'The Characters Are The Light' : Code Switch You already know we love books here on Code Switch — and given that we're smack dab in the middle of Native American Heritage month, we thought we'd introduce you to some of our favorite recent books by Indigenous authors.

'The Characters Are The Light'

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I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR.


BATES: You know that feeling when you find a good book you just get lost in. You stay up late reading one more chapter - then another and another. It's a companion with coffee, with walks. You even (shushing) sneak in some pages at work. And until you finish it, that is all you can focus on. Reading an engrossing book like that kind of feels like entering a whole other world or rediscovering your own. And as we're also in the middle of Native American Heritage Month, we wanted to treat you bookworms to a few transporting reads from awesome Indigenous authors.

LOUISE ERDRICH: (Reading) Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.

DAVID A ROBERTSON: The representation of Indigenous people in books when I was a kid was based on stereotypes.

ANGELINE BOULLEY: We're not relics of the past. We exist, and we have vibrant, dynamic lives.

CHERIE DIMALINE: Of course it was going to be dark, but the other thing it was going to be, because I had these brilliant Indigenous characters, is beautiful.

BATES: And our very own CODE SWITCH team will be taking us through these reads, starting with Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, our CODE SWITCH fellow. Hey, Sam.


BATES: So what do you have for us?

KESLER: I'm recommending "The Sentence" by Louise Erdrich. Now, I know what you're thinking. Wasn't I supposed to be recommending a book, not just one sentence?

BATES: Wasn't thinking that, but OK.

KESLER: Well, the book is just called "The Sentence," and I chose it because of Louise Erdrich, who's the author of other great books like "Love Medicine." And she just won a Pulitzer for her novel "The Night Watchman." But also, this book is perfect for this episode in so many ways. It's filled with Indigenous characters who are diverse and warm and rich, and it's also something of a ghost story.

BATES: Well, yeah, let's talk about the plot.

KESLER: So it's told from the perspective of Tookie, an Indigenous woman who, at the beginning of the book, is facing a conviction or a sentence - hint, hint - for a crime she definitely committed. And I feel like this passage from the book Louise read for us is a really great introduction to Tookie.

ERDRICH: (Reading) I am an ugly woman, not the kind of ugly that guys write about or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of blinding instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments, nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and I'm good at selling people useless things for prices they can't afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words - collection of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.

BATES: Boy, that is such a good line. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters. But that's a pretty direct introduction to your narrator, right? Most people wouldn't describe themselves that way. What she says is what you get.

KESLER: Yeah. As we go on, we find out that that's not exactly the whole truth. I mean, like she says, she enjoys lying. So I wanted to know why the book begins so early with this description of herself, almost like a disclaimer. And I asked Louise about that.

ERDRICH: In the beginning of the book, a disclaimer tells you that everything is fiction. Nothing is real. So maybe that's true of Tookie, also, because the word ugly really isn't a descriptor. Turns out, it's something that you can say in order to strip away a certain kind of expectation from the reader.

BATES: OK. So Erdrich describes Tookie as something of an unreliable narrator, right?

KESLER: Right.

ERDRICH: I describe her as someone who has landed here in order to toughen up the people around her. She cuts through a lot of pain and values what she has in life, which is a comfort in her relationship with Pollux, who is her husband, and a love of what gives her the most pleasure in life. And that's books.

KESLER: After Tookie leaves prison, she gets a job as a bookseller at a store in Minneapolis. She describes herself as an intimidating woman with big black boots and, quote-unquote, "weightlifting arms." And when she applies for this job, she asks, who would dare not buy a book from me?

BATES: I think I'm kind of in love with this woman.

KESLER: (Laughter) Yeah. And one big takeaway from my conversation with Louise was how much the character of Tookie meant to her. The way that she talks about her, it's really like Tookie lives a life of her own.

BATES: The book is set in the recent past. How does that play out?

KESLER: Yeah, this novel takes place really in Louise Erdrich's world, to the point where she is a character in it. Like, literally - like, there's an author in it named Louise who owns the bookstore.

