A Conversation With Michael Dorris
Michael Dorris is a writer keenly sensitive to the complications involved in trying to apprehend and convey other people’s experience — be they members of his own family or the products of his imagination. Above all, he is noted for his account of his adopted son’s battle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the 1989 book The Broken Cord, which won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award and which has recently been adapted into an ABC television film. However, it is the personal, emotional response from the fellow members of what Dorris refers to as “the terrible fraternity” — the other parents dealing with FAS —that speaks most eloquently of the book’s impact, its depiction of the blunt biological truth of the link between alcohol and fetal damage that will, after the birth of the child, spawn a lifelong process of dealing with the effects, including the act of surviving and its tangled mixture of healing and guilt.
But Dorris is also aware that he speaks “just as one parent,” and it is here that we see his reliance on the power and purpose of story-telling, his awareness that his own account may indeed resonate with others, though it will hardly attempt to rob them of the truth of their own experiences, either. In many ways, we see that same reliance on the important role of personal truth-and the obligation of the writer in presenting this truth of others, even if these others are only the inhabitants of his or her imagination — in his first novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987). Here, we see the intertwined histories of three generations of women in a family that is both intensely connected and disconnected. Each woman, in turn, tells a part of the overall story, starting with the youngest (Rayona), then her mother (Christine), and then finally the woman who raised Christine (Aunt Ida). As each of the women begin to speak, we find out that there are reasons why they might have behaved the way they do, why they committed actions which wounded the younger woman in the preceding narrative. Indeed, in her own story, Christine ceases to be a bugbear to her daughter Rayona, but becomes a lost and lonely soul in her own right (as well as resentful of Aunt Ida) while Aunt Ida in her section reveals her own fragility in a way that makes us see her in a light that Christine — because of her own wounds — cannot.
I won’t be more specific here, because I don’t want to divulge any more of the novel, but suffice it to say that this structuring of the novel into the three narratives not only makes for a compelling story, but also forces us to look at the importance of point of view: by learning people’s stories we come to know more than their surface, to understand and sympathize, to realize that if we were in that particular place and situation we would have acted the same or worse.
We also learn from Michael Dorris that, given the old adage that history gets written by the victors, we need to go back and re-tell the story. Two books come to mind. One is The Crown of Columbus (1991), co-written with his wife Louise Erdrich, which to a large degree is a witty anti-celebration of the 1492 “discovery” of America. The second is Dorris’s delightful collection of essays, Paper Trail (1994), in which he takes a good hard look, with great verve and sarcasm, at such topics as the misappropriation of Native American culture in the marketing of Crazy Horse Malt Liquor or in the making of Kevin Costner’s film Dances with Wolves. In all of Dorris’s work — and here I should mention as well his collection of short stories Working Men (1993) — we see Michael Dorris’s writerly eye trained not just on personal and cultural experiences, but also on the inescapable complexities involved in writing about others, or writing in the name of others. Not that we can’t do this, but we ought to do it responsibly.
The following conversation occurred during a visit by Michael Dorris to the College of Wooster on October 25, 1995. While here, he read an excerpt from a new book that in some ways is a sequel to A Yellow Raft in Blue Water — and a continuation of the adventures of Rayona. But Cloud Chamber is more than just that. Structured as a series of first-person narrators-another set of remarkable voices disclosing equally remarkable lives — the book depicts the way in which we are all a part of each other’s tangled and unraveling tale, a human tapestry weaving and reworking itself, tearing and mending and tearing again From one age to the next, through the bond of family and beyond, as listeners and providers of language, we are all in this together.
Cloud Chamber is due out from Scribner before the end of the year.
— Daniel Bourne, Wooster, Ohio, October 17, 1996
Daniel Bourne: I’d like to start at the end of your novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water with a passage that has always impressed me, where Aunt Ida says this about her old friend, Father Hurlburt: “As a man with cut hair, he did not identify the rhythm of three strands, the whispers of coming and going, of twisting and tying and blending, of catching and of letting go, of braiding.” If this Father Hurlburt could not identify those strands of the three voices of Rayona, Christine and Aunt Ida, then how could you identify them as author? This passage has always been an audacious one to me — a woman claiming that a man cannot understand a woman’s experience, but coming at the end of a 370 page novel by a man. Were you aware of this paradox, this irony? What would Aunt Ida say about the quality of your understanding?
