Every writer has to start somewhere, and for David Treuer, a professor of English, it was a bet in his dorm at Princeton University.
“A guy in my hallway was very proud of himself for being in the creative writing program,” Treuer said. “He kept bragging about how hard it was to get into the program, so we made a bet. I wrote a story, and I was rejected.”
Treuer was studying anthropology, but refused to settle for rejection and continued applying to the creative writing program until he was accepted.
More than 20 years later, students, faculty and friends gathered in Doheny Memorial Library Thursday night to celebrate the publication of his fifth book, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life. He shared his inspiration behind the book, read an excerpt and answered a few questions.
Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian, grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. Three of his previous novels were works of fiction based on Native American culture. Rez Life is his first full-length work of nonfiction, inspired by a desire to write a contemporary view on Native American issues, such as reservation rights, casinos and spirituality.
“There was a frustration with the kind of easy journalism that basically focused on, or only conceived, the tragic wrecked Indian communities and lives,” Treuer said. “I also turned around and realized there wasn’t really a major book of nonfiction by a native writer that tried to find some other way into the issue of who we are and where our communities are going, where they’re from and what they mean.”
Treuer said many Native American writers are prone to falling into telling their stories through the frame of tragedy, a pattern he sometimes found himself falling into during seven years of researching and writing.
“We’re used to thinking of reservations as places of deficit,” Treuer said. “This is the official version of rez life. The book was a process of finding some other way of seeing truly.”
Treuer was a professor at the University of Minnesota while writing Rez Life, but came to USC last fall. He teaches several writing workshops, including a course for graduate students where he uses his experiences to help writers with their own work.
Diana Arterian, a master’s candidate in literature and creative writing, said Treuer’s workshops have helped her develop as a writer.
“I’m a poet,” Arterian said. “So he helps with seeing the greater mechanisms of prose, which I am not versed in, and giving tools you can use to illustrate the goal of your writing more concisely.”
These mechanisms are something Treuer himself learned during his time at Princeton, taking classes with notable authors, such as Toni Morrison and Paul Muldoon. Morrison, he said, has become one of his greatest influences.
“I was petrified the first day of class with her,” Treuer said. “She’s impressive, not just as a writer but as a person. She stressed that books create an opportunity to engage with readers, so you have to think strategically about what assumptions a reader is going to have, and to either use them, or use them against the reader.”
Treuer is now working with his brother Anton Treuer and linguist John Nichols to write a book on the grammar of the Ojibwe language.
“If my tribal language dies, a lot is going to die with it,” he said. “It’s vital to my tribe for a whole host of reasons, not only practical, but also philosophical.”
Treuer also created a Maymester course, Writing on the Rez, which will take USC students to the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota in May for a monthlong immersion into Native American culture, where they will write fiction and nonfiction and will collaborate on a documentary about contemporary Native American life.