BATES: (Laughter).

KESLER: Yeah, like something of a tertiary character in her own story, like M. Night Shyamalan will show up in his movies. I think it's to let readers know that this is just bordering on fiction. But the book overlaps with our real world in very significant ways, like the pandemic, like the protests of 2020. All that's dealt with. And Tookie, she actually marries the tribal cop who arrested her in the first place.

ERDRICH: During May 2020, she and her husband have to deal with something that they've never uncovered between them. And they have - you know, they have what I consider a really beautiful relationship, a good marriage. And that's what happened, I think, to so many people during that time. It's like the structures of society, you know, they were covered with sand, and the sand blew off in one tremendous month.

BATES: So all this sounds really grounded in reality. I mean, there's a ghost story in here, right? So where does the ghost aspect of the story enter?

KESLER: Right. So that bookstore in Minneapolis has an emphasis on Native American literature, poetry, history, etc. So they get a lot of people coming in there, non-Native people, looking for answers like, how do I register to be Indian? And what's an Indian I can give to my pet?

BATES: (Laughter) Poor people.

KESLER: You can tell that this may have been ripped a little bit from Louise Erdrich's real life. And the main drive of the story begins on All Souls' Day, November 3, when the spirit of a woman begins haunting the bookstore where Tookie works.

ERDRICH: Our most annoying favorite customer comes partly because she loves books, but also because she is in an imbiber of all things Indigenous. I mean, she is what people term a wannabe. You know, she's someone who is not Native but has a kind of desperation to be Indigenous.

BATES: A Rachel Dolezal for Native Americans.

KESLER: (Laughter).

BATES: So haunted by the ghost of a white person - kind of a reversal of that old Indian burial ground trope, right?

KESLER: Exactly. So that's something you'll see in movies all the time, like "The Shining," "Pet Sematary" and "The Amityville Horror," to the point where it's almost kind of a joke when it gets used today, like, just to show how shoddily written a script is (laughter).

ERDRICH: But in this book, it's the opposite because I think that speaks much more clearly to the fact of Native life. We're haunted by the spirits of settlers, by the spirits of government officials, by a history that includes extermination policies explicitly aimed at your nation, my nation, all nations, you know. And these are white ghosts. These are ghosts that have been there from the very first moment a pilgrim fell off the rock and sat down at the Thanksgiving table that wasn't. You know?

BATES: Whoa. The metaphor here expresses this so much better than history books ever could.

KESLER: Exactly. Native people are haunted by the weight of a history of oppression, genocide and land theft. And they're also haunted by, you know, white people asking annoying questions. Flora is not the phantom you expect her to be. And it becomes clear at some point that she really chose to haunt Tookie in particular for reasons that you'll just have to read the book to find out.

BATES: And I think that's going to happen sometime soon. Thanks, Sam.

KESLER: Thank you.

BATES: That was Sam Yellowhorse Kesler recommending "The Sentence" by Louise Erdrich.

Now we're moving from something rooted in the not-so-distant past to an imagined future where sleep looks very different. More on that from our supervising editor, Leah Donnella. Hi, Leah.


BATES: Leah, tell us, what is your book?

DONNELLA: All right. This one is called "Hunting By Stars." It's by Cherie Dimaline. She's a registered member of the Georgian Bay Metis community, and her book is technically fantasy. But it also very clearly is hitting on some topics that are pretty true to life.

BATES: So what's it about?

DONNELLA: Well, it takes place in the near future in North America. And in that setting, Indigenous people are being hunted relentlessly. So the book starts out with a character named French, who's 17. He wakes up and realizes that he has actually been captured and separated from his family. He has no idea where he is or what's going on. So some of the book is told from his perspective, this kid who is absolutely terrified, but also at the same time being so thoughtful and determined and brave. And then other parts of the book follow different members of French's found family as they are journeying through the woods trying to find him while also trying to avoid being captured themselves.

