Erdrich’s The Sentence (Harper, Nov.) centers on the haunting of a Minneapolis bookstore by the ghost of a well-meaning white woman who fabricated an Indigenous identity.
What inspired you to write the book?
I had always wanted to write a ghost story. There’s this anomaly, “I don’t really believe in ghosts,” but I knew people who had inexplicable experiences and would not admit—as I would not—to believing in ghosts. I sometimes would take a poll when I was doing a reading and I would ask everyone in the audience if they believed in ghosts. Very few hands would come up. And then I would ask, “Have you had an experience or know someone who has an experience with a ghost?” and almost every hand would go up. We do have some residual sense of the energy of people who are no longer living. They are living in some way.
I decided in November 2019 I would write it, and then 2020 happened and I thought maybe I would stop, but then I realized this was a haunted time.
Could you talk about the theme of haunting in The Sentence?
The world collectively understood that the virus was something we needed to take action against. It was like a physical menace. Then the George Floyd murder happened. There was a heartsickness experienced here in Minneapolis. So, I thought about the haunting of Minnesota. Minnesota also had officers in the military who were fighting at Fort Snelling. They were enslaving other people and decimating Dakota people. So, this is our history. It became more than a ghost story; it became a story of our collective haunting.
The issue of identity and the conflict over appropriating Native culture appear in the story via the ghost character of Flora. How important is this issue to Native experiences?
Partly, I think appropriation happens to people on all sorts of levels and of all sorts of ethnicities. But it happens a lot to Native people. It’s so common that there’s an accepted part of being Native that there are outsiders who really want to be Native. It seems to be a romantic trope in people’s lives. The person of Flora was very complicated, though. There were very good aspects of her. She wasn’t only being appropriative. She was also trying to contribute and that’s often also the case, too. Her identity became very mixed-up, but it also became invasive. It becomes increasingly invasive as she becomes a physically invasive presence in the store.
Did any experiences or relations with customers at your own bookstore inspire the story?
Yes, the bookstore I describe is uncannily like Birchbark Books. The only supernatural thing about the store is we’re still open. Maybe someone on staff sold our soul to the devil, or maybe we just have good customers.