Academic journal article Style

"Where the Maps Stopped": The Aesthetics of Borders in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Tracks

Academic journal article Style

"Where the Maps Stopped": The Aesthetics of Borders in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine and Tracks

Article excerpt

The language of margins and borders marks a position of paradox: both inside and outside.

- Linda Hutcheon (Poetics 66)

In her novels Love Medicine and Tracks, Louise Erdrich engages the paradox of employing and glorifying the oral tradition and its culturally cohesive function by inscribing this tradition.(1) The text that simultaneously asserts and denies the presence of voice makes explicit the paradoxical presence and absence that is the condition of all language, of all texts as they compose words to call forth a world. In Erdrich's work this paradox plays itself out in representing a people, and their culture, who have been unrepresented or represented in manipulative ways in the service of a dominant group's ideology. Her work thus questions the politics of representation.

Erdrich's early novels, Love Medicine (1984, 1993) and The Beet Queen (1986), have received the highest praise for their stylistic beauty and lyricism, yet they also have been criticized for a lack of psychological depth and inattention to the historical and political conditions of oppression suffered by Native American characters. In her essay "The Silko-Erdrich Controversy," Susan Perez Castillo argues against such accusations, urging a more sophisticated hermeneutical approach to Erdrich's texts. She emphasizes the importance of attending to their silences and, following Brian McHale, to their postmodern use of"representation itself to subvert representation, problematizing and pluralizing the real" (292). In her reading of Tracks, Nancy J. Peterson situates this subversion in terms of Erdrich's renegotiation of historical discourses: "The new historicity that Tracks inscribes is neither a simple return to historical realism nor a passive acceptance of postmodern historical fictionality. Tracks takes up the crucial issue of the referentiality of historical narrative in a postmodern epoch and creates the possibility for a new historicity by and for Native Americans to emerge" (991). For instance, "the evocation of the oral in the written text implicates [a] counterhistory in the historical narrative [constructed through documents] that it seeks to displace" (985); "The documentary history of dispossession that the novel uses and resists functions as an absent presence" (987). Erdrich innovatively participates in "[w]riting history (as historical novels and in other forms)," which, Peterson says, "has [...] become one way for marginalized peoples to counter their invisibility" (983).

Indeed, the play of absence and presence imbues Erdrich's texts in multiple ways. Perhaps most striking among these is precisely the inscription and thematization of the invisible and the visible. In her texts, this inscription and thematization acquire both negative and positive significances; invisibility signifies cultural oppression but can also signify access to the transcendent when invisibility inverts and expands into vision. Yet the significance of invisibility and vision constantly shifts in Erdrich's novels according to the speaker and the reader who situate themselves inside or outside of Native American culture. In the fluidity of their meanings - their crossing the boundary of definition - the concepts of invisibility and vision, along with concepts of the inside and the outside, reflect the complexity of Erdrich's aesthetic engagement of the idea of the border. In her novels about Native American characters confined within and defined by the borders of a reservation and the boundaries of ethnic definition, Erdrich (who is herself part Chippewa, part German American) uses the concept of the border as metaphor and narrative strategy for a newly imagined negotiation of individual and cultural identity.

In Border Theory, David E. Johnson and Scott Michaelsen complicate the premises of border studies that began with a focus on the U.S.-Mexico border, but has expanded to include "Latin American, Caribbean, and internal U. …

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