BATES: Whoa. This sounds like this book is quite a ride.

DONNELLA: Oh, it is tense, Karen. It's so tense. There's also, you know, humor and sweetness and adventure mixed in there, but it will definitely have you sweating.

BATES: Yeah, I'm already sweating. So Leah, back up. Why are Indigenous people being hunted in the first place?

DONNELLA: So the premise in this world is that everyone has lost their ability to dream except for Indigenous people. So they're basically being hunted down so that scientists can try to cultivate this ability, which is believed to be stored in people's bone marrow. Basically, the government is desperate for everyone to be able to dream again.

DIMALINE: Not for any necessarily altruistic reason, just so that they can get them back to work.

BATES: Don't at us, conspiracy theorists. This is fiction - mostly.

DONNELLA: Mostly, yeah. That was author Cherie Dimaline.

DIMALINE: As humans, we absolutely need to dream. If we don't dream, it leads to some pretty heavy mental health implications.

DONNELLA: Cherie told me that in the book, dreams represent the ability to hope.

DIMALINE: And so instead of turning to Indigenous people as, seeing that they can still dream - instead of turning to them as kind of the experts or, you know, reaching out to bring them in and to center Indigenous knowledge, the solution is extractive.

BATES: Extracting resources from Native Americans - I'm starting to understand how this is fantasy but not really.

DONNELLA: Yeah. And Karen, basically everything that happens in this book is based on real history. For example, French, the teenager who gets captured, he winds up at a residential school, a boarding school. In the story, staff at the school is very, very intentional about trying to strip French and his peers of their languages and cultures and communities. And that is obviously a very real part of U.S. and Canadian history.

BATES: Oh. Yes. It was all over the news earlier this fall - horrible story. Graves were found at some of these boarding schools, and thousands and thousands of children are estimated to have died while they were boarding there. They're still finding more bodies and still adjusting their counts.

DONNELLA: Yeah, it's awful. And again, Cherie told me that it was really important for her that everything that happened in the book be based on something that actually happened.

DIMALINE: First and foremost with the book, I want it to be truthful.

DONNELLA: She said the book was written for Indigenous youth. And frankly, those young people, she said, don't always have the luxury of pretending that bad things don't happen in the world or of thinking of the world as a just and safe place. So...

DIMALINE: Of course it was going to be dark. But the other thing it was going to be, because I had these brilliant Indigenous characters, is beautiful - that it would center around that sort of adage of, you know, life as a beautiful struggle.

DONNELLA: And Karen, this book really is written beautifully, even the grimmest parts of it. I was especially intrigued by the way Cherie wrote about fear. She really unpacks the different layers and dimensions of fear, how sometimes it can be almost blindingly acute, like that first scene where French wakes up in a pitch-black room without his family. And other times, fear is just sort of a soft, nagging presence, like when characters know they're being watched, but they have no idea how long it's going to last. So I asked Cherie about the process of writing about fear.

DIMALINE: Like millions and millions (laughter) of people in North America, I have anxiety. I have some pretty severe anxiety. I have panic disorder. And so living with that, really, you become very closely acquainted with fear because that is, of course, a huge part of panic and anxiety. And you know, for so many of us, we just live with it every day. And I mean, it's - everyone says, you know, I'm anxious. Or it's the same way people are like, oh, I'm depressed when they feel a little sad. It's just become a regular part of everyday life. But if you really think about it, there are a lot of layers.

BATES: And that probably resonates with more people than ever after the last year and a half we've had. I mean, I know it does with me.

DONNELLA: Oh, totally. And I mean, Cherie was saying that it's about recent traumas, but there's also all of this historical and, like, broader social stuff that people are processing.

DIMALINE: I was asked to write a post-apocalyptic short story is what it began as. And I could not think of anything worse in any future context than that which had already happened, that for many Indigenous people - for many people globally that they had survived an apocalypse already. So I just sort of took that historical incident and then the fallout that we obviously still deal with and moved it very slightly into the future. So the balance to that, to going into that dark place, to sort of shining a light around in the corners was that, was the light and that the characters would be that light.

