The Stories We Tell: Louise Erdrich's Identity Narratives

By Reid, E. Shelley | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Stories We Tell: Louise Erdrich's Identity Narratives


Reid, E. Shelley, MELUS


In their study of American individualism, Robert N. Bellah and his associates report that the mostly white and middle class Americans to whom they spoke "have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments [to other people]. In the language they use, their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than they really are" (21). The researchers conclude with concern that "the language of individualism, the primary American language of self-understanding, limits the ways in which people think" (290, my emphasis). Carol Tavris, writing in The Mismeasure of Woman, puts it even more succinctly: "We must be careful about the explanations and narratives we choose to account for our lives because ... we live by the stories we tell" (312). While both studies note a crucial issue in contemporary American cultural studies, how we identify ourselves as individuals and as Americans, they focus primarily on Euro-American representations of identity, and, perhaps as a result, leave their readers with more cautions than recommendations. Modern American literature in fact offers us access to a wide variety of viable alternative self-concepts and narrations of identity; broadening Bellah's "people" and Tavris's "we" to include and recognize the significance of American stories not strictly descended from European origins may reveal that there is less cause for concern than they imply--and more cause for celebration.(1)

To be sure, in contemporary America our stories are still predominantly influenced by the autobiographical narrative styles created over two centuries ago in Europe. The mythical American success story--whether told by Cooper, Twain, Hemingway and Hammett, or by John Wayne, Phil Donahue, and Dan Rather--still examines primarily "our deepest identity" as individuals, using the narrative paradigms developed by late eighteenth-century writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. In these narratives, the self-made, self-reliant man explains how he has progressed beyond the naivete of youth, has overcome the obstacles placed in his way by society, and has put the past behind him to become a confident, productive individual. He assumes all the authority of the author's position, assuring us that he alone can and will tell the true story about himself; we are invited to believe the facts of his story as he presents them. Despite literary innovations which have given us other stories from which to choose, such as stories of chaotic times and antiheroes, of absurdity and inaction, the earlier paradigm has retained popularity and cultural currency.

Though limited in scope, these traditional autobiographical paradigms offer powerful opportunities, even for Americans of non-European ancestry. For minority Americans, writing (or co-writing) their life stories has from the start produced both acceptance by the reading public and a chance to claim and (re)tell their own stories. Slave narratives, "as-told-to" Indian autobiographies, and exoticized stories of Asian immigrants helped open doors for other minority writers to create and publish poetry, fiction, and other genres. Yet the impulse to focus on stories of identity has not weakened. As Shirley Geok-lin Lim notes, "For many ethnic writers, writing is frequently a writing of `the story of my life' (or `of my people's lives'), whether it takes the form of poetry, fiction, or autobiography" (27). Such "identity narratives," a term meant to be more inclusive than "autobiography," are thus at the heart of much ethnic and minority American writing.

Of course, some writers with little or no cultural connection to eighteenth-century France would probably wish to revise the forms of these narratives, and have frequently done so; Jade Snow Wong's third-person narration of her autobiography and N. Scott Momaday's multiperspectival construction of his life story are but two examples. However, the genre and the reading public have resisted such revisions. …

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