Blue Metropolis Ojibwe writer David Treuer on his uncommon upbringing

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An Ojibwe mother and a Holocaust survivor father make for a lot of potential stories under one roof. Growing up on Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, David Treuer was told many of them.

“Some people don’t like talking about the bad things that have happened to them, and some people can’t stop. My father was of the latter variety,” said the 46-year-old writer, speaking on the phone last week from Los Angeles while picking his children up from school, ahead of his appearances next week at Montreal’s Blue Metropolis literary festival. “As a kid, I was kind of annoyed to hear the same stories over and over. But he died a year ago, and now I would give anything to hear those stories again.

“My mother’s maybe a little quieter, but a big part of how they both understood their job as parents was not just to feed and clothe and shelter and love us, but to bring us into contact with our personal histories.”

For the senior Treuer — who was born in Austria, came to the reserve as an English teacher and eventually married a former student — the reserve was a counterintuitively familiar place.

“He’d been a refugee all his life; he’d been kicked around and rejected and hunted. He said when he finally got to the reservation he felt he understood the emotional landscape there. Also, the lifestyle really appealed to him. He lived as northerners live; he made himself indispensable and beloved. It was his home. Looking back, I love how I grew up — snaring rabbits for my mom one minute, practising on my father’s piano the next. I learned to split wood and I learned to parse sentences.”

Was it hard accommodating two such different histories in one young mind?

“No. It didn’t seem odd, because it was the only childhood I had. I always felt a little liminal, I suppose. We lived exactly on the edge of the reservation, I was mixed native and white, we weren’t rich but weren’t poor.

“You know, it’s funny: my older brother Anton looks like a Hollywood Indian — long dark hair, dark skin — and I look like Jason Statham. People saw my brother and understood him to be native, in good ways and in bad ways, and people saw me and understood me to be something else, in good ways and bad ways. Our experience of racism was different, our experience of being Indian was different, even though we had the same parents, the same house, the same bedroom for that matter.”

As a kid, I read all those Hemingway short stories that took place in Michigan — the Nick Adams stories. There are Indians in all of those, but they only exist to teach the white characters some object lesson or other.

Though he has been working in recent years with brother Anton on an Ojibwe practical grammar guide, the language was not a big part of Treuer’s youth.

“I heard very little of it. The residential boarding school system was pretty effective in driving that language out of my grandmother. My grandfather didn’t speak it. We were around it, at ceremonies and things, but it was only in my 20s that I decided I wanted to make the language a big part of my life. I was determined to become a speaker — with mixed results, to be honest. I wouldn’t call myself fluent.”

Treuer’s early reading was a mix of fantasy/sci-fi and modern classics like Steinbeck. Awareness of Native American writers didn’t come until he read Louise Erdrich and others in the ’90s. “But those weren’t necessarily the books that inspired me (to write),” he said. “I was consciously drawing from every writer I thought was great. I loved Michael Ondaatje. I wanted to be part of that great big dance of literature that is our collective patrimony. It wasn’t a native thing for me. It was a writing thing.”

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Treuer received a crucial early boost at Princeton from creative-writing teacher Toni Morrison. (“She saw something in my dumb scribbles when I was 19. A tough teacher, but a funny and kind one, too. Without her, I wouldn’t be a writer.”) His three first works of fiction met with critical acclaim, before his profile took a leap in 2012 with the non-fiction Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life — as Treuer describes it, the fruit of a mission to correct a whole set of popular misconceptions.

“In most people’s imagination, reservations are where Indians go to die — places of suffering, and that’s all. My frustration over that came to a head in 2005 with the coverage of the Red Lake Reservation school shooting, which was treated as just the latest in a long line of tragedies. (The media) weren’t really saying anything about the reservation, the culture, the community. I was talking to an editor and said, ‘You know, we love our reservations. They’re important places to us, and should be important to every American and Canadian citizen.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you write a book about that?’ So I did.”

Treuer’s newest novel, Prudence, revolves around a Second World War POW camp on the banks of the northern Mississippi and effectively subverts multiple historical, racial and sexual stereotypes. Treuer found the novel’s seeds partly in reaction to a source you might not expect.

“As a kid, I read all those Hemingway short stories that took place in Michigan — the Nick Adams stories. There are Indians in all of those, but they only exist to teach the white characters some object lesson or other about sexuality or death or life. They don’t have any autonomy, because Hemingway wasn’t interested in that. Their thoughts, their agency — none of that is represented. I wondered what that would look like from the other way around.”

It’s never been a case of ‘Here’s the rez, and there’s the world, and never the twain shall meet.’

Careful not to make claims as a spokesperson for a culture, Treuer instead trusts in the ultimate universality of the specific.

“I have a decidedly non-ethnographic bent. I’m not interested in cultural show-and-tell, or even historical show-and-tell. It makes me sad if people read my books and think, ‘Oh, that’s what Indian life is like now, or was then.’

“I’m trying to catch Indian characters in the act of living — worrying about their jobs, their kids, their sex lives, their future, just like everybody does. Those things will be different because they’re native — I’m writing about a people from a specific place. But so did Faulkner, so does Toni Morrison, so did Tolstoy and Chekhov.”

The demands of Treuer’s job teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California mean he and his family can spend only a third of each year at Leech Lake, the place he still considers home. Asked if the back-and-forth is a tough one culturally, he said: “No. I’m always happy to go back. Besides, it’s never been a case of ‘Here’s the rez, and there’s the world, and never the twain shall meet.’ People move around; they come and go. Especially Ojibwe people. We’re a peripatetic folk. The only thing that maybe makes me different in that regard is that I’ve got a great job and can afford to travel back and forth more than a lot of people can. I feel very lucky.”

AT A GLANCE

David Treuer is presented with the Blue Metropolis literary festival’s First Peoples Literary Prize and interviewed onstage by CBC Radio host Duncan McCue on Friday, April 28 at 4 p.m. at the McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke St. W. He also appears in the following festival events: 

Is WWII a Limitless Source of Inspiration for Writers?, with Douglas Babington and Peter Behrens (Friday, April 28, 2:30 p.m., Hôtel 10, Salle Jardin, 10 Sherbrooke St. W.)

Culture, Kinship and the Written Word, with Francisco Goldman (Saturday, April 29, 12:30 p.m., Hôtel 10, Salle St-Laurent)

The American Far West: A European Obsession, with Peter Behrens and Martin Winckler (Saturday, April 29, 6 p.m., Hôtel 10, Salle Godin)

Writer’s Perspective: Whither the USA?, with Francisco Goldman and Imbolo Mbue (Saturday, April 29, 8 p.m., Hôtel 10, Salle St-Laurent)

Babel Blue Readings, with Stephen Henighan, Gabriella Scheer, Rosemary Sullivan, Francisco Goldman and Barbara Gowdy (Sunday, April 30, 3 p.m., Hôtel 10, Salle Godin).

Blue Metropolis runs from Monday, April 24 to Sunday, April 30. For full details on events and tickets, visit bluemetropolis.org.

ianmcgillis2@gmail.com 

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