single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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What are the conflicts in the story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

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One of the most readily apparent conflicts in Sherman Alexie 's "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" is the internal conflict happening inside Victor. Though Victor has not at all had a close or even healthy relationship with his father, he still feels called to go to...

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Phoenix to lay him to rest.The greater conflict is the one of the history of interaction between the Native Americans and the US government, punctuated by alcoholism, poverty, and a general sense of hopelessness. Thomas Builds-the-Fire serves as a character who can simultaneously be in touch with the dying culture of the Native Americans and poke fun at it. When the Olympic athlete on the flight complains of the government boycotting the 1980 Olympics and hurting the team, Thomas replies that she "has a lot in common with the Indians."

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What is the conflict of the story "This What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

Victor seems to have a conflict of identity since he is uncertain of where he belongs.

The friend that Victor had as a youth, significantly, had a real Indian name—Thomas Builds-the-Fire—that suggests his heritage. However, Victor has a Caucasian name. Adding to his loss of Indian identity, Victor's father left the reservation when he was a boy. Also, it is "too late to be warriors in the old way." 

After Victor learns of his father's death, he plans to go to Phoenix and retrieve his father's ashes; however, he does not have enough money to fly since he has lost his job. His former friend Thomas offers to help pay for the airline tickets so that they can get to Arizona. Once there, Victor will inherit his father's truck and three hundred dollars, so they will be able to return to the reservation.  As they drive to Phoenix, Thomas fills in some gaps in Victor's memory of his father by telling him about the time that his father discovered Thomas in Spokane, Washington. Thomas says that he went there because he had a vision to go and stand by the Falls. After he talked with Victor's father, Thomas asserts,

Your dad was my vision. Take care of each other is what my dreams were saying.

Thomas assists Victor in discovering his identity in the context of his family and old friend. "Pictures, letters, and stuff" are the valuables that Thomas suggests might be in Victor's father's trailer. It is through interaction and communication with others that life has value and a man acquires an identity. 

The two former boyhood friends return to the reservation. After Victor drops off his old friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire asks him,

"Just one time when I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen?" "Just once?""Just once."

Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good.

Victor drives off with his father's ashes from Phoenix, rising to his identity as a man, just as the mythical bird rose from ashes.

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What is the conflict of the story "This What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

The main conflict is in Victor's mind. He is a modern Native-American who is dismissive of and frustrated with his Native-American traditions. Being caught between those traditions and the more modern American culture, Victor feels lost. In addition, his father has just died which increases that sense of loss. He has also lost his job at the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His journey with Thomas provides him with an opportunity to rekindle his connection to his father, to Thomas, and to his Indian heritage. Over the course of the trip, Victor finds himself again by reconnecting with his past. 

The phoenix is symbolic because in Greek mythology, the bird dies in flames but then rises from the ashes and is reborn. Similarly, a part of Victor has died as a a result of his father's death, the loss of his job, and his general alienation from his Indian heritage. Victor rises again and this has everything to do with reconnecting with Thomas. Thomas is the catalyst for Victor's mental transformation. It is fitting that his name is Thomas Builds-the-Fire because he symbolically builds the fire from which Victor rises again. Victor gives Thomas some of his father's ashes as a symbolic gesture. Victor is at a crucial point in his life. This story is about how Thomas helps him make a positive turn in his life. 

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