Michael Dorris: But I didn’t say he couldn’t understand it because he was male, I said it was because he had cut hair. And I wouldn’t divide things along in a gender way. I think Aunt Ida would be as grumpy to me as she would be to anybody else — though, on the other hand, I could erase her if she were.
My sense of what you can do in fiction is that you can do it if it works, and everything, even non-fiction, even the autobiographical stuff I did in The Broken Cord, is in fact the invention of a character. I think in some respects inventing oneself as a character is even more challenging than inventing someone back in time, or someone of a different gender or even ethnic background, because you are aware of your own complexity and it’s harder to be objective about self. Furthermore, when you’re listening to a character basically dictate his or her confidences to you in a first person voice you only hear what they tell you, you don’t know what they don’t say. In autobiography you know what you’re not saying and you have to choose what to say and what not to say. Sounds hokey, but in fact writing in women’s voices in Yellow Raft wasn’t daunting at all. I grew up raised by two grandmothers, three aunts and a mother, basically not hearing a male voice until I was in high school. Learning to listen to women’s voices was key to survival for me.
DB: So in that way you did have some sort of biographical access to those female voices, those experiences?
Dorris: Of course, the characters were totally fictionalized. I didn’t know any of those people. But I didn’t feel scared of the voices. It’s odd. I was doing a reading with Jay McInerney at the Bennington Writers Conference, and he said to me he was going to do something very audacious — that is, read in a woman’s voice. Then he did an incredibly bizarre thing. He stood up in front of this group of people and read in falsetto! He tried to read in a woman’s voice — which I would never dream to do. But, in terms of the novel on the page, it’s all artifice, it’s all imagination, and the readers have to forget that I’m me and they have to forget what I don’t know and they have to imagine that this is somebody talking, basically to herself about herself, in a way much more articulate than she could speak externally to the outside world. So it’s not necessarily a woman’s exterior voice. It’s a woman’s experience, but it’s a human voice.
DB: But what about — as you describe in your essays — white culture’s appropriations of Native American experiences, artifacts, and so on. You seem there to be very sensitive to crossing the line of experience to grab this or that in order to bring it back to an exterior culture for whatever artistic use there might be.
Dorris: I think that whatever you do you have to pull it off. And I certainly don’t object to people trying to imagine the lives of other societies, but you have to do it with a certain amount of humility and respect. If it were not for the ethnographic material that had been collected by missionaries and anthropologists and so forth, much of past Native American society would no longer be accessible. What I object to is making kitsch of things that are very serious. Reading in a falsetto voice is kitsch, whereas taking Ida, for instance, seriously as a human being who has a lot to say is something very different entirely. Earlier I answered rather facetiously your question as to what Ida might say to me, but really I do think she might be relieved that somebody heard her. And this statement may be self aggrandizing, but I did feel as though there was a truth that was coming through in that voice. And yeah, of course I was scared when the book came out — what are people going to say about me, a man, writing about women? But, in fact, I would say the most frequent comment I’ve heard about that book is from women who say, “How did you know this was our experience?” It’s oftentimes the only book by a male author used in women’s studies courses at a number of universities. I’m enormously flattered about this as a writer. But somehow those voices talk to me.
DB: You mentioned growing up in a household filled with women’s voices. Did you get any actual editorial help from women readers? For instance, did you show it to your wife Louise Erdrich and say, “Did I get this right?”
Dorris: Louise and I work together on everything that either of us writes very, very carefully and closely. And, I would even say with authority. There is no hesitation whatsoever about crossing out words, changing them, whatever. So I would say not so much that I ever ask her, “Do I dare do this?” but I certainly feel that if I made a terrible mistake she would catch me. As it turns out, she writes often in male voices and I in female voices, and neither of us have exerted our sort of “inside gender knowledge” to date. We make lots of other very critical remarks about what works and what doesn’t work, but somehow writing across gender isn’t our big problem.
DB: Could you talk about your experience with her co-authoring The Crown of Columbus? Were there times when you felt you had lost control over the text? Any observations, not just in terms of writing a book with one’s spouse, but on writing a book with someone else in general?
