Writing a Dystopia of Women's Oppression in the Age of Trump
An interview with Louise Erdrich, author of Future Home of the Living God.
Image: Harper Collins
In this age of dystopias, Louise Erdrich's stands out. For one thing, in Future Home of the Living God, the National Book Award-winning author has crafted a speculative world that's disturbingly (and revealingly) akin to our own—in hers, evolution has mysteriously started working backwards, and our institutions begin a swift but irrevocable decline. Pregnant women, like the narrator, become an all-important commodity to the power brokers, and an age of oppression is quickly ushered in.
It's all rather ominous, close to home, and, of course, Trumpian. We ran an excerpt of the new book on Terraform, and it's a jarring, unsettling read that prompts some hard thinking about the ramifications of our dangerously unspooling moment.
I couldn't get swaths of it out of my head, so Erdrich was kindly game to talk through its genesis, personal import, and haunting proximity to our pre-apocalyptic reality. Here's how one manages to write a dystopia in the age of Trump that resonates beyond it.
Motherbaord: What prompted you to tackle speculative fiction with this book? In the acknowledgements you mention that this book has been gestating for over a decade and a half or so—before the dystopian fiction boom took off in full force, even. What was the genesis for the idea originally? What sort of metamorphosis has it undergone in that period?
Louise Erdrich: When I started this book the world was not exactly young, but we had just been through 9/11. A tragic reset. Either our country was going to open up and try to understand this monstrous act in all of its complexity, or shut down, make it simple, and take profit. Well, the latter. We slaughtered, we tortured, we destabilized the Middle East. Private military contractors made big money. Our volunteer army was invisible to the rest of the country. To the rest of the world, we became the face of lunatic democracy.
This was all happening when I started this book, and in addition George W. Bush signed the global gag rule, which deprives funding to any women’s health organization world wide that so much as mentions abortion under any circumstances. So no contraceptives, no screening services, just women trapped in our animal bodies. Women condemned to suffer with no recourse, no assistance, as we have been for thousands of years.
To that end, even though much of the novel was conceived years ago, there's something rippingly modern about its central conceit—that evolution abruptly begins to regress, and that causes society to unravel. I'm sure you've heard this more than a few times by now, but it certainly felt like a direct comment on the events of the past year or two: A society that, despite its abundant technological and economic advances, is suddenly devolving. And everyone's helpless to stop it. It felt inspired by the Trump era, in other words—how do you feel about that connection now? Were you still working on the novel during the election and its aftermath, and did that inform any of your choices?
I worked on this book on and off, but published other books, including The Round House. I left Future Home of the Living God in an old computer. After last year’s election, I knew that I had to finish it. Trump had indicated that his first act would be to sign the global gag rule. Although this book is speculative fiction, it did feel like I was telling a form of truth.
The book is also a deeply felt (it seems, anyway) meditation on pregnancy itself, and the many ways men and the institutions they control are awful towards pregnant women. Was there any particular grist for that mill that you drew upon? It's also interesting that there are few outright villains detailed here, and it is primarily systems (and desperation) that drives the oppression and violence. Was omitting any particular Bad Man a conscious choice?
It was easy to imagine being hunted down for being pregnant. Even in the most fortunate of circumstances, pregnancy makes a woman conscious of becoming increasingly helpless, clumsy, unable to hide, and most difficult of all, extremely dependent.
Your world narrows, beautifully if you are lucky, but also alarmingly. I used this dissonance – joy and claustrophobia – in the book.
The one aspect I owe directly to the election is Mother, a creepily cheerful manipulative figure who in my mind is Karen Pence. My daughter Pallas suggested that the book needed a villain, and at the time we were gathering info on the Pences. All of it, even the innocuous stuff, was disturbing in light of their evangelical hatreds. Our Second Lady has taken up Art Therapy as her cause. She is LBGT phobic, so I am afraid she will turn it into Art Conversion Therapy. Karen herself also paints, and I can see where her paintings might be part of the conversion therapy, delivering a jolt of aesthetic nihilism. As in Clockwork Orange, if your eyes were pinned open and you were forced to view Karen Pence’s paintings, your skin would turn white, your libido flee, and you’d start craving towel charms (see Karen Pence’s second worst invention, the first being Mike).
Mother took the place of a Bad Man because it deeply disappoints me when women co-opted to serve as proxies for male control techniques.
This book seems destined to draw Atwood comparisons—a couple of the plot points feel like references or even homages to Handmaid's Tale, which, again, probably had not become another major cultural fixture via a prestige series and the news cycle. How did Atwood's work figure into your narrative, if at all? Do you read much speculative fiction? If so, what do you gravitate towards?
So many works of speculative fiction focus on reproduction. The Handmaid’s Tale was a favorite of mine, also Children of Men by P.D. James. Octavia Butler, Lidia Yuknavitch, Walter Tevis, and Frank Herbert’s Dune Trilogy are about reproduction. There should be ReproSpec designation – there are a million ways to write about it. What I loved about The Handmaid’s Tale was its tight construction, visual language, and veracity. I wanted Future Home to have the liquid surface of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. But I failed in that. The book is ragged, I feel.
Here's a potentially cliched one that I'm nonetheless interested to learn the answer to: How personal was the act of writing this book?
The question whether a book is personal is an odd one – it is always very, very personal, but not in the way one might think. I almost never draw from personal incident. I don’t base characters on people I know (and I don’t know Karen Pence, thank you and have a blessed day). Yet the entire book is personal because I draw upon experience in a subterranean way. As I get older, I begin to understand that I have aquifers of emotion. Some are the kind of regenerative aquifers that fill though the slow seep of experience. Others are quite different, as though I am drawing on emotions that are more universal and perhaps ancient. But for this book, much of my experience was readily available. For one thing, I have been pregnant and helpless. I do sometimes base fictional places on real places and did describe my room in Fairview Riverside Hospital. There is a cave system under Saint Paul but I have never given birth there. I did have a psychedelic ultrasound. But as much as it is deeply personal, the book is also largely invented.
Finally: How do you feel about the future, personally? Are you optimistic, pessimistic, fearful?
It feels like a decade has passed since the 2016 election. But it also feels like no time at all. The news shreds all sensibility. We have collective jawache, heartache, headache. 2017 hurts. It scares me that we’re burning out, that we really are going numb, that outrage after outrage from Trump and cronies is exhausting us. However, there is no question that for the sake of all we hold dear in our democracy, we really have to pace ourselves. We have to endure and to do that we have to remember how to laugh and discriminate and stop drinking way too much wine. (Or is it only me.)
We have to fight the incendiary weirdness and celebrate the brave and the good.