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The Writing Life: David Treuer mines his family's 'Rez Life'

The son of an Ojibwe mother and a Jewish father writes about Native American reservation life in this nonfiction work.

April 15, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic

"The reservations are not places that have been set aside; they're the heart of the heartland. They're central in the same way Indians have always been central to America's self-conception: as fantasy and history. Indian people have lived in tension with Western governments from the beginning. We had to be moved or done away with in order for America to take shape, but this had to be done in a certain way so America could keep its sense of itself as a moral democratic project. This raises all sorts of tensions, but also all sorts of possibilities, not least the unassailable moral position in which it puts us, as a set of sovereign nations within the United States."

At heart here is a sense of place, of identity, and it affects Treuer directly; even now, he spends about a third of the year "in some capacity" at Leech Lake. Yet this comes with a set of complications built in. What does place mean when land allotments have divided reservations up like checkerboards, so that in some, including Leech Lake, more whites than Indians live on native land? What does identity mean when traditional languages are dying, when the very thing that has brought money into Indian communities — the commercialization of the casinos — threatens to undermine a more traditional way of life?

In "Rez Life," Treuer raises all these questions, although he doesn't come to any easy answers. That too is part of the point. "I thought I knew a lot," he says with a laugh. "The first thing I learned was that I didn't. To write this book, I basically went to school for seven years." In a way, this recalls his notion of himself as a novelist, discovering the complexities of a new genre. But even more, it suggests a locus where fiction and nonfiction come together, where both add up to literature.

"When you're writing a book," Treuer explains, "the how inevitably shapes the what. Bad literature, all it does is narrow our vision, so we see what we expect to see. Great literature can expand our experience. It's like when you're out hunting, if you're looking for one animal, you miss a lot of stuff. It's better to keep your eyes open. A writer needs soft eyes."

david.ulin@latimes.com

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