Dorris: That book we had talked about for so many years. We called it our Saskatchewan novel, because we drive across Saskatchewan a number of times and there’s nothing to see on that route, Canadian Route 1. So we decided one time when we crossed the Alberta border that we would plot a novel until we reached Manitoba. Basically that was The Crown of Columbus. We really had in mind first of all that it would be in Columbus’ voice, very much like the poem in the book turned out to be, but then doing it this way just didn’t sustain itself for us, and if it didn’t sustain itself for us, we knew it wasn’t going to work for a reader. But then we got interested in Vivian Twostar as a central character. We each had a kind of dibs on certain scenes that Vivian was going to be in, and when we were both free to work on the book we each wrote those scenes and passed them back and forth and Vivian was Vivian regardless of which one of us was writing her.
I think we each contributed our strengths to the book, and we pretty much knew what those are. Louise is a poet and I am sort of logician in terms of plot and working things together in general. Basically she encourages me to be more lyrical, and I encourage her to be more logical in terms of plot. In that book she, for instance, thought of the framing device of “Valerie Clock” and I, having taught more, I think, probably contributed more about Vivian and Roger and academia. But it went through so many passes back and forth between us that I couldn’t tell you what is mine and what is hers anymore.
Back to your other question though, I think we were going through a very rough time in our lives while that book was being created. We had a relative with us who was in cancer treatment, and we had three older children who were in continual crisis. So to dive into that world which was all about discovery, and the chaos of discovery, and the melodrama of discovery, and the discovery of discovery, was such a relief and such a pleasure. I would say it was the most fun book to write and the hardest book to tour on.
DB: But you didn’t really get any sense of losing any control of yourself as a writer?
Dorris: Louise might have, I don’t know. I didn’t. We would play these games with each other in which we set up a terrible situation, like Roger jumps off the boat, and then say, “Your turn.” Then the other person would have to figure out what happened next. It was kind of stimulating.
DB: To swing back to that question of “the right to write” across boundaries of experience, I’d like to ask you about some criticism towards A Yellow Raft in Blue Waters-that you yourself don’t have any specific tribal affiliation and are just “passing as an Indian,” that in the novel itself Christine and Ida don’t belong to a particular tribe, but to Everytribe, and they’re on Everyreservation, making the situation and experience generic in a way you have criticized other texts for. How would you respond to this?
Dorris: I have never heard that criticism before, so it takes me a little by surprise. I of course do have a specific tribal affiliation. I’m Modoc. I grew up on the Fort Belknap reservation for part of my life and went to school there, so this matter of an affiliation just isn’t an issue for me. And I didn’t name a specific tribe in the book because I did want it to be generic. It’s clearly Pacific Northwest. It’s clearly set, for anybody who delves deep enough to look into it, on Rocky Boys or Fort Belknap. I mean if you look at the geography and where the Bearpaws are and where the town Havre is, there is no doubt. But, more to the point, these are characters who speak in their own voice. And it has not been my experience living in one of those reservations that people constantly identify themselves by the name of their tribe. They speak of themselves as Indian, they speak of themselves as people, they speak of themselves as part of a particular family. But it just never kind of came up in the book for them to say “I belong to this tribe,” and that this tribe lives here and not there and that kind of thing. In small communities people know who they are and don’t feel the necessity to self-define. Louise does the same thing. She never identifies the reservation, although clearly they’re Anishinabe.
DB: And that is an age-old literary technique, to not necessarily be specific.
Dorris: I just didn’t think my characters would say that, you know, what they were. I’ve truly never heard anybody say to me that my Indian credentials were questionable. I’ve been in the mixed-blood business since I was born. Some people didn’t like The Broken Cord, because they said it reinforced a stereotype about Indians and alcohol and that we should only write positive things about Indian people. But I haven’t heard such a criticism about Yellow Raft. It’s a very popular book on reservations.
DB: Recently, Sherman Alexie was here at Wooster on a reading tour, and came out as being not so critical about you, but about William Least Heat-Moon, the author of Blue Highways and PrairyErth, whom Alexie thought was essentially a white person trying to pass as Indian. What do you think about William Least Heat-Moon? Do you think he is a problem in this regard or not?
Dorris: I just don’t go for the ethnic nutsy root. I don’t think anyone is necessarily a good writer because they’re full blood, or a bad writer because they’re a mixed blood. But the only thing I know that William Least Heat-Moon has ever done is to choose to use that name as a pen name. I mean I don’t know him personally, and I don’t know that he goes around claiming that he’s really Indian. An old friend of mine always criticizes people who get grants, and so forth and so on, on the basis of saying that they’re something they’re not.
