Writing the Human Experience

David Treuer (Ojibwe), cover of his novel Prudence.

Author David Treuer (Ojibwe) completed “Prudence,” a novel set in post-WWII Minnesota, wrote several essays and began research on his next non-fiction book with the support of a Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship.

“Prudence is based on a historical person thrust into a rural Minnesota community not really through her own doing or wishes,” said Treuer. “The author Earnest Hemingway is quoted as saying, ‘The first woman I’ve ever pleasured was a half-breed Ojibwe woman named Prudence Bolton.’ While it’s hard to imagine anyone being ‘pleasured’ by Hemingway, we do know the real Prudence Bolton and her lover committed suicide when she was 19. That’s it. That’s all we know of her. We have thousands and thousands of pages devoted to the life of Hemingway and all we know about this Native woman is two sentences.”

To bring life to her story, the Leech Lake Ojibwe writer was able to delve deeply into the lives of the characters in his story and imagine how Native life was in the 1940s and 1950s for the people living it. “In literature, American Indians are never really allowed our own complicated, flawed and tumultuous human experience. When we suffer, it’s interpreted as historical trauma. When we fall down, people try to say it’s a fault of our culture. That kind of presentation eclipses our Selves. In Prudence, I really wanted to show Indian characters in that era doing the best they can and having fully realized lives — even if aspects of those lives weren’t lived fully by their own choices in some ways.”

Supported in part by the award, a sabbatical from teaching allowed the prolific Native writer to finish editing the novel, write an article for Harper’s and begin work on two new projects while supporting the ongoing book tour of “Rez Life” and the first translation of “Rez Life” into French. The New York Times asked Treuer to contribute a perspective when sports franchise owner Daniel Snyder created a nonprofit during the patent lawsuit which stripped the franchise’s racist trademarks of copyright protection. “I think the Mascot Issue is important and that the Washington team name and logo are on their way out. When the New York Times presented an opportunity to add to the dialogue, I wanted to explore the fact that Native people are neither as dumb nor as desperate as some people think we are. We’re not being snowed by some donation depot where Snyder’s exchanging blankets for good will. We know the score. We’re strong, fierce, capable people who aren’t just merely surviving. We are succeeding in a lot of different ways. Combat for us shifted from actual warfare to a sort of legislative warfare where we fought in courts. Now a generation of Native intellectuals has a chance to change the terms of the debate. We’ve got to use new terms or invent our own to shift the conversation. That’s the role of a writer.”

Known for his work to elevate the critical appreciation of Native literature, Treuer teaches writing to next generations and maintains a wide perspective of the field. “The best Native writers today are poets. There have always been Native fiction writers who were breaking out, writing new and unexpected things, yet not as many right now. I’m really searching for a younger cohort of Native fiction writers. They’re out there of course, yet not as strongly as you see today in poetry. For non-fiction, we need more Native writers who are going to write compelling stories for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, the New Yorker, Mother Jones and the New York Times.”

“In this day and age, it’s almost impossible to make one’s living from one’s writing exclusively. Funding for the arts nationwide has dropped at the federal and state levels and in the private sector. The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation is one of the only funding sources exclusively for Native folks to continue their work in literature,” said Treuer. “I’m very grateful that this fellowship allowed me to concentrate entirely on my craft for a while, it’s an invaluable opportunity for Native writers.”

When he is not writing “The Brothers Dostoevsky,” a novel set in the 1930s, or conducting research for the non-fiction work, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” Treuer will be discussing “Prudence” with lit lovers over the next few months. Connect with the foundation on Facebook and visit www.davidtreuer.com for details on upcoming readings in your area.

Prudence Book Readings

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