National Book Award Winner Inspired By Tragedy
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. We're in the last weeks of Native American Heritage Month and today we're bringing you two very different stories from that community. Just ahead, we'll talk with a renowned chef from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian about infusing your Thanksgiving meal with Native American flavor.
But, first, we turn to the world of literature and Louise Erdrich's novel, "The Round House." It's the story of how a violent crime on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota shakes a family and how the search for justice changes them forever. "The Round House" recently won the National Book Award for Fiction. Author Louise Erdrich joins me now.
Louise Erdrich, welcome to the program. First of all, congratulations.
LOUISE ERDRICH: Thank you, Celeste. Thank you. I'm back in Minnesota and still a little - my heart is still skipping around, I think.
HEADLEE: You know, I want to start by saying that this is a book that deals with characters who - most of them are Native American and they - most of them live on a reservation, but I think it's a mistake to think of this as a Native American book.
ERDRICH: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Did you aim to write it that or was this just a story of these people?
ERDRICH: I wanted to write a story that had a certain amount of suspense in it, a story that anyone could relate to, a story with a narrator who could relate to people and tell a story that had, as its component, a very serious and ongoing shattering problem in Native American or Indian Country.
HEADLEE: And I assume that the problem you're talking about is violence against women.
ERDRICH: That is, and the crime statistics haunted me for many years before I could really figure out how to approach it, so I finally approached it through the story of a boy and his mother.
HEADLEE: And what happens to his mother is she - I mean, at the very beginning of the book, she comes home and she has been assaulted. She's been raped and the rest of the book, we follow through his eyes as she copes with that and he - almost more than she does - needs to find the perpetrator and see that perpetrator brought to justice.
ERDRICH: Exactly. Well, he does need to find who did this to his mother, but she needs to find this, too, but she's also, in a way, protecting someone else. We don't know that throughout the book, but the initial violence only begets question after question after question, and the final question, of course, is will Joe, my 13-year-old narrator - will he be forced to take on the burden of justice in this situation?
HEADLEE: I don't want to give anything away, obviously, in the plot. This is a riveting read. I love this book and that's not always true of...
ERDRICH: Thank you so much.
HEADLEE: ...books that win national awards.
ERDRICH: Thank you.
HEADLEE: But I do want to get back to your motivation in writing this and how you say these statistics about violence against women on reservations haunted you. Can you explain? Why do you think that is?
ERDRICH: They're so dramatic. They're so skewed. When I found out that one in three Native women suffer rape and sexual violence in a lifetime, knowing that practically no one even gets around to reporting it, when I found that over 80 percent of these crimes are committed by non-Native men and that tribal courts are not allowed to prosecute non-Native men - when I found out that Native mothers prepare their daughters to be raped, how to behave when it happens, you know, that it's somehow considered unavoidable and that - here's how we're going to behave and respond, it felt like a small devastation of my spirit, and I am a mother of daughters. So how would I approach this? I had a very difficult time, emotionally, getting to it and then how to craft an approach.
HEADLEE: You read these statistics. Obviously, you took them to heart pretty deeply and that was your part of your activism, was to write this book and bring this issue before readers of the country. And then what? How do we solve that particular situation?
ERDRICH: Well, it unexpectedly comes at the same time that a piece of legislation called the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act is stalled in the House of Representatives. It's an act that was begun in the Clinton era and has been reauthorized to great benefit to women, including Native American women.
HEADLEE: And, in fact, this particular version of it includes specific language that relates to Native women.
ERDRICH: It does. It has a number of provisions that would especially impact Native women and this difficulty in getting a judicial hearing on what has happened to them.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. I'm speaking with Louise Erdrich. She's the author of the book, "The Round House," which won this year's National Book Award for Fiction.
As you say, your narrator is a 13-year-old boy. At the same time that this is going on with his mother and he's been forced to say the word rape, which clearly, in the book, makes him very uncomfortable. He's been forced to hear his mother say it, which makes him uncomfortable. But while that's going on, he's also blossoming as a young man. He is looking at girls. He's having feelings. How difficult was that to portray the one very ugly nature of sex at the same time that you were kind of portraying the beautiful, lovely, innocent, pure nature of sex?
ERDRICH: Well, I had to write him as he would be, as he presented himself to me. In a way this was a writer's greatest gift, a narrator who seemed to be speaking directly to me and telling me about what it was like to have ambivalent feelings toward his parents, be angry at the same time as feeling this love for them. And then, on top of it, feeling a sort of protectiveness that involved taking on responsibilities for which he was not prepared.
HEADLEE: So let's talk a little bit, just step away from the book for a moment because I keep getting afraid we're going to give something away and I want everyone to read it.
HEADLEE: But let's talk about your book store, Birch Bark Books, in Minneapolis. I wonder - your feelings about the change in the industry. Does it bother you - the rise of eReaders?
ERDRICH: As a book store owner, I am devoted to books as they are, but I don't have sort of a prejudice against people reading on devices because I think that's how a lot of people are going to proceed. But I do think that, in addition to the tactile beauty of books, they're very well constructed pieces of technology. And I think the codex with the book that opens and which you flip back and forth is something that really isn't replaced by a book on an eReader.
HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you one other completely unrelated question, and that's about the National Book Award itself, or any book award. You know, novel writing has trends and fashion in it, just like any other art. Right? We have eras, impressionistic eras versus classical eras and neoclassical eras. I wonder, what era do you think we're in, in terms of novels? We seem to have left the avant-garde, and when I read your book, it's so readable. It's so - something that you can just dig into and settle down with a cup of coffee and it's intimate without being confusing...
ERDRICH: That's good.
HEADLEE: ...to me. I wonder what you would call the era that we're in.
ERDRICH: I'm not the sort of person who's going to set down a treatise and say I'm not a critic. I'll leave that for a critic to decide. But I do think that we have an era in which we see a watershed of shifting demographics in this country in which people are interested in books that come from all backgrounds.
And, as I look through the list of the National Book Awards going back - I don't know - to the early '50s, it's really a very interesting list because more and more women have won the award as we cross the millennium and people of different backgrounds. It's a shifting demographic the same way the election showed us a shifting demographic.
HEADLEE: Well, it is a beautiful read and a truly enjoyable read. Author Louise Erdrich. Her novel "The Round House" recently won the National Book Award. She was kind enough to join me from Minnesota Public Radio in Saint Paul. Thank you so much and congratulations.
ERDRICH: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to talk to you.
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