The funny thing about it is that Sherman Alexie and I are probably related because my grandmother was born on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, and that’s his tribe. And I find it strange that somebody as talented as he would worry about that stuff. There was another writer, Susan Power, who had a book last year, and he was reviewing it for the Philadelphia Enquirer, and he called her up — she was in Cambridge — to say he had read the book and that he thought he liked it, but how Indian was she and if she was an Indian then why was she living in Chicago? And blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, luckily her mother is a force to contend with. She read him the riot act and that was the end of that.
DB: But, at the same time, Alexie does seem genuinely concerned about the issue, and there does seem to be some kind of criterion here, the existence of some kind of tribal affiliation, that does have some kind of logical sense to it.
Dorris: The message the professor gave to Jo in Little Women was write about what you know. I grew up part of the time on a reservation very much like the one in which Yellow Raft is set, and so it was comfortable for me to write about those settings and those people. Part of the new novel I’m writing starts in Ireland, and part of my background is Irish. I have lived in a lot of places, and I write about a lot of things, and I think when you’re a mixed blood who certainly doesn’t look like anybody’s stereotype of the Indian, you either get comfortable with who you are very early on in your life, or you spend your whole life schizophrenic and defensive. I founded a Native American Studies program in ’72 at Dartmouth and have been actively involved in Indian education since before Sherman Alexie was born. So, I’m not worried about it. And let me say just one more thing. This is an artistic choice more than anything else. I didn’t specify the tribe because I didn’t think my characters would do it. Or, for example, when Louise was writing Love Medicine, she wanted to have her tribal chairman character go to Washington during the days of termination and argue his case and so forth. We talked about it and talked about it and from a sort of polemic view it made sense, but from the point of view of “this is a small self-contained world” it didn’t work out. And that’s the world of Yellow Raft. They are who they are and they are in the majority where they are, so they don’t need to define themselves to the outside world any more than they do.
DB: Did your own growing up mixed blood effect your portrait of Rayona, who grew up African-American and Native American?
Dorris: I’m sure it did, in a sense. I mean she has to move between various contexts and learn how to be in the middle. It also certainly affected the way we created Vivian Twostar who says much of the same things about herself. Also, the experience of being mixed blood African-American and Native American is not so unusual in the Pacific Northwest or in New England, which are two of the areas where I’ve lived in my life. But it seemed to me that there just hadn’t been a literary character yet who had that particular mix. I was kind of intrigued by it. For instance, there are a lot of Shinnecocks who come to Dartmouth from Long Island who have this exact mixture, and society defines them as black, yet they are culturally tribal.
DB: We’ve been talking about A Yellow Raft in Blue Water a lot, and about jumps across experience, but I’d also like to talk about your collection of short stories, Working Men, where it might seem to be that you are writing from within experience. But I was wondering if you could talk about turning that expectation on its head, how you had to make jumps of imagination in those stories.
Dorris: I think writing fiction in general, especially first person fiction, is like trying on another life, and trying to sink as deeply into that experience as you possibly can and see the world through the eyes of a given character. To me, the difference between the short story form and the novel is that the short story is like a tightly argued summation in a trial, whereas a novel is the whole case. So you build the short story around one event or some sort of crisis, the before and after. But I didn’t write the stories in Working Men with the idea of them being a collection of short stories. Rather, after I wrote them there was a long kind of ordering and reshuffling to figure out how to arrange them so that they formed some sort of narrative you could begin and end in a kind of a loop if you read them sequentially, which I never do in reading a short story collection anyway, but some people might. And I think it was pure pleasure — like with the salesman in “Jeopardy” or the snowplow driver in “Qiana” — just to explore somebody entirely different from my life and try and use their vocabulary. That’s really where it starts: what is the specific vocabulary of this life experience and how do you make that vocabulary literary and find the richness in it? With “The Benchmark”, the first piece in the collection, the story jumped off from a man who actually came to build a pond with us, whom I never did anything for except to hold the little stick for him to use as the surveying tool. But he was using — just in basically talking to himself-this wonderful set of words that meant nothing to me, like “the spirit” and “levels” and “alidade” and all of this stuff, and I went out back inside and looked all the words up in a dictionary to see what they meant. They were so evocative that I basically wrote the story just to use those words. I have no idea whether what I wrote has anything to do with his life — I’m sure it doesn’t-but the notion of “Benchmark” and the other stories is just to suggest that if that were my vocabulary this is the way I would tell a story.
