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American Literature

Sherman Alexie -- poet, novelist, short-story writer, Native American -- strikes out at the "eagle-feathers school of Native literature"

June 1, 2000

Since the publication in 1992 of his first poetry collection, The Business of Fancydancing (which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, has made a name for himself as a prolific and deft writer of fiction as well as poetry. In addition to the several books of poetry he has published, Alexie has also produced two novels, Reservation Blues (1996) and Indian Killer (1998), and his first short-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1994), inspired the well-received 1998 movie Smoke Signals, for which he wrote the screenplay.

Alexie's stories and poems explore the terrain of intimate relationships, contemporary American pop culture, and reservation life without falling into either sentimentality or cynicism. As in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the stories in Alexie's new collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, blend irony and surreal situations adeptly, as when a white drifter holds up a pancake restaurant "demanding a dollar per customer and someone to love" and comes away with a young Spokane Indian man he nicknames "Salmon Boy," or when the actor John Wayne tells his children, "Oh sons, you're just engaging in some harmless gender play." Toughest Indian unsettles as much as it amuses.

Alexie recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Jessica Chapel.
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From The Atlantic:

"On the Rez," by Ian Frazier (December 1999)
The writer, an admirer of Indian traditions of freedom and heroism, visits an old friend on the Pine Ridge Reservation, explores the place, and discovers a modern-day Indian hero.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interview: An Idea of Freedom (January 5, 2000)
In an Atlantic Unbound interview, Ian Frazier talks about his new book, On the Rez, and what he's learned about the Oglala Sioux, American heroism, and the art of writing.

Sherman Alexie    

Up until now, the focus of your fiction has tended to be on reservation life and the relationships between fathers and sons. In your new collection of short stories, the focus seems to have shifted slightly -- to the tensions between whites and Indians in intimate relationships, and urban Indians and Indians still on the reservation. The mood seems changed as well -- hopeful, less angry. Do you consider these stories to be different than what you have written before, either in tone or theme?

I was very much thinking about urban Indians as I worked on this collection. Sixty percent of all Indians live in urban areas, but nobody's writing about them. They're really an underrepresented population, and the ironic thing is very, very few of those we call Native American writers actually grew up on reservations, and yet most of their work is about reservations. As someone who grew up on a reservation, I'm tired of it. No, I'm exhausted.

I've been living in the city -- Seattle -- for five years. I live a very cosmopolitan life now. I've traveled the world and had dinner with movie stars. To pretend that I'm just a Rez boy is impossible. Certainly, I think this book has much more of an urban perspective.

Unlike the other stories in this book, "The Sin Eaters," in which the U.S. government moves Indians to internment camps for medical experimentation, struck me as sinister and otherworldly. How did this story originate?

I wrote that story around the time I wrote Reservation Blues, so it's actually several years old. In some sense, it's a failed novel -- I started writing it as a novel but the tone was literally too dark and ominous to sustain for the length of an entire book. I don't think anybody could have made it through. I really liked its tone. I placed that story in the middle of the collection because it is so different from the others that it acts as a nice counterweight.

You base many of your stories on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where you grew up. How have people on the reservation reacted to your work?

There's been an effort to paint me as this negative figure on the reservation, but not because of my writing. The people who loved me when I was seven years old love my books, and the people who didn't like me when I was seven years old don't like my books. My writing career hasn't changed people's opinions of me. I was a controversial figure on my reservation when I was a kid. I was mouthy and opinionated and arrogant. Nothing has changed. The funny thing is, people loved the movie [Smoke Signals]. Even those who didn't like my books much loved the movie, so the power of film was certainly revealed in that.

I've read that you are adapting Reservation Blues for film. Where does this project stand?

It's with Miramax. We're close to getting a green light, very close. It's ambiguous, the movie business.

You stated in a Los Angeles Times review of Ian Frazier's On the Rez that "Many Indians, myself among them, believe that the concept of tribal sovereignty should logically extend to culture and religion..." What did you mean?

