Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154
Sherman Alexie 1966-
Native American poet, short-story writer, novelist, and screenwriter. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 96) and Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 154).
The following entry provides criticism on Alexie's works from 1993 through 2001.
Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native...
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- Critical Essays
Sherman Alexie 1966-
Native American poet, short-story writer, novelist, and screenwriter. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 96) and Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 154).
The following entry provides criticism on Alexie's works from 1993 through 2001.
Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native American writers of his generation. His works reflect the debilitating influence of alcoholism and poverty that pervade life on the reservation. With dark humor and ironic wit, Alexie boldly portrays the harsh realities of reservation life and gives voice to the anger that results from media distortion of Native American culture.
Alexie was born October 7, 1966, and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Diagnosed at birth with hydrocephalus, Alexie was not expected to survive infancy. He defied early pessimistic assessments, however, not only surviving cranial surgery at the age of six months, but also displaying unusually keen cognitive abilities that led him to learn to read by the age of two. Alexie subsequently endured a challenging childhood. With his advanced intellect and enlarged skull, he became the target of snubs and teasing by other children. His home life offered little comfort or shelter. His father was an absentee alcoholic; his mother worked as both a trading-post clerk and a quilt maker to support a family of eight. Finding solace in books and education, Alexie became a dedicated student. When it became clear that the school in Wellpinit could not provide the credits he needed to attend college, Alexie transferred to a predominantly white high school thirty miles from the reservation. There, he found acceptance among classmates and became class president, captain of the basketball team, and a member of the debate team. When he graduated with honors in 1985, he received a scholarship to Gonzaga University, where he planned to pursue a pre-med program. During his transition to this new environment, Alexie began to drink heavily to address his growing feelings of racial alienation and the gradual recognition that he didn't seem cut out for a career in medicine. This period of alcohol abuse greatly influenced the themes of Alexie's early writing. Eventually, he addressed his alcohol addiction and began attending Washington State University, where a poetry class taught by Alex Kuo led him to new career aspirations as a writer. He graduated in 1991 and during the following year published the poetry collection I Would Steal Horses and the poetry and short story collection The Business of Fancydancing, which was named the 1992 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Two additional volumes of poetry followed in 1993, as did his collection of short fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. In 1995 Alexie published his first novel, Reservation Blues. Several years later, having published yet another novel and a fifth collection of poetry, Alexie turned to film as a genre, writing the screenplay for the widely acclaimed Smoke Signals. The film, which was adapted from portions of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival's audience award. Alexie has won numerous awards, including a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and was named one of the twenty best young American novelists by Granta and The New Yorker. While continuing to write and pursuing a private life in Seattle with his Native American wife, Diane, and their son, Joseph, Alexie has also remained active in the Native American community, with service on the Presidential Panel for the National Dialogue on Race and on the board of directors for the American Indian College Fund.
In all genres in which he writes, Alexie explores themes of despair, poverty, alcoholism, and racial anger—all circumstances that pervade the daily lives of Native Americans. In his early collection of poetry and short fiction, The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie portrays the banal realities of modern reservation life. He employs a type of magic realism in which historical and fictional characters—such as Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill—are awkwardly placed in modern-day situations. His contemporary Native American characters appear throughout the stories and poetic narratives, drinking, playing basketball, and sometimes committing petty crimes. Throughout his poetry and fiction, Alexie juxtaposes traditional media stereotypes of Native Americans with the contemporary reality of life on economically disadvantaged reservations. Such a theme recurrs in his poetry collections I Would Steal Horses, First Indian on the Moon (1993), Old Shirts & New Skins (1993), and The Summer of Black Widows (1997). In writing unflinchingly of hardships experienced on the reservation, and the loss of Native American ethnicity, Alexie captures the sense of powerlessness that results from a daily struggle for physical and emotional survival and the fight to recover a cultural identity robbed by generations of discrimination and misrepresentation.
Alexie's novels and short story collections address similar themes with the same dark humor that permeates his poetry. In the novel Reservation Blues, Alexie explores the successes and failures of a Native American rock band with lofty dreams. He experiments with the mystery genre in Indian Killer (1996), a novel that features an American Indian character, adopted by white parents, who is suspected of having participated in a series of murders. While continuing to produce poetry and short fiction, Alexie has also determined to add more filmmaking to his credits. In 2002 he wrote and directed the film, The Business of Fancydancing, based on his publication of the same name.