DB: Was there ever some point in your life that you “woke up” as a writer? When you said I need to write about this certain thing and get it into the hands of others?
Dorris: No. I wanted to be a writer — at least I thought I did — when I was in early college. But I come from a Depression era background, and the idea of not having a paying job with a health plan was just beyond my experience. Then I adopted my first son when I was very young, I was just twenty-five years old, and he had health problems, so even more so than before I never thought I could make my living as a writer. Then in the early eighties Louise and I got together, and she was a writer and working on a novel that eventually became Tracks — though it was the third one published in the sequence. Actually part of our getting to be friends was working on that book together with me acting as a sounding board and then — when Love Medicine came along and even more so with The Beet Queen — I became a more and more active participant in the creation of the book and in the examination of the characters. In effect, I was her student during that time, and like any other student I eventually wanted to see if I could do it, too. It was hard, though, extremely hard, to be the spouse of someone who had already established herself as something of a sensation. I’m afraid the initial response was, “Oh dear, now her husband wants to write a book,” and even when Yellow Raft came out some of the positive reviews said it must really be Louise’s book, because it “doesn’t read like a first novel.” So, it’s taken a long time to kind of get over that hump, and luckily neither she, nor I, took it all too seriously. I was a student, and maybe it was my mid-life crisis to change from being an academic to a writer mostly of fiction.
DB: Do you feel that there are any central commonalities to your writing, regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction?
Dorris: Well, I think one commonality is not being satisfied with surface. I was raised by these women who, because of the time in which they were raised economically, they didn’t have any real opportunity for education, so they wound up being in rather low level jobs and doing the work for people who didn’t value them sufficiently and who didn’t pay them all that well. The dichotomy between how the world saw them and how they saw themselves and how I saw them always struck me as involving these various levels of truth. So I think I’m usually interested in writing about characters who are misperceived by the world or aren’t noticed by the world, but who are the stars of their own drama. Maybe this sort of thing occurs in both my fiction and non-fiction — finding the story where it isn’t so obvious.
DB: This area of the country is hit hard right now with World Series fever — the Cleveland Indians vs. the Atlanta Braves. I’m certain that you’re aware of the controversy over the naming of these sports teams and others. How serious do you think this question of naming is? Are there layers of complexity in this appropriation? What’s your take on this?
Dorris: Of course you’re talking to the person who disrupted Dartmouth College for fifteen years over the changing the name from the Dartmouth Indians to the Big Green. I would get letters every single day for years from alumni — some of them quite threatening — who found this change personally horrifying and who were flabbergasted that anybody would dare question the good taste of a name like this.
But that’s what I think it is. I think it’s bad taste. I think it’s tacky. And I think that the license with which people feel they can do this sort of thing is indicative of a kind of arrogant insensitivity that gets translated into other more serious things which can best be checked at the beginning already by protesting something like this. I just flew into Cleveland on a United plane in which a flight attendant had a hat with the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo logo on it and the door into where the pilot is had a logo on it as well. I was absolutely horrified — not living in a city that has those things — that people wouldn’t realize how blatantly racist this is. I think it’s very serious, and, I think, worth being obnoxious about.
DB: Could the controversy over names be happening because a name or a symbol is an identifiable, convenient target that’s easier to protest about, to get people’s attention over-say, the crassness of the Tomahawk chop or the Chief Wahoo logo — than it is to deal with more complicated issues like the ongoing Lakota claim to the ownership of the Black Hills?
Dorris: I think what we’re dealing with is a symptom. It’s a very obvious symptom of a general insensitivity, and it should be treated as such because once you get people to understand why such a thing is offensive it’s a first step towards understanding the more complicated issues. But it is a very serious symptom of insensitivity, and it’s interesting that no other kind of contemporary oppressed group or recently oppressed group finds themselves having to explain why such naming is inappropriate. Last week I saw a cartoon from — I don’t know what newspaper. Philadelphia? — that had the Louisville Latinos and the Juneau Jews and they even had logos for them. And then they had the Cleveland Indians. None of these fictitious names or logos were any worse than the reality, and that’s the point.
