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Birchbark Blog

Uwem Akpan

Louise Erdrich - Friday, April 11, 2008
Uwem Akpan's forthcoming (June 2008) collection of stories, SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM, published by Little, Brown and Company, is an beautiful, bitter, compelling read. The savagely strange juxtapositions in these stories are grounded by the loving relationships between brothers and sisters forced to survive in a world of dreamlike horror.

Open the book at any page, as in divination, and a stunning sentence will leap out. For instance: It was before the new democratic government placed a ban on mass transportation of corpses from one end of the country to the other. The word mass hides in the sentence until you're halfway down the page. Then, WHACK. It is from the story Luxurious Hearses.

From My Parents' Bedroom: If he gave even one franc, his bad money would swallow all the good contributions, like the sickly, hungry cows in Pharoah's dream.

Children are sold into sexual slavery, children breathe glue in the shelter of a mother's hand to kill hunger pangs, children witness a father forced the kill his beloved wife, their lovely Tutsi mother -- these are newspaper facts molded by Akpan's sure touch into fictional works of great power.

Mr. Akpan grew up in Nigeria, was educated by Jesuit priests, and is himself an ordained Jesuit. He received an MFA in writing at the University of Michigan, and is or will be teaching at a Jesuit mission in Zimbabwe.

There is a map of Africa with the countries where these stories are set marked out. This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Nicholas Kristoff writes eloquently of where we are now in his today's New York Times O-Ed piece.

Read Mr. Akpan's book to understand Kristoff's urgent message on Darfur/Sudan through the eyes of a child.

Vanishing Americans Just Keep On Writing

Louise Erdrich - Thursday, March 27, 2008
It gives me some satisfaction to think of those 19th century yappers (Manifest Destiny) (Vanishing Americans), and of Andrew Jackson (trail of tears), shock at the Native literature, books of tribal poetry and fiction, marvelously stacked here at my elbow.

First there is Gordon Henry Jr.'s intricate intellectual and beautifully grounded collection of poetry titled The Failure of Certain Charms. Salt Press. I read it all in a swoop. I loved River People -- The Lost Watch -- very powerful. Henry's poems are an edgey mixture of now, then, and no-time time. He has a steely sense of humor. "If Only Gregory Corso Was the Terra Cotta Horse on the Coffee Table with the Magazine Open to the You Can Be An Artist Ad". Where does that come from? An idiosyncratic human being (Chippewa) who loves his people, his family. We have to keep thinking, writing, seeing the world through our eyes, these poems tell us. We can't quit. We can't die. Our ancestors were tough and so we have to witness this world for them.

Yellow Medicine Review, Winter 2007 includes a extraordinary poem of memory by Janet McAdams. A grandfather works himself to the end, "and death opened its white mouth and breathed him in." Luke Warm Water opens an email file that informs him that his reservation hosts a terrorist cell. But it's a joke. Pauline Danforth writes of a Ojibwe life-ways and language camp, and the poignant moments there with children, She meditates on the distance between our ancestors and our lives now. One of my favorite lines in the book is from -- I am afraid of my own poetry, Sarah Agaton Howes "I am afraid the colonizers will Never Leave!/Shit! I am afraid they will leave and I won't know how/to clean a walleye" This issue of Yellow Medicine Review includes much, much more and is available at

In preparation for entering Eric Gansworth territory I read his new book of poetry A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function. Syracuse University Press. Illustrated with extraordinary paintings, this volume of poetry sings the body complicated. (Thank god, here's really complicated Indian) There is a gentle, funny, brotherly observer in these poems who forgives us all -- I kept reading one after the other -- ah, forgiveness. Not that there is ever an outright absolution. By the way I am not a real critic, just a devoted reader. These poems are stirring, down-to-earth, and of course funny.

I have also got the companion volume to Genocide of the Mind. (These are both essential reading) Sovereign Bones, New Native American Writing, edited by Eric Gansworth. Nation Books. Here's a tiny clip from Old Stories From The New World, by Susan Power: "Do you know what it's like to be a sliver of the census pie in your own land, the numbers at the bottom of every statistical list if you're listed at all? This is what it's like to be Native when you're born in Chicago in 1961: you exist in the mirror, in your mother's face, you exist in the angry poems that drizzle from the clutch of your pen, all your words upon words upon words, your exhibit, your proof of life, shouting with ink -- we are here!"

Yeah, take that, DeSoto, Cortes, Custer, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Ma from Little House on the Prairie,etc. etc.
We are here.

People of the Book in hibernation

Louise Erdrich - Thursday, February 28, 2008
Does everyone go into a post Xmas hibernation? This year it was especially intense, given the subzero days that seemed so long and arid. I read copiously, but strange things -- books that do not really exist. Fortunately, I also happened upon a few that do. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks had a thriller plot and the most exquisite details about the restoration of ancient tomes. Also there was a masterwork published by our own Graywolf Press -- Out Stealing Horses. Again I went back to James Welch, one of the most gifted American writers, sadly missed. Fools Crow, The Death of Jim Loney, Winter in the Blood, The Heartsong of Charging Elk. Anything he wrote -- extraordinary.

I read Night Train, by my sister, Lise Erdrich. I know, she's my sister, but she's also brilliant and funny.

A few notes: contrary to an odd remark published I can't say where (referring to me as a sort of luddite) I DO know how to get online and I even post these blogs with my own fingers. I see them moving on the rectangular contraption I've heard called a keyboard, right now. It is true that I write first drafts by hand, but I also type efficiently and if I take my brain pills I can remember my own passwords in order to sign in at various sites in the cyberworld.

People of the book, when the pages in your hands cast a shadow from a warm sun, please let me know.

Faithfully yours, Louise

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