[by Ali Baker] It was a typical dreary and damp Portland afternoon when Literary Arts drove out to the Native American Youth and Family Center NAYA with writer Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. NAYA serves self-identified Native Americans, infant to Elder, from across the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area. Erdrich had traveled from Minnesota to Portland to open the 2016-17 season of Portland Arts & Lectures. At NAYA Erdrich spoke with students, teachers, and elders about her novels, writing process, and vision. Much of Erdrich’s work explores themes of justice.
Erdrich began her talk by explaining how she never thought she would become a writer, but she “honestly wasn’t good at anything else.” She joked that she was terrible at math, and even gardening, but a really, really good waitress at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It wasn’t until her novel Love Medicine was published, when Edrich was thirty, that she decided to hang up her apron and take on writing as a career.
Writing, Erdrich explained, is a form of self-care. Storytelling is both healing and therapeutic for her, and helps her work through pain. Much of her writing explores what happens when a safe, spiritual space is broken, and the process of taking steps to mend this rift. “Writing saved my life,” she continued. She talked about how expressing herself on the page is so very important, because it “makes a difference to people along the way,” by honoring their stories, and, in turn, working through her own.
Erdrich shared with the students that she is currently rereading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel that examines in detail a woman’s private internal life. It seemed fitting that she was rereading this classic piece of literature because Erdrich herself values her family and community above all else; she expressed that this sense of family has strengthened her writing. A strong and authentic respect and love for her family, as well as for her larger Native American community, influences her writing in a powerful way. Whenever she is feeling anxious, or unhinged, Erdrich concluded, she returns to the majestic shores of Lake Superior, where much of the Anishinaabe tribe resides, to reconnect with her spiritual center, her community, and her roots.