DB: Does it matter that the Indians were actually named in honor of a stellar Native American player, a leader on the team around the turn of the century?
Dorris: Not a bit. I’m sure that Al Jolson meant singing in black face as some sort of tribute to black performers, but it still doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that they can trot out two or three Native people who will say, “It doesn’t bother me.” I think it should.
DB: Do we need to go to the point where we have to change car names? Like the car I’m driving right now is called the Jeep Cherokee. You just rode in it. Is that some sort of misappropriation? What about the state of Indiana? Should that be changed, too?
Dorris: I always thought the state should have been called Native Americana myself. And Native Americanapolis. But, seriously, it does go back to the question of what if all the treaties got kept? What if huge chunks of land were given back to the people who lost them illegally? But how can you blame the people who, through no fault of their own, have since come to live on these lands and improve them and make them their homes? It gets very complicated, because we’re all, in a sense, contemporary to each other. We’re all products of the same convoluted and messed up history. You can’t undo everything, but you sure can undo a racist logo Cleveland Indian thing.
At Dartmouth we used to have these guys who would dress up- as my friend Dwayne Birdbear says, in “cultural drag” — and go out on the field at half time and pretend to be drunk. Everybody whooped it up and gave this cheer and got drunk because they were the Indians. It was awful, and it was offensive. When they began to recruit Indians at Dartmouth, however, we said “No more.” People circulated petitions to have us go home. I remember one guy who wrote and said I should be hit over the head and put in my canoe and sent down the Connecticut river. At the time, so many Native American students gave up their chance of getting a degree, spending so much time explaining why this behavior was inappropriate. It was a waste. Yet it wasn’t, because it truly has changed there now. Consciousness has been raised on an enormous number of issues. As we got rid of all that old baggage, we started a program in Yuba City with the medical school. We got the business school involved in tribal government and tribal business. The enrollment at Dartmouth went from ten Native students to currently about three hundred Native students. It was all part of the package.
DB: To switch the subject a little bit, did you have any change of perspective on the film Dances With Wolves, about which you wrote so delightfully in your article “Indians in Aspic” in The New York Times a while back? In retrospect, is it just another example of the old feel-good movie that Hollywood has a knack for, or do you think it might serve as at least a modest change in the authentic portrayal of Native Americans?
Dorris: I’m afraid I don’t think it did. I mean Kevin Costner is now building this huge casino right in the heart of the Black Hills. People who trusted him — I don’t know him personally — but other people who trusted him are just horrified. His brother’s up there running it, and the whole thing just makes a mockery out of the whole notion of the sacredness of the place. I think maybe it’s like the guy who named the team after the good Indian player, maybe his intentions weren’t bad, but I think the making of the film just didn’t make a dent in terms of the unemployment, the poverty, or the desperation of the two reservations that are most directly affected, and where Dances with Wolves was actually filmed.
I can tell you a very funny story about that film. Robert Fasthorse, the Supreme Court Justice of Pine Ridge Reservation, who’s a Harvard graduate and this great big guy who looks like an Indian nickel and has a profile like everybody expects Lakotas to have, but he’s a suit — he went to the University of New Mexico and Harvard. So he’s walking down the street in Pine Ridge with his briefcase one day, and one of the film people stops him — you know he looks the part — so the film guy asks him if he wants to be an extra. Of course, Robert can’t resist this, so he takes the day off court to do it, and they take him out and dress him up in a breach cloth and paint him all up and then they put him on a horse. He doesn’t ride, but he didn’t want to lose out on this thing. So they say, “Action,” the horse moves, Robert falls off and hits his head and knocks himself out. They put him in the back of this pick-up truck and take him to this little hospital in the middle of nowhere South Dakota and take the breach cloth off him for the next extra. So he comes to in this little white clinic, naked, painted — so its like the Indian nightmare come to life — and he calls up his wife and says, “Come and get me real fast and bring me some clothes!”
DB: Do you think, though, that everyone just expected too much from that film? I’m reminded of what you said earlier about The Broken Cord, that the book had been criticized for perpetuating the ongoing stereotype of drunken Indians. Also, there’s the film Philadelphia and its depiction of AIDS and the gay world. Certain texts come into view and since there has been very little said about these subjects, about these experiences, that the films or novels are expected to say everything at once, and none of them succeeds in this type of bearing witness, despite being popular, because everyone demands so much from them.