BATES: The characters are the light. I love that. So Leah, tell us about some of the characters.

DONNELLA: There are so many good ones. One of my favorite characters is Rose. She's an Afro Indigenous teenager. She kind of sounds like an old woman because she spends a lot of time hanging out with old people. And Cherie described her like this.

DIMALINE: She is fierce and beautifully broken and does not accept shame, is not ashamed of being herself, of having emotions. And I feel - as women, we're - it's that whole thing of, like, oh, you're so strong. Like, congratulations; you're so strong. Well, hey, maybe stop creating the universe so that I have to constantly go to war every day, and I could have so many other things to add to my strength. And so for Rose, it's such a joy to write her because she absolutely in such a huge way doesn't care what people think about her, and I love that for her. I love that for all of us.

BATES: I want that for all of us, too.

DONNELLA: Wouldn't it be so nice?

BATES: Well, Leah, thank you so much for bringing us that recommendation.

DONNELLA: My pleasure. Thank you, Karen.

BATES: Once again, that was CODE SWITCH editor Leah Donnella. And the book she recommended is "Hunting By Stars" by Cherie Dimaline. And now that's been added to the very long list of books I want to read.

Let's take a little break for a moment because we're in for a ride with this next read, a YA thriller - after the break.


BATES: Karen - just Karen for the moment - CODE SWITCH.


BATES: And we're back talking about the books by Indigenous authors that have transported the CODE SWITCH team. Up next - producer Christina Cala.

Hey, Christina.


BATES: So the book you brought us is a YA thriller, right?

CALA: It is, and it's one I really loved. It's called "Firekeeper's Daughter" by Angeline Boulley. And I could not put it down when I read it.

BATES: Ooh, that sounds intriguing. Tell me more. What's it about?

CALA: So "Firekeeper's Daughter" follows this young woman, Daunis Fontaine, who lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Daunis is 18, super smart and has a lot of traditional Ojibwe knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. She's also a really good hockey player. She's all set to go away for college when her uncle dies and her grandmother suffers a stroke, so she decides to stay home instead to help her mom. But the silver lining, there's this new guy, Jamie Johnson. He also plays hockey really well and seems cool. And he's kind of cute.

BATES: Enter love interest.

CALA: Yep (laughter). But then her world shifts once again. She witnesses a murder, and the FBI asks her to help them figure out who was making this new drug that is hitting her reservation really hard. So there's sleuthing. There's close calls, a search for justice. It's a total page turner. And the author, Angeline Boulley, describes it as an Indigenous "Nancy Drew" novel.

BATES: Strong female lead, mystery, a little romance - sounds like it packs a punch, and I am in.

CALA: Yay. And you know, the other thing is in true YA fashion, at the same time that Daunis is working to bust this drug ring, she's trying to crack the mystery of who she is and where she fits in the world.

BATES: That is so CODE SWITCH, right? What does that look like for Daunis, figuring out where she fits?

CALA: So Daunis is biracial. Her dad is from the Sugar Island Ojibwe tribe. His last name is Firekeeper, and he used to be a bit of a hockey god. Her mom is from one of the richest white families in Sault Ste. Marie, the Fontaines. And the two sides don't exactly get along, so Daunis finds herself in the middle of that.

BOULLEY: And she code switches. You know, there are times where it's safe to be a Fontaine - that's her last name - and there's times when it's safe to be a Firekeeper, her dad's side.

CALA: That's Angeline Boulley. And Daunis is in a place where she has good relationships on both sides, but it's a family tree divided for sure. So she kind of learns to hide parts of herself as a way to protect herself.

BOULLEY: So she separates her identity into these more manageable parts. And really, the story and her being thrust reluctantly into this murder investigation, drug investigation is her actually realizing that it's when she claims all of the parts of her identity that she really comes into her true power and her place in her community.

