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Between Exile and Memory: Women Writers and NDSU Press

Writer's Block | April 22nd, 2021

By Suzzanne Kelley, Editor-in-Chief 

https://www.ndsupress.org

When four gentleman scholars came together seventy-one years ago to establish the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, they might have been hard-pressed to imagine that in the 21st century, a slate of women authors and their lady publisher would take the lead in delivering—as designated by the mission of the press—scholarly knowledge and public consciousness of region.

The publishing arm of that Institute—known since 2016 as North Dakota State University Press—delights this March in showcasing stellar offerings from the female point of view for HPR’s literary edition.

Long ago, poet, playwright, and biographer Muriel Rukeyser posed the question, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Her answer: “The world would split open.”

Well, prepare yourself, dear reader, because these three women, in poetry and prose, have put pencil to paper and told their truths.

North Dakota native Debra Marquart and Native North Dakotan Denise Lajimodiere, both powerhouse storytellers, take center stage with their newest and truest works. Forthcoming this July is Marquart’s memoir, “The Night We Landed on the Moon: Essays between Exile & Memory,” wherein Marquart considers her young self and her grown-up self, cast in the expanse of the Plains. In her chapter, “Those Desirable Things,” she writes,

I was a young woman…who had dropped out of college in the seventies and broken up with a very nice, very rich fiancé to join a rock band. I had defied my parents and kicked around the West and parts of Canada for seven years, a woman traveling alone in vans full of male musicians, fronting hard rock and heavy metal bands, living by my wits and singing my lungs out every night,

while noting elsewhere that

someone is running around in the background cleaning up our messes, that someone we love fiercely is paying the highest prices just to make good on things to which we have foolishly committed our signatures.

Lajimodiere’s latest work, “His Feathers Were Chains,” is an unabashed criticism of settler society, though the poetry is subtle, approachable, and grounded in Ojibwe knowledge and customs. The cover image and the title take form from a statue Lajimodiere observed: an Indian on a horse, fashioned from welded-together farm implements. The following is an excerpt from the collection.

The Day Before I Stopped Speaking

The day before I stopped speaking,

Sister Genevieve caught me writing

in my Big Chief notebook

I hate this school

repeatedly in perfect Palmer,

each page topped with the requisite

J.M.J., Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

Exquisite J’s, swirly M,

filling line after line.

Sent to Mother Superior’s office

I sat small as she flipped through

the pages, red-faced against her white

wimple, she stormed down the long hall

opening all the classroom doors,

ordered me across her lap, lifted

my homemade wool flannel jumper

baring my Goodwill bloomers,

smacked the wooden paddle

until my cries filled the open

classrooms like lines in a notebook.

New to our publishing catalog is Carolyn A. Dahl, artist and poet; raiser of monarch butterflies; formerly of rural Minnesota, now a resident of Houston; the winner of our most recent Poetry of the Plains & Prairies Award; and author of A Muddy Kind of Love. Dahl’s meditations on the nature of love and cruelty, memory and mortality, are lyrical and complex, and smack-dab in the middle of the collection is this prose poem:

Boss over the Bull

With a head hard as the horns they sawed away, the bull shoves her against the stall wall. You’re going to have to teach it who’s boss, her father says.

She is eleven years old, hasn’t become boss of herself yet and wonders how she can teach 800 pounds of bull that she, still a child, rules its life, when it could trample her like a calf.

Here’s what you do, her father says. How easy he makes it sound. But she’s old enough to know a bull’s power. What if she freezes and can’t make it to the fence? What if she doesn’t want to hurt an animal, or be boss over anything? If you don’t do it, that bull’s going to kill you one day, he says. She doesn’t sense that the bull hates her, just likes to show off its muscles. But her father knows animals, how sometimes one will have it in for a person and attack without a reason. If she objects, he’ll only show her his crooked leg as proof.

I’ll be at the fence with the gun, honey, he says, so she hides in the haystack and waits, an iron pipe in her hand. The bull thunders into the barnyard, shaking the ground under her trembling legs. It lifts its head and smells her in the hay-scented air. It snorts, paws the dirt, throwing clods over its fur-raised back. Fed by fear, she springs up sooner than planned and runs toward the bull. It charges with a lowered head. She raises the pipe as high as she can to gather force and hits the bull between the eyes. Its skull is so hard, the pipe bounces back as if she’s hit concrete. She falls to the ground, the pipe slips from her hand and rolls away.

The bull staggers toward her. Its eyes roll back to the whites. It falters as if about to collapse on its knees, but rights itself, and stumbles out of the barnyard on legs it can’t make work together. Who’s boss now? her father says laughing.

______________

More NDSU Press literary works by women coming in 2021:

Price Per Barrel: The Human Cost of Healthcare and Public Safety in North America, memoir by Robin Lynn Behl

In Plains Sight, poetry by Bonnie Larson Staiger

The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Cultural Memoir, by Jill Kandel

Field Notes, poetry by Margaret Rogal

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