Dorris: The Broken Cord has had an enormously warm reception, especially from people who work with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects kids: women physicians, women health care workers, school teachers. And people who have that kind of direct experience say, “Thank goodness somebody is telling it the way it is.” In the book it was certainly never presented as an Indian problem, although my son was Indian so that was what I had to write about. The people who criticized it were a very strange alliance, liquor companies, feminists from a certain perspective who said if women can’t drink then men shouldn’t be able to drink either — sort of a denial of biology argument which never persuaded me very much. Then there were people who said we should only support positive stereotypes about Indians. And if I were in any of the last two groups I would wonder why I was in alliance with companies who were making lots of money by not telling women who were pregnant that it was dangerous to drink. Just this last year one of the wine growers associations in California basically bought two doctors and then sent them around the country to go on Larry King and so forth to say it actually would be good for pregnant women to have a glass of wine every day. Now to me that’s the lowest level of depravity, because there’s no way on earth they can say this honestly. There can be women who can have one glass of wine a day and still have reasonably healthy babies, but you don’t know in advance whether you’re one of them and there’s no test to tell you. Chances are, by following their recommendation you’d be doing irreparable brain damage to your offspring. And that these two bozos would be on a tour sponsored by the wine growers association, or that the wine growers association would do such a thing — basically admitting that they can’t afford to lose the money of pregnant women drinkers — is evil.
DB: How did you feel about speaking in the name of your son’s experience, your wife’s, or others who also have had to deal with FAS? In writing that book did you feel that you had to make clear what was your own perspective and what was that of others? Because you’re speaking your own truths, your own experiences, but it’s also representational.
Dorris: Well, that’s really why Louise wrote the introduction, and Abel himself wrote the afterword. I didn’t want to speak for more than myself. And why a lot of the political arguments that were made in the book were not made by me, but by women — like Jeaneen Gray Eagle — who either work in the field and have done so for years and years, or who are doctors, social workers or whatever. I hope I say enough times, and I think if I said it too many more times I would be beating people over the head with it, that I’m speaking just as one parent in that book. Just last night in Grand Rapids — and it happens to me almost everywhere I go, even though God knows it’s the last story I want to be known for — a middle-aged couple came up and I could see in their face that they have had this experience, and they just put their arms around me and wept. It’s a terrible fraternity to be in, and if you’re in it, you know each other right off. A book like Crown of Columbus that sold a half a million copies, you get maybe a hundred letters from people who actually write you to say they like it, they don’t like it, whatever. But for The Broken Cord I’ve gotten four thousand and they still come in every day. Not one of them says “you’re wrong” or “we had this success with our child” or “this worked.” It’s more like saying — it’s more like saying, “Gee it wasn’t because I didn’t read more books. Or it wasn’t because I didn’t try this, that or the other thing.” At least thank goodness there is a name to put on this terribly sad and chronic situation.
DB: I understand that you and Louise rarely travel together, because one of you needs to stay home with the children. Does this arrangement work pretty well? How successfully do you think you integrate your writing life and your life outside the page?
Dorris: Louise and I travel for pleasure together, but not professionally so much, because we are not joined at the hip and we both need more privacy. And, to answer your question about our writing and non-writing life, I think the problem more is how to separate them than to join them. It’s very important to separate them, to be professional about the writing because we have to be tough with each other about the writing stuff. And in a way, the books are like products. I don’t want to say children, but they are like something that we both work on as hard as we possibly can to make them ready to go out on their own. But one of the things we learned from The Crown of Columbus and how difficult the tour afterwards turned out was that talking too much about our relationship, either as writers or as people, doesn’t do our relationship any good. People tend to idealize us and we feel cute or something, when our lives are as complicated as anybody else’s. Certainly, between writing that book together and having the film of The Broken Cord made — 40 million people saw it — an enormous invasion of privacy took place, and ever since those two events we have worked very hard to reclaim the privacy of our lives. We did the Broken Cord movie for a very specific purpose and that was so Abel’s life could have an exemplary effect on other people. And we know three or four specific instances in which people who were drinking saw the movie and stopped and had healthy children. But boy, no amount of money could pay for the microscope that the film has put us and our other children under. I think it did good in the world, and I would do it again, but. . .
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