BATES: Wow. Racial differences, class differences, cultural differences on top of investigating a drug ring - that is a lot to navigate as a teen. Actually, it'd be a lot to navigate for anyone, right?

CALA: Yes, a lot (laughter). And while it's all very specific to Daunis and her story, there is also something that's really universal about it all that I related to a lot as a reader when it comes to figuring oneself out. So Daunis is light-skinned. And even though she has a deep sense of what it means to be Ojibwe, her Indigeneity is often questioned. And so the book really explores the complexity of that, recognizing the privilege that she has, but also sort of exploring the confusion and pain that comes from being scrutinized in that way. And some of this is explored with Jamie, too.

BATES: Yeah, let's talk about Jamie. He's Daunis' potential love interest you mentioned earlier. And he's Native also?

CALA: Yes. And I don't want to say too much about him, but he really has a different story than Daunis'.

BOULLEY: Daunis and Jamie are kind of opposite sides of the coin regarding identity. So Daunis has so many identities. She is so connected to all of these various groups within her community. And Jamie, it's hinted that, you know, he was adopted out and has lost that connection.

CALA: Jamie moves through the world in a different way because of another reason as well.

BOULLEY: Jamie - to look at him, people assume, oh, he's Native. But he has no connection to community. And I thought that that was important because identity is so complicated.

BATES: True enough. So much of race and identity is what you're living in your experience, but then also what people are putting on you. But ultimately, you kind of have to figure that out for yourself.

CALA: Yeah, totally.

BATES: So do they figure themselves out? Does Daunis reconcile her world?

CALA: I don't want to spoil anything, but I think there's a lot of moments where you can see that work in progress. So there's this anecdote Daunis shares about her paternal grandmother curing an earache using urine when she was a little girl. She tells her white family about it, and they're totally disgusted. And Daunis learns to keep the Ojibwe parts of herself away from that side of her family. That's what she learns from that experience. But there's a line later in the book where she calls back to that. She researches her grandma's method and learns that urine is sterile and a substitute for hydrogen peroxide, actually, which - like, how cool is that?

BATES: That is impressive. And you know, you can be made to feel so much shame about yourself and your family. But there's also so much power, Christina, in reclaiming that knowledge.

CALA: Yeah, there really is. And this book really celebrates the nuances of that claiming of community, of identity, of knowledge, the good and the bad.

BOULLEY: Many, many, many people - most people have never read a story set in, you know, a modern tribal community, you know, a tribe that does have a casino, is doing very well. And the members get per capita payments, you know, profit sharing from that casino. The money addresses some community issues, but it raises others. I mean, that's not a take that we've really seen.

BATES: So how did she go about creating that representation she saw was lacking?

CALA: So one key thing was not translating Ojibwe words into English. She also structured the book in a hero's journey of four acts following the medicine wheel instead of the three we might think of. So she straight-up Indigenized is the structure. Even the title, "Firekeeper's Daughter," is a callback. The firekeeper's daughter is a woman who raises the sun each day, and she has no name. But part of Daunis finding herself is giving the firekeeper's daughter a name, which really resonated with me because I feel like women can so often be overlooked or nameless characters, just side characters in a story. This book really centers the female experience.

But at the same time, it's a heavy read (laughter). It chronicles really real loss, violence, pain. But you know, it feels like a more complete picture of the human experience that way.

BOULLEY: We're not relics of the past. We exist, and we have vibrant, dynamic lives and stories to tell as beautiful, flawed, wonderful, diverse people. And I think when you tell a story about your community and you make everyone perfect, that does a disservice. And likewise, if all that you focus on is trauma, then you do a disservice. And so really, yeah, just wanting to tell a real story and have these characters feel real and familiar and lovable and flawed - I mean, that's the beauty of it.

CALA: There are some really difficult parts of the book, but the way she writes through healing, through the search for justice make it really powerful.

BATES: Thank you, Christina.

CALA: Thanks, Karen.

BATES: That book Christina brought us is "Firekeeper's Daughter" by Angeline Boulley. And finally, I want to shake things up a bit by sharing this brief conversation with an old friend of CODE SWITCH's.

