Louise Erdrich's Dystopian Vision

Sarah Harrison Smith on November 29, 2017

Erdrich.jpg"It is my task in life to tell the story, and it is my joy," Louise Erdrich says. Her readers partake in that joy: to embark on one of Erdrich's novels is to fall suddenly, unexpectedly in love with her characters, who often share Erdrich's Native American ancestry. Erdrich has won all the big prizes (a National Book Award for The Round House; a National Book Critics Circle Award for LaRose), and with her latest novel, takes on a timely new challenge: speculative fiction.

Future Home of the Living God, published this month by Harper, imagines how ordinary life might change, abruptly, for a young woman whose cherished pregnancy coincides with signs that evolution has turned backwards, and healthy human reproduction can no longer be taken for granted. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the heroine of this story, is possessed of an independent mind, an optimistic spirit, and a will to survive that will have you rooting for her as she tries to outrun government forces seeking to control the fate of her child.

Erdrich spoke to the Amazon Book Review about the unusual process of writing Future Home of the Living God, the dystopian writers who inspired her, and her hopes for the world we live in."There’s a political agenda to everything I write," she says, "But the story always comes first."

Amazon Book Review: In your acknowledgements, you thank one of your daughters for rescuing an early draft of this book from an outdated computer after you had “abandoned it for years.” What prompted you to return to that manuscript?

Louise Erdrich: I started writing the book on a turquoise iMac egg – which I still have in a closet.  I really liked the cheerful Jetsons retro-future design of those computers.  I transferred the manuscript onto the G4 Cube and then worked on it between books.  By the time I thought about transferring the manuscript to my laptop in 2005 several generations of updates had passed.  So the manuscript had to pass through several iterations of technology.  And then, again about a week after the 2016 election, the book again had to be coaxed from old files.  It seemed fitting for a book whose premise dealt with evolution.  I was working on other books last November, but after the election I had to finish Future Home.

Did that early draft bear much resemblance to Future Home of the Living God?

The manuscript needed more than a trim.  I cut about 200 pages because I got involved at some point in writing about obscure technical arguments about the Immaculate Conception.  (Do I capitalize that?  If so, why?)  Tiny religious doctrinal points reveal so much.  I think about  Catholic priests and theologians hunched over desks for hundreds of years trying to figure out how a pregnancy can have actually occurred without sex.  The thinking is so warped it is almost mesmerizing.  I went off the deep end.  That’s why I had to cut the pages.       

What had changed about you, or perhaps about the world, since you first began the novel?

This is a great questions, because of course a great deal has changed, but what astonishes me is that we are still preoccupied with so many of the same questions.  Specifically, women’s reproductive rights are still under siege.  In 2002, I had this sense of reversal.  It was maddening to me that just when we most needed universal birth control and a marshalling of political will to fight climate change, we got George W. Bush.  I know that Donald Trump makes Bush look good, but he wasn’t good.  We got the global gag rule and the endless war that started with the destabilization of the Middle East in Iraq.

Is Future Home of The Living God in any way a response to earlier dystopian novels, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?

Writers of speculative fiction have always had a fascination with reproduction.  In Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, the world is run by an exhausted robot programmed to seed the water supply with the opposite of Viagra.  So everyone becomes totally indifferent to sex.  (Who could have imagined water bottled in plastics might actually have the same effect, depressing sperm production?)  The Dune Trilogy, by Frank Herbert, is very much about genetic manipulation and features a powerful sisterhood that uses mind control, mainly on recalcitrant men.  The Handmaid’s Tale was of course a touchstone for me, and this book has elements that I hope pay homage to the creative foresight of Atwood’s terrifying community.  She envisioned a faith-based rape culture.  What I also find so compelling is that she made it visually arresting. 

Future Home of the Living God owes a lot to P.D. James’ Children of Men, for its suspense, and, well, anything by Ursula LeGuin has had an effect upon me.  Isaac Asimov said the education of women will save the world.  You see, science fiction writers anticipate so much.  I want Hillary, Angela M., Beyonce, Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin to run things.  I’d like to see sensible women-centered-women in complete charge for thousands of years.  I am not saying women are perfect, but I will say women who are able to make decisions without trying to or being forced to please men give me hope.

Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the pregnant young heroine of Future Home of The Living God, converted to Catholicism almost as an act of rebellion against her secular adoptive parents. Her Ojibwe name is “Mary.” Is it a mistake to imagine her as a modern mother of God?

Mary was an unwed pregnant teenager, right? 

Cedar has faith in the future for much of the novel. She tells Sera, her adoptive mother, “I have this feeling, as I carry this baby into life, that things aren’t really going backward. Things aren’t really falling apart. All that is happening, even the purest chaos, physical and personal, even political, is basically all right. I know it seems naïve. You might even say it’s hormones. But the feeling is so powerful that I have to tell you, I am happy.” It’s a tribute to your writing that we readers never know whether Cedar is prescient or deluded. Do you have an opinion about that?

Parents find positive ways to go forward in times of danger, it is true.  But this conviction is purely my character’s way of hailing the unknown.  She decides that there is something waiting for her and her child, and that the something will be good.  Maybe it is just survival instinct, or, possibly, she is right.

Cedar is fortified by her knowledge of Hildegarde of Bingen, Hans Kung, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, and Thomas Merton. Are they important to you personally?

Books flow in and out of my life.  I don’t hold on to them the way one might think, given that I’m a writer.  So yes these books were very important while I was writing this book, but now I am writing a different book, so they are on the shelf.  But Hildegarde and Kateri do have certain abiding resonances.  I listen often to Hildegarde’s music, and I have many images of Kateri as a saint.  I have pasted them into the confessional in Birchbark Books, my bookstore in Minneapolis.  The confessional is now a forgiveness booth and she seems to belong there.

End times, if that’s what they are, bring some improvements to Cedar’s Ojibwe family. Her stepfather is rejuvenated. He tells her, “I think about seventy percent of my depression was my seventeenth-century warrior trying to get out.” Additionally, the tribe may be able to reclaim lost land, and the Ojibwe “code” allows tribal members to communicate in ways unintelligible to government spies.  Is there room, in your novel, for optimism about the tribe’s future?

This is speculative fiction, but I can’t help having these fantasies about Indigenous land coming back into tribal hands.  Anyone who knows their Nation’s history has this sense of the injustice and cruelty of original loss.  So of course I take the chance here to imagine that rectified in some way. 

How different is Cedar, really, from any mother-to-be, in her hopes for her child, her uncertainty about whether he will be born healthy, and her desire to see how “it will all turn out?”  

Mothers in general?  I can’t make that call, but I did give her my own possibly common wish to know how things “turn out” except obviously that is only if things get better.  I am already worried that if our current dystopian and destructive administration has its way, and we don’t control and remove carbon from our atmosphere, life will be vastly more difficult for young people. 

When you write, do you have an intended effect in mind – say, a political effect? Is that different for this novel than for your earlier work?

I am writing about a future where winter in my part of the world, the upper Midwest, vanishes.  That is entirely possible, and it means much of the world becomes uninhabitable.  A destabilized world is singularly dangerous. Look at Syria.  Drought destabilized the demographics in advance of political collapse.  It would be great if anyone who reads this book or this interview signs up with 350.org.  Or supports Planned Parenthood.  Sure, there’s a political agenda to everything I write.  But the story always comes first.  It is my task in life to tell the story, and it is my joy.

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