That non-Indians should quit writing about us until we've established our voice -- a completely voluntary moratorium. If non-Indians stop writing about us they'll have to publish us instead.

Jonathan Miles, in a Salon article reacting to your review, took this argument as one that would exclude all outsiders from writing about another culture or group of people, whether that was women writing about men, or whites writing about Indians. "Such an approach would bind the typing fingers of even the most well-meaning outsiders ... leaving a culture's stories firmly and exclusively in the hands of its tellers." Is this what you intend?

I never said that. I was talking about Indians and our particular relationship to this country, which is one of broken treaties, the indigenous to the immigrant, and about sovereignty. No other ethnic group in this country is interested in the concept of sovereignty. I'm only talking about us. I never extended that argument anywhere.

Other people have tried to use that argument, and it's actually not logical. The real issue is that Indians' relationship to this country is still that of the colonized, so that when non-Indians write about us, it's colonial literature. And unless it's seen that way, there's a problem. What really bothered me about Ian Frazier's book is how everybody kept talking about it as some sort of special work, and it's not. It's a really ordinary book. There are flagrant inaccuracies. The galley had at least fifty historical errors. And I really had a problem with the point of view. What happens is that anybody can write these kinds of books about Indians, but the same does not hold true with any other group. Indians have so little political power, so little social and cultural power, that this happens to us all the time.

Are Indians pressured by the marketplace to write certain kinds of stories?

It's the corn-pollen, four directions, eagle-feathers school of Native literature. People are more interested in our spirituality than anything else. Certainly, I've never received that kind of pressure because I never wrote that kind of stuff, but there are a lot of people out there selling their spirituality.

What expectations do you encounter from readers?

It's so funny -- because I'm a public Indian figure, people assume I have all these magical Indian powers, like I'm some sort of healer or shaman. That also extends to just being a writer in general -- I think people assume that just because somebody's good with metaphors, he's a better human being. It's not true. I'm just better with metaphors than 99 percent of the population, and that doesn't make me magical, it just makes me fairly smart.

In your experience, do white Americans have a different sense of history -- both of events, and the significance of those events in contemporary culture -- than American Indians?

White Americans have a short memory. This country really hasn't entered puberty yet -- white Americans' political thoughts are really young, and the culture is really young. The one general statement you can make about America is it's young, and wildly immature, and incredibly talented. Like some twelve-year-old kid who really pisses you off, because he's really good at everything and he knows it.
What can be done to bring the U.S. from this immature point to maturity?

I don't know. I'm one of those people who thinks that the world is getting better and better. I wouldn't want to be an Indian a hundred years ago -- somebody would be shooting at me. I wouldn't want to be a woman forty years ago, and I wouldn't want to be a black person twenty-five years ago. I think the world is getting better, and it's getting better because of liberal social policies. I don't think there has ever been a conservative social policy that helped anybody, except those who enacted it. I don't believe in any -ism particularly, I believe in fighting conservatism. Conservatives didn't want women to vote, didn't want Indians to become citizens.

Identity is a recurring theme in your work. Characters such as Junior in Reservation Blues, John Smith in Indian Killer, and the journalist in The Toughest Indian in the World struggle with their experience of what it means to be an Indian, what they are told it means to be an Indian, and how to present themselves as Indians both to whites and other Indians. Is this struggle or uncertainty endemic to the American Indian experience?

It's endemic to everybody's experience. I think we're all struggling with our identity. Literature is all about the search for identity, regardless of the ethnicity. Southern, New Yorker, black, white, Asian, immigrant -- everyone's trying to find a sense of belonging. In The Toughest Indian, the journalist's primary struggle is not ethnic identity, but his sexuality. I don't think he knows any of his identities. One of the points I was trying to make in that story is that being Indian is just part of who we are. I suppose the big difference in Indian literature is that Indians are indigenous to this country, so all non-Indian literature could be seen as immigrant literature. The search for immigrant identity is much different than the search for indigenous identity, so I suppose if you're indigenous to a place and you're still searching for your identity, that's pretty ironic.

Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Jessica Chapel is the production coordinator for Atlantic Unbound.

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