Louise Erdrich: “I write about what I know, which is that there is often a very small distance between the living and the dead”

Louise Erdrich Getty Images

Louise Erdrich is one of the great voices of American literature and that, in particular, of the Chippewa Indians. Her new novel, The one who watchesPulitzer Prize 2021, pays tribute to his grandfather, who saved the land of his ancestors.

With The one who watches, crowned with the Pulitzer Prize, the great novelist Louise Erdrich describes two quests. That of Thomas Wazhashk, night watchman in a clockwork stone factory in North Dakota, who, in this year 1953, decided to mobilize his community to oppose a law supposed to “emancipate” the Indians when it will actually strip them of their rights. And that of the flamboyant Patrice Paranteau, factory employee, who seeks to find his missing sister in Minneapolis, where she had settled… Showing as always a sense of detail and a power of evocation beyond of the common, the celebrated author of The Rose and of In the silence of the wind at the same time pays a moving tribute to his grandfather.

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Miss Figaro. – For the first time, you were inspired by a member of your family to write. What pushed you there?
Louise Erdrich.
– For years I have had letters from my grandfather – I received as a gift those written the year of my birth, in 1954. He wrote wonderfully: his letters are very beautiful, full of humor, and read like a novel. What stands out is his decency and commitment to his family and his people. This also posed a problem for the character he inspired: it’s very difficult to write about a good person… His character influenced the tone of the book, which is calmer and contains less melodrama than other novels I’ve written. Anyway, I had the idea of ​​reading these letters in the light of American history, with this bill wanting the termination (a form of forced assimilation, editor’s note) American Indian tribes.

Could you say more about this termination ?
My grandfather was the chief of the tribe at that time when it was a matter of mounting some kind of defense and going to Washington in order to convince Congress not to pass this bill. It was a new step in the US government’s efforts to strip Indians of land ownership, as well as their relationship to the land. Indian treaties were declared null and void – treaties that form the legal basis of the relationship between the US government and the tribal nations. These treaties, enshrined in the constitution, all contain the phrase “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow”. The termination would have meant that the government did not have to meet its treaty obligations, which included education and health care, and that the American Indians disappeared as entities.

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Louise Erdrich

The other main character of the book is imaginary. Where is Patrick from?
Patrice is my confirmation name. Maybe she looks a bit like me? She’s the kind of woman who does things perfectly. when she is mad… She follows in the footsteps of her sister, Vera, because the latter took part in another program related to the termination, which went by the name of “resettlement” and was designed to get Indians off reservations by encouraging them to move to town. Instead of investing money in the infrastructure of the reserves, the government decided to expel people from them in order to recover these precious territories…

Was Vera’s terrible story a way of evoking the violence against Indian women, which has gone unpunished for so long?
Yes, I included it because it is both ancient and contemporary. The trafficking of which she is a victim is not that different from what is happening today. Many indigenous women continue to disappear, and most rapes, kidnappings and murders of indigenous women remain unsolved. This is a crucial question for me. The statistics, appalling as they are, under-represent violence because many assaults go unreported. We talk about it more, but we must go further. I wanted to recall the historical underpinnings, by saying that this violence had partly occurred because of this resettlement, which caused an influx of Indian women in the cities.

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did you write The one who watches to keep the memory of your grandfather’s actions?
Many people have forgotten the role he played and don’t think about the termination, simply because it did not take place. In the tribes that fell victim to it, it was devastating and it would have been for us. I wouldn’t be here as a member of the Chippewas of Turtle Mountain if he hadn’t stood up to Congress…He was an unsung hero who sacrificed so much for his people. He wrote these letters to my parents when he worked as a night watchman, and during the day he fought against the termination while supporting his family through the cultivation of an extraordinary garden, which features in all agricultural reports on the reserve at the time. It was also quite an accomplishment for someone for whom switching to farming was a radical change of lifestyle – imagine that his father had participated in the last buffalo hunt!

Your novel sometimes makes us cross the border between the world of the living and that of the dead, and touch supernatural phenomena…
I write about what I know, which is that there is often a very small distance between the living and the dead. This is not magic realism, just my experience of life. Death is mysterious and final, but everyone has their ghosts, their memories, their dreams, his secret interpretations. I write about this in-between reality. If you gather a group of people and ask them if a dream of theirs has come true, or if they had an experience where they thought they were dealing with a supernatural presence, you would collect a lot of stories. In the novel, many believe that the deformed face of Bucky, a man who assaulted Patrice, is due to a curse cast by the latter’s mother. But he may simply have facial paralysis… Each “phenomenon” that I tell must have another explanation, for me this is an intangible rule. So many things happen to us that we explain immediately: I am satisfied with not immediately explaining everything that is happening…

“He who watches”, by Louise Erdrich, translated by Sarah Gurcel, Éditions Albin Michel, 560 p., €24.

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Louise Erdrich: “I write about what I know, which is that there is often a very small distance between the living and the dead”