ROBERTSON: OK. My name is David A. Robertson. I am an author. And I work out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, here in Canada.

BATES: If his name sounds familiar, it might be because he's the author of some two dozen books, all of them about Indigenous life and culture, or maybe because one of his books, "The Barren Grounds," was featured in an episode of ours a couple of years ago. Here's Nadine Teisberg at Birchbark Books in Minnesota, who recommended it.

NADINE TEISBERG: "The Barren Grounds" follows two Indigenous children, Morgan and Eli, that are in the Canadian foster care system. In their newest foster home, they discover a portal in the attic to another frozen, barren ground world.

BATES: It reminds me of one of my favorite books from childhood "The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe."

TEISBERG: On their journey, the children learn the Cree language and about traditional Indigenous way of living. So they finally feel a sense of community and self-worth. I just think it is a perfect mix of a really fun and genuinely funny fantasy novel with a serious novel that looks into the foster care system and specifically how it impacts Indigenous children. And it shows an Indigenous perspective and a way of living and caring for the land that certainly differs from a more mainstream occupation of the land.

BATES: Almost all of David's books are for young readers and young adult readers. He says the books he read about Indigenous people when he was young were either just wrong or offensive stereotypes, and he didn't want history repeating itself.

ROBERTSON: I wanted them to have books that I didn't have when I was a kid.

BATES: So his books cover a lot of subjects, but they have one common thread woven through them.

ROBERTSON: All my books are about Indigenous people. It's something that I've really focused my career on is writing books that involve or include Indigenous people from a place of truth.

BATES: David says there's a huge difference in what's available from Indigenous authors now.

ROBERTSON: And compare them to the books that were available when I was a kid, and it's completely night and day. I mean, there's so many more today than there were 30 years ago, even 15 years ago.

BATES: I asked him if this blooming interest in Indigenous writers is a fad that might fade at some point in the way that literary interest in, say, the African American experience seems to come and go.

ROBERTSON: I don't know. I feel it's sustainable. I mean, I can't see any sign that this kind of groundswell of support and interest in Indigenous literature is going away anytime soon.

BATES: It's not a fad, David Robertson says, and it's not woke patronage.

ROBERTSON: And it's not because people want to do any charity work (laughter). It's because they want to read good books. We're really good storytellers, and it's just now that people are recognizing it, and they want to digest the work that we're creating.

BATES: He said a bunch of authors come to mind immediately.

ROBERTSON: Writers like Cherie Dimaline, Richard Van Camp, you know, Eden Robinson, Waubgeshig Rice, Monique Gray Smith, Julie Flett - there's this huge wide swath of really important literature by some amazing Indigenous writers. And it's a really good time to be living in. There's so many books available for kids to read and to learn from.

BATES: The good news is there are plenty of great stories out there, so keep reading.


BATES: That's it for recommendations. But before we go, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge our dear, dear friend and beloved colleague Petra Mayer, who died on November 13. Petra was NPR's books editor. Our team worked closely with her on so much of our books coverage. She was constantly sending us recommendations, connecting us with authors that we'd never heard of and chatting with us about our shared love of reading. We talked at the beginning of this episode about books that you can get lost in. Petra helped so many of us find those books and fall in love with them. If you listen to any of our books episodes, you've been the beneficiary of that. So Petra, thank you, and we'll miss you.


BATES: And that's our show. You can find the books we've talked about here and a few more on our website - npr.org/codeswitch. And don't forget, y'all. We want to hear your honest feedback on our podcast. We really do. So go to npr.org/podcastsurvey to fill out an anonymous survey. Really - we do not know who you are. We just want your opinion. It takes just a few minutes, and it really helps us out. Check out the link in our episode notes as well.

This episode was produced by Summer Thomad and edited by Christina Cala and Leah Donnella. Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry, LA Johnson, Steve Drummond and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our intern is Aja Drain. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See ya.


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