Alexie has received the praise of critics and reviewers from the beginning of his career, and his work is almost universally characterized as revolutionary, bold, and realistically reflective for its portrayal of the Native American experience in resistance to contemporary media conceptualizations of the American Indian. Critics laud his use of dark satire and his ability to juxtapose humor with tragedy, historical figures with modern settings, and real people with fictitious characters. Some reviewers have termed Alexie's realism harsh or racist, citing its apparent anger against Anglo-American culture. Even those who have offered praise for his work, such as critic Louis Owens, occasionally suggest that Alexie's fiction “too often simply reinforces all of the stereotypes desired by white readers.” Others admire his refusal to submit to the idealistic stereotypes forced upon Native Americans and note that he embraces many aspects of mainstream American culture in his writing. In terms of structure, Alexie's innovative poetic and narrative forms have sometimes been called truncated or underdeveloped, but his proponents hold that his unique style complements his themes and augments his subtle satiric undertones. Writing in The Bloomsbury Review, critic Carl L. Bankston III calls Alexie's poems “simultaneously documentaries of tribal existence and revelations of the spirit and inner significance of that existence.” In his review of The Business of Fancydancing, Bankston writes, “The most impressive quality of Alexie's writing is his ability to let poetry appear unexpectedly from … themes of everyday life in an unadorned, conversational idiom.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 72
The Business of Fancydancing (poetry and short stories) 1992
I Would Steal Horses 1992
First Indian on the Moon 1993
Old Shirts & New Skins 1993
The Summer of Black Widows 1997
One Stick Song (poetry and short stories) 2000
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories) 1993
Reservation Blues (novel) 1995
Indian Killer (novel) 1996
Smoke Signals (screenplay) 1998
The Toughest Indian in the World (short stories) 2000
The Business of Fancydancing (screenplay) 2002
Ten Little Indians: Stories
(short stories) 2003
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
SOURCE: Stocking, Marion K. “Books in Brief.” The Beloit Poetry Journal 43, no. 3 (spring 1993): 45-6.
[In the following review, Stocking offers a brief review of I Would Steal Horses and Old Shirts & New Skins.]
Sherman Alexie has two new volumes: I Would Steal Horses (Slipstream) Old Shirts & New Skins, with illustrations by Elizabeth Woody (American Indian Studies Center, UCLA). The title poem of the UCLA book is in the Slipstream chapbook and exemplifies the almost surreal imaginative energy that distinguishes this enrolled Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian's work:
Love, listen before I wear the shirt that will separate us into flame and oxygen.
The first audience for Alexie's work has to be Indian people, especially young people, who will find here someone who tells the truth about what it means to be Indian. The poet bears a heavy responsibility for lighting a path between an ancient and powerful cultural tradition, in danger of extinction, and a place to survive in or beside a social order more often than not corrupt and corrupting. It sounds corny to say it, but these poems (and Alexie's equally eloquent stories) should be an inspiration to a new generation. A second audience should be non-Indians who want and need to correct any illusions they may have about Indian life today. These readers need a strong stomach, because Alexie, like Louis, does not spare his reader the wrenching details. The third audience, overlapping the first two, is the community of tough-minded readers who are thirsty for the strong poetry of the future. Though still in his twenties, Alexie already draws from a deep well. “Poetry = Anger × Imagination” is an epigraph to a section ironically titled “Indian Education.” Not +, but ×. The anger comes out of the well of history: Columbus and Crazy Horse and the Seventh Cavalry and Sand Creek—even the bones the anthropologists covet. Add to it the testimony of daily life: the HUD houses, the bars, the government commodities, the Thunderbird Wine and the dumpster. Then multiply by an imagination that, first, provides an inner life that comprehends the bloody past and inebriated present and translates them into testimonial song. Second, it transmutes the cancerous ironies and the mind-numbing deprivations into mirrors and windows for insight and vision. With this vision, the people should survive. Third, imagination transmutes its sociological and journalistic and anthropological and mathematical and historical raw material into a new music. It is a music of quick drum-beats in one poem, slow long-line chants in another. Pounding repetitions with delicate variations. And most movingly, as in “Horses,” long riffs of syncopation. Without the imagination that marries the historical and contemporary misery to an inner and ultimately hopeful vision, without the lyric inventiveness and control, these would still be good poems. With them, they have the power to dance their readers into a new world.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667
SOURCE: Tvedten, Benet. Review of Old Shirts & New Skins. North Dakota Quarterly 61, no. 3 (summer 1993): 200-201.
[In the following review, Tvedten evaluates Alexie's Old Shirts & New Skins.]
First of all, this book of poems is another entry in the Native American Literature Series published by the University of California, Los Angeles. Like the previous eight, it is an attractive work. The cover drawing and illustrations throughout the book are by Elizabeth Woody, an accomplished Native American artist and poet.
The tribal people of this country have often been compared with those of another land because of the literary consequences of having learned the language of their conquerors and exploiters. The English must surely have been shamed when the Irish began writing in the language imposed upon them. When I read Adrian C. Louis's excellent foreword in Old Shirts and New Skins, the Irish came to mind. “It is so important for us when a poet like Sherman Alexie emerges to detail our dreams, our hopes, and our embattled states of being. He fulfills the traditional decrees of poetry: He speaks to people in hopes of bringing about change; he speaks as a functioning ear and eye of the people; he speaks as a seer.” Sherman Alexie speaks of the harsh realities of colonization. Like Irish writers and poets, he does so with emotion and wit.
