Drop by BirchBark Books in Minneapolis and the first thing you'll notice isn't the books or the squawking parakeets. It's the confessional. The battered chunk of furniture is what used to be called a triple-seater—with room for a sinner on each side and a priest in between.
That the booth commands the shop should come as no surprise to devotees of writer Louise Erdrich, who recently opened BirchBark as an outlet for American Indian writing and crafts. She's been telling stories about passion and guilt, redemption and grace for two decades—tales set in North Dakota (near her hometown) and peopled by an eccentric cast of Ojibwe tribe members and the occasional Catholic missionizer.
One such man of the cloth is Father Damien, the reservation's confessor. By the time Erdrich tells his story in her new novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, he's been about his soul-saving work for decades. But of all the secrets he's been privy to, it is his own that fuels this book: Under the collar, in the flesh, Father Damien is actually a woman.
Through a series of interlocking vignettes, we learn that this cross-dresser is Agnes DeWitt, once a passionate pianist who favored playing Chopin in the nude. One day in her youth a freak flood—call it an Act of God—swept her away and washed her up near the lifeless body of Father Damien. In a moment of divine inspiration, she slipped into his cassock, gathered his provisions, and ventured on to his destination of Little No Horse.
So goes the first of many miracles that the cross-dressing Agnes, a.k.a. Damien, dutifully reports to the Pope in some 80 years' worth of letters, each full of dangerous questions, and all of them unanswered—until the end. We caught up with the 46-year-old Erdrich in Minneapolis, where she spoke to us about her work, her fiction, and her politics.
Mother Jones: What's the story behind your bookstore?
Louise Erdrich: The whole idea of it is to support grassroots work. We focus not only on native writing and publishing, but you'll see products from Winona LaDuke's native land recovery project—stuff for gardens, herbs, and organic teas grown by native people who are just struggling along.
MJ: Your books take into account a huge sweep of Native American history and culture, and yet you've said your writing doesn't belong to any strict political category.
LE: I'm sure it does get categorized, but I try very hard to separate what's really political, and what's really not. It kills your writing if you try to manipulate it with crude politics. To think about love and passion and political correctness all together, it doesn't work. Art has to go way past the political to be effective.
On the other hand, I do some writing sometimes that is very strictly political. I did a piece... [advocating the pardon of] Leonard Peltier for the New York Times op-ed page that I wish to God President Clinton would have read.
About political activity, though, the bookstore is very much for me an act of citizenship, literary citizenship.
MJ: You were raised in the Dakotas—which is where almost all of your books are set.
LE: I grew up in North Dakota, near the border, close to the Red River Valley. My mother was from the reservation. I was raised in a small town, mainly German, and my parents taught at a BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] boarding school. And so I was raised in the church there, went to a Catholic school. I cannot imagine my characters anywhere else.
MJ: You've constructed this overgrown family tree of characters over the years. Do you ever lose track of them?
LE: I have this wonderful copy editor. His mind is totally unlike mine. Mine is just all associative, this big tangle of relationships. He has everything perfectly in order. So I can write with a lot of freedom. In case descriptions or times or dates don't work with other books, we go back together to make it work.
I've found chapters that hadn't been published in the first place and added them to reprints of my books. You know, I wrote them so quickly, with so many kids in the house that I just had baskets of stuff I never looked through and that I think should belong in one of the books.
MJ: Didn't Father Damien, Agnes, this figure in all his and her complexity, first appear in your cast many years ago?
LE: Yeah, he did. I think he may have been in Love Medicine, but really he was first truly described in Tracks. I loved looking back and seeing—I didn't know at the time that there was any ambiguity to who he was. But then I realized that Father Damien was a woman! The description I'd written earlier was very ambiguous. That surprised me. But I think there was some unconscious sense that there be more to this character. And I first wrote about Agnes in this piece called "Naked Woman Playing Chopin." I had no idea that Agnes was going to turn into him.
MJ: That story is very erotic. It's odd to picture this man of the cloth in flagrante at the keyboard without her brassiere!
LE: I know—I had no idea.
MJ: How did you begin to put this story together?
LE: I rarely write a book in a linear way. It usually falls together like a quilt, a crazy quilt. This one was full of surprises. For one, I didn't know that the Pope would actually answer Father Damien's pleading letters by fax—
MJ: Or that the Pope faxes at all—
LE: That was another wonderful coincidence: My editor at HarperCollins is also the editor for the Pope. The real Pope. She sent me a clip—she's Diane Reverand, a great name for working with the Pope—along with a fax that had the Pope's actual signature on it, on the Vatican letterhead and everything. So, I got this idea—
MJ: Did it have the Pope's fax number?
LE: No, unfortunately. He typed the note on a little machine, like with two fingers, pecking at it. I had to put that in the ending of the book—a fax from beyond, somewhere mysterious.
MJ: Your writing has always been extraordinarily tuned in to passion. Characters get swept up and knocked out and driven mad by lust. And now we've got this woman-man in Agnes, with a schism down the center. How did you imagine that split?
LE: I think Agnes touches on something we all think about. Well, I don't know if men think about this as much, but women certainly do. I think there's an observer in all of us, an invisible person. We wonder how much of the way I behave is me, and how much is the expectation of me. And especially as a person growing up in a really gender- expectant small town, I was a very accommodating and nice and malleable person. So it always surprised me, after I began to write, that all of the things I wrote were so wildly at odds with who I seemed to be to other people. I'm saying I feel transparent now, because a lot of these things, as we get older, become resolved. And I'm not as nice a person! In the beginning it astounded me—I couldn't believe what my pencil was putting down on paper. Now I am feeling very much the person who is writing out the interior fantasy. This is one of the pleasures of being an artist.
MJ: Agnes and Father Damien do turn into the same person at times, almost by surprise—
LE: I hope I'll eventually become one person! That there will be some sort of unity of consciousness—oh, I'd really like that. I think one of the reasons to be here on earth is to finally be who we are, at all times—to know and be predictable to ourselves.