Collective response follows quickly. Rain forming around dust—we are precipitate in an enormous cloud, suddenly and easily, it seems. The harder task, the thing I sense as our purpose, is to deepen discourse, to fight for the long form, the well-thought-out reflection on movements, actions, events. We do have a task to shape and deepen and apply art with words because someone has always thought before they spoke, someone has always been the wise one—this is a human role, an old one, being the thinker for the tribe. I am conservative this way, but if people always did something, let’s retain that way if we can. We probably need it.
The body is political, especially for women and people of color. Sound and language begin as energy in the body. How do you inhabit or understand your body when you read and/or write?
LE: Let’s establish first that I am not a person of color. My skin is pale, my hair is brown. I am Anishinaabe, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Also I am German and French. I’ve turned 60, which brings a new physicality to everything. I am more aware of myself physically than I was in the 20s. I am more resilient in certain ways that surprise me. I can walk with fake purpose. I can cook with a numbing speed. When writing, I now can sit still although I am more easily distracted. I write by hand and I think that makes a great difference in the texture of the books. There is more engagement, more physicality. I leave my chair every hour. I like to play. I like to wander. I have a trampoline to jump on and still eat a lot of popcorn. I feel like a 9 year old girl. Except I live with a 15 year old girl, and she is my daughter. Confusing, and entrancing.
HE: Oh, well, this is the corpus. Forgive me. Body in everything and every moment: my essential work. My attempts to escape body through making poemeos (as Louise calls them) just brought me further into my voice, which I had treated as if separate from my self, from my body, and now I know, no. All body, all the time. Body claiming pleasure, suffering, asserting femaleness. Body making other bodies. Body viewed through other bodies. Body relating to global body. Deep cellular science of the body. My body as whole self. These projects remain my on-going, everything, all.
We all have a language and system of images that are our own, that were built into our lexicons from the fragments and musics of places and people we come from. What is a word or image that haunts your writing or that you find yourself revisiting, and what does it mean to you, what or where of your life is it made of?
LE: I grew up on the edge of a small town in the Great Plains where I could see the sky change constantly. The sky haunts my writing, and haunts me. I thought I would die of loneliness when I lived out east and couldn’t get to a flat place. Now that place is about two hours west, so I am more content. Also, I live next to a lake and so I can go out morning and night to check the sky. I need to know about the sky in order to live my day.
HE: This question moves me—sometimes the pleasure of being asked something from another writer is arresting because you see, oh, she gets it. How to answer something that intense. Well, of course body, as above, comes to my thinking just now. Ojibwe words, as I learn them, sometimes lodge in a poem—by lodge, I mean taking lodging, they live in a poem. My new book refers to music a lot, rock music, mostly. Bowie I went to as muse and Annie Lennox. There’s always a playlist in each poem. Words and sound patterns from other poets echo especially. Langston Huges, Adrienne Rich, Gerald Vizenor, even Patti Smith. In poemeos, I can actually reference those sounds, music, lyrics, voices, refrains, allusions. That’s the magic.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
LE: Assuming that the leader is forced to read or will be affected by the book, I would send Sorrow Mountain, by Ani Pachen, a Tibetan nun who was imprisoned by the Chinese for 25 years.
HE: Probably not a literary book, would that leader read it? Maybe a book of visual art or a cookbook from micro entrepreneurs something sneaky and subversive. But I wish all leaders would read Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo. She will tell that leader “I wrote to leave a trail so love would find us” and then I hope it would.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
LE: Way, way back there.
HE: We don’t know. We can’t even see how we are seen anymore or why. There is no line. We are blinded by technology. How easily we give away our own privacy—we who live in places where there’s great access to technology. We endanger others with our habits we are hooked on being seen and so everyone is observed. The line easily slides toward surveillance. We more easily give way to extensions of our technology beyond our borders. Then, convinced all is benign, we give way to the myth of safety. We take on some squid and ink stance about seeing and not being seen. It is all murky water.
Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community. She is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), which The New York Times reviewer Eric McHenry described as an “ambitious…beautiful book.” Her honors and awards include the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from Bread Loaf, the Narrative Poetry Prize, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Diaz lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she works with the last speakers of Mojave and directs a language revitalization program.
Heid E. Erdrich is a collaborative artist, visual arts curator, and the author of five collections of poetry including Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media due out in 2017 from Michigan State University Press. Her recent non-fiction work is a memoir in recipes, Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories and Recipes. Heid’s writing has won numerous awards as have her collaborative poem films, which you can see at heid.erdrich.com or via Vimeo. Heid grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota and is Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain. She teaches in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program of Augsburg College.
Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her debut novel, Love Medicine, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.