A reflection on a talk by Louise Erdrich

Native American author Louise Erdrich gave a talk today at Milner Library at Illinois State University, and the following entry is my reflection on what she had to say as it intersects with race, rhetoric, and technology.

Erdrich began her talk (which was so well attended that extra chairs were brought in and some people climbed to higher floors to look down on the event) with a reading of a story. Erdrich did not say which of her books the story came from (and I wasn’t close enough to see the cover of the volume she was reading from), but she did say that her stories tend to “hitch up,” meaning some of her books overlap. This connectedness is certainly the case outside of her work, as well, and may be a cultural characteristic of some stories. (Erdrich later addressed the oral traditions of many cultures and said she self-identifies as a storyteller.)

The reading centered on the character of Lipsha, a recurring character in Erdrich’s novels and, she said, one of her favorites. It followed him through coveting a van on display at the hall where his Grandma Lulu plays bingo to meeting a girl, Serena, and going to a hotel with her. At this point in the story, Serena sends him to the gas station for condoms, and this got me thinking of birth control as a technology.

I haven’t given this much thought before, but birth control (of whatever kind) is certainly a technology … and it’s a technology that is very connected to race. My mind immediately jumps to my course project, which (as you can read in a previous entry on this blog) will include examination of China’s one-child policy. This is birth control in the form of a law, and it’s aimed directly at a particular nationality, which encompasses several particular ethnicities.

Interestingly enough, it turns out the technology of the condom most likely originated in China. According to Aine Collier, “In Asia before the fifteenth century … Condoms seem to have been used for contraception, and to have been known only by members of the upper classes” (qtd. in Wikipedia article under “Condom”). This technology is a class-conscious one. Members of the upper classes, then, would have been more able to control the number of children they had, while the lower classes would have lacked this ability. The expense of children and the resulting population disparity would, theoretically, reinforce a class divide. Certainly those Chinese families with access to ultrasound have an advantage today in producing the coveted male heir through sex-selective abortion.

In the same sort of legal vein as the one-child policy, Erdrich also touched on the absurtity of allowing a government to “create” racial background for individuals. She explained (as we have discussed in class) that governments prescribe ethnicities to people. For example, the U.S. government has instated laws about how much Indian blood a person must have in order to claim a tribal affiliation. What’s more–this measure is likely based on an arbitrary judgment made generations ago by another government official.

Another interesting race-related reaction to the technology of birth control shows up in a study by Kalichman, Williams, Cherry, Belcher, and Nachimson, who found that black and Latina women reported fearing violence from the partners if they suggested using a condom.

But birth control and law’s relation to race were hardly the only mentions of race/rhetoric/technology in Erdrich’s talk. Another, unrelated issue, also caught my ear. First, inspired by the 25th anniversary of Love Medicine, Erdrich discussed how easy it is for an author to make changes to a book, thanks to current technology. This seems to me to parallel the shift in student’s conception of writing after the advent of personal computers and word processing technology. I have no doubt that students think about writing differently today on a very basic level than students thought about writing 20 years ago. Perhaps the new technology in the publishing industry will yield a culture that allows for more conversation between books, letting works change with time and creating slippage that could open up new avenues of dialogue.

Louise Erdrich (enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa w/ MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979) is the author of twelve novels, 5 children’s books, 3 poetry volumes, and a memoir. Her novel Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her most recent novel, Plague of Doves, was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She is also the owner of Birchbark Books (http://birchbarkbooks.com/), an independent non-profit bookstore and press . She and two of her sisters host annual writers workshops on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. (qtd. from an e-mail from Angela Haas)

Work Cited

Kalichman, SC; Williams, EA; Cherry, C; Belcher, L; Nachimson, D (April 1998). “Sexual coercion, domestic violence, and negotiating condom use among low-income African American women“. Journal of Women’s Health 7 (3): 371–378. Web.

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