Country Grammar

David Treuer

David Treuer

David Treuer won't be showing up again at work until 2008. Perhaps in recognition of that fact, Treuer, who is compact and muscular, has grown out a sandy crop of 48-o'clock shadow. Not that the author is planning to sink into utter sloth—far from it. "I'm taking a year and a half off from my teaching job at the U to embark on an exciting new project," he begins, as we grab a table on the patio of the Central Library's Dunn Bros.

When he says "project," he actually means three interlocking collaborative projects: an Ojibwe dictionary, an Ojibwe grammar, and an Ojibwe oral history. "It's a huge undertaking," he says. "It'll be years in the making. But it's now or never. The language is dying. I don't know that there are any native speakers under the age of 35 or 40 with Ojibwe as their first language. It's do or die. But it's fun. As a teacher, I spend most of my time talking. I love teaching, but it's fantastic to be able to just sit back and listen."

As if he didn't have enough on his plate already. Treuer is also part of the elite force, co-commanded by cultural critic Greil Marcus, currently building the New Harvard History of American Literature. Concurrently, he's working on a nonfiction collection of stories about contemporary reservation life. Plus, autumn finds him touring behind a pair of new books: his third novel, The Translation of Doctor Apelles, and Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, both published by Graywolf Press and shipping in September.

Sharing Treuer's fondness for collecting tales is the novel's Doctor Apelles, an underemployed linguist who pursues an austere, solitary existence. His most cherished document is in a language that only he can translate, and it sends him head over heels in love with love. Early on, Apelles tramps through the Canadian woods to interview an elderly woman who speaks a vanishing Ojibwe dialect. Delighted to meet a rare soul who, literally, speaks her language, she unleashes a veritable flood of stories.

"I was thinking of a particular person when I wrote that scene," says Treuer, lighting a Marlboro. "A woman named Nancy Jones. She lives on a reserve in Canada, has a bunch of kids—including twin sons who are my best friends—and holds the world record for beaver-skinning." Jones, a renowned linguist herself, has held the beaver record since 1971—stripping an intact carcass to a fully skinned and stretched pelt in 22 minutes. The average is 45. "She's a remarkable woman," Treuer continues, "in her late 60s, raised in seasonal camps, very adept at the seasonal lifestyle."

Growing up on the Leech Lake Reservation as one of six children of an Austrian Holocaust survivor and an Ojibwe tribal judge provided Treuer with the opportunity to pick up more than a little seasonal lore. And he's not inclined to allow his knife to get rusty. During his sabbatical, he, his wife—writer Gretchen Potter—and their eight-month-old daughter Elsina, will be spending most of their time in a renovated cabin on family land near Bemidji. Treuer the younger sleeps in a blanket made of beaver pelts skinned by her father. "They're the softest thing in the world," he says.

Treuer's aptitude with sharp objects extends to the foil: Before choosing a career as a writer, midway through his undergraduate days, Treuer trained in the hope of becoming an Olympic fencer. Ultimately, he collected an anthropology degree from Princeton and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. This scholary side comes to the fore in Native American Fiction. Drawing from the work of authors such as Forrest Carter, James Fenimore Cooper, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch, and Sherman Alexie, Treuer presents a commanding case for judging—and enjoying—Native fiction as literature, rather than binding it to notions of cultural authenticity. He has nothing but praise for contemporaries Erdrich, Welch, and Silko. Alexie is another matter.

"I give Alexie a hard time," Treuer says, taking a hit of his iced depth charge. "But he's a very imaginative writer. He's really gifted. But I don't think he made good on the promise of his first collection of short stories. I don't think he's held himself to the same standards. I think he presents a very narrow portrait of Indian life in his books, then promotes it as, 'This is what Indian life is like; this is what real Indian rez life is like.' I'm Indian, and my life isn't like that. I went to summer camp, Camp Chippewa for Boys. I learned to shoot, I learned to camp, I learned all kinds of things. And it was on the reservation!

"Alexie's work is taken as 'authentic.' And it's that atmosphere of authenticity that I rebel against. Novels aren't supposed to be authentic; they're supposed to be magic. What I'm saying in the User's Manual is, 'stop reading these novels as educational material, and start reading them as literature. They will last. As cultural documents, they just don't hold up."

While hardly stingy with cultural detail, the writer practices what he preaches and then some in Apelles, gliding elegantly between Apelles's personal awakening and the story the good doctor is translating. The scholar's existence is fraught with uncertainty, borne of the remembrance of loss and the promise of lasting gains. The story within a story, however, is consistently sunny, following the charmed lives of Bimaadiz and Eta, two gifted 19th-century Indian kids who seem destined to end up together. Sure, danger intrudes from time to time. But every time the kids get in a jam, one miraculous force or another intervenes, restoring peace and harmony.

"I had a lot of fun writing the book. And it has a happy ending—two happy endings," says the author, whose preceding novels, Little and The Hiawatha, didn't.

"I think a lot of people will see this as my most literary book, the most esoteric one so far, the most playful," Treuer says. "But ironically, it's the most autobiographical, in that Apelles's predicament is the predicament of many of us native people whose lives escape notice. Our lives don't resemble the typical kinds of lives we see in Native American fiction. We don't fit any of the stereotypes.

"There's the translation thing, too, which is also a metaphor, a double metaphor, actually. It's a metaphor for love, in the sense of asking, How do we translate ourselves so that somebody else can read us? And it's also a metaphor for culture: How do you translate a culture so that it can be recognized by others but [remain] true to the original?"

It's noon by the time we leave the library—which, strangely, neither of us has seen beyond the coffee shop—and head for Nicollet Island in the hope of trading downtown's ferocious heat for a cooler, woodsier setting. This path—from the carrels to the country—is one that Treuer will be making a lot in the next few years.

"The dictionary is John Nichols's baby," Treuer explains, speaking of his colleague in the Native American Studies department at the U of M. "It's him and my brother Anton"—a professor at Bemidji State University—"who are bringing the expertise to the grammar and story collection. I'm just delighted to be helping out, interviewing people, transcribing stories. Most of the people we're interviewing live very close, either on Leech Lake or Red Lake. Even Nancy Jones only lives about two-and-a-half hours away.

The prospect of the book tour elicits a little groan—and understandably so. They're grueling affairs, not unlike touring with a band, minus the pleasurable vices. (Treuer cites his only bad habits as smoking and writing.) "But I'm really looking forward to touring France when the translation of The Translation comes out next spring," he says. "The best part is that I can lecture at universities about the essay book and do bookstore readings."

While Nicollet Island is decidedly more verdant than Washington Avenue, it's no less hot. At Treuer's behest, we slip onto a narrow side street that retains a good deal of the island's old hippified charm. We even happen upon a tipi in the back yard of a big Victorian frame house. "Oh, a tipi," he says.

"I grew up on this river," Treuer says, looking down at the Mississippi as we pause on the railroad bridge that leads to what little vacant land remains behind the condos of the North Loop. "It's clean up there, and shallow enough to play in—not around, but actually in. Life is very hard on the reservation. There's a huge crystal meth problem. It's easy to sell drugs. There's very little enforcement because of tribal sovereignty. All you have are reservation cops, who really aren't equipped to handle drug trafficking. You know those tax-free development zones for businesses? It's like that with drugs up there. Crime, HIV—it seems kind of relentless.

"You know the shootings at Red Lake? I used to work at that school. Both my parents worked at that school. My sister works there now. It's tough."

"But at the same time, there are lots of good things, lots of great people, lots of really interesting people. Others would be surprised, I think, if they knew the shape and texture of our lives."

Especially surprising may be the notion of an Indian philologist, sorting volumes in a vast limbo of decomissioned library books called RECAP, as Doctor Apelles does in Treuer's new novel. Comparisons to the work of lifelong librarian Jorge Luis Borges are inevitable here. But unlike Borges, who claimed to have largely read his way through life, Treuer is essentially intent on living it.

"I gave my mother a first draft of my first novel," he says as we leave the river behind. "After she read it she said, 'This is beautiful; this is wonderful. You can be anything you want. But don't be a writer. It's full of heartache. Just don't do it.' That was all the encouragement I needed."