It is unfair, however, to draw too many analogies with the Irish. We must not lose sight of what has happened to Alexie's people in this land, of what he himself has experienced. This book of poetry is indigenous. It could only have happened here. When white boys surround him and demand a “how,” Alexie says, “I'll give them exact directions.” Directness is the language of his poems.
Sherman Alexie lives in Spokane and has a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribal affiliation. His poems in this book refer to reservation life and to the urbanization of his people. Readers need not look in this book for information regarding Indian crafts or Indian lore. They must go to other sources for that. Alexie does not separate himself from tradition, but emphasizes the hazards and complications within the culture of modern Native Americans. He asks for a change of attitude among those of us who live outside that culture. In “Letter: A Definition of Love,” Alexie describes the reality of a modern Indian artist:
“Look,” it sez. “I never danced for no damn rain beside the Grand Canyon while some family from Ohio took my picture and called me strong in the sun. I just painted and if my work was sold for less than what it was worth it was because I needed money for food or rent. I didn't use my own blood or spit to paint the stuff. I bought it for two bucks a tube downtown …”
A Hollywood scout, looking for extras, shows up at the Yakima Nation Basketball Tournament:
She surrounded us in the visitors' locker room asked Piapot What kind of cars do Indians drive? He told her to walk outside and look in the parking lot. Sweetheart, history doesn't always look like horses.
But Alexie does look at history in “Custer Speaks” and several other poems. He looks at more recent history in a delightfully satirical poem called “The Marlon Brando Memorial Swimming Pool.”
Alexie concludes his poem “Drought” by remembering:
Once I wrote of dreaming of a country where three inches of rain fell in an entire year. Then, I believed it was a way of measuring loss. Now I believe it was a way of measuring how much we need to gain.
Families from Ohio and all the rest of us will gain a good deal from Old Shirts and New Skins. For more than twenty years, this reviewer edited a Native American poetry journal (The Blue Cloud Quarterly). Since its demise, I have lost touch with the younger generation of poets. I am happy to discover it is alive and well and exceptionally productive.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3422
SOURCE: Lincoln, Kenneth. “Modern Shamans: Seer, Shaman, Clown.” In Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999, pp. 267-74. Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Lincoln examines Alexie's place among Native American writers of his generation.]
Alexie is not writing the intellectualized masturbation that passes for so much of today's poetry. He is a singer, a shaman, a healer, a virtual Freddy Fender saying, “Hey baby, que paso? I thought I was your only vato.”
Adrian C. Louis, Foreword to Old Shirts & New Skins
But I haven't met an Indian writer out there who isn't arrogant—or a writer in general who isn't arrogant. … I don't pretend I'm not.
Sherman Alexie, Indian Artist, Spring 1998
With Sherman Alexie, readers can throw formal questions out the smokehole (as in resistance to other modern verse innovators, Whitman, Williams, Sexton, or the Beats). Parodic antiformalism may account for some of Alexie's mass maverick appeal. This Indian gadfly jumps through all the hoops, sonnet, to villanelle, to heroic couplet, all tongue-in-cheeky. “I'm sorry, but I've met thousands of Indians,” he told Indian Artist magazine, Spring 1998, “and I have yet to know of anyone who has stood on a mountain waiting for a sign.” A reader enters the land of MTV and renascent AIM: a cartoon Pocahontas meets Beavis and Butt-head at the forest's edge, Sitting Bull takes on Arnold Schwarzenegger at Wounded Knee '73. The Last Real Indian has a few last words.
A stand-up comedian, the Indian improvisator is the performing text, obviating too close a textual reading: youngish man, six-foot-two or so, born in 1966 at the height of hippie nativism, from Wellpinit, Washington, now living in Seattle and taking the fin de siècle literary world by storm (an Indian Oscar Wilde?). After a century of benign neglect, Indian literature has hit an inflationary spiral with six-figure book deals and million-dollar movies. New York publishers have been humping this sassy, talk-back satirist as the last essentialist hold-out, a commercially successful Crazy Horse of mass marketing. The “most prodigious” Native American writer to date, Alexie told a Chicago Sun reporter asking about his brassy novel, Indian Killer, October 1996, to which the reporter queried, “Indian du jour?” Our young hero replied, “If so, it's been a very long day. How about Indian du decade?” Millennial Indian extraordinaire? The reporter raised the controversy over Granta naming Alexie one of the twenty “Best Young American Novelists” for Reservation Blues (not a novel), and Sherman snapped: “To say I was on the list because I'm an Indian is ridiculous: I'm one of the most critically respected writers in the country. So the Granta critics … essentially, fuck 'em” (October 31, 1996, New City's Literary Supplement). Starting with Native American writers, Alexie's competition includes no less than Allen, Erdrich, Harjo, Hogan, Momaday, Ortiz, Silko, TallMountain, Tapahonso, Welch, and Whiteman, among others (not to mention non-Indians like Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, Cormac McCarthy, or Rita Dove). If “most critically respected” in a specific fictional genre of Indian Killer (thriller violence with racial undertones), his closest rivals are Tony Hillerman, Gerald Vizenor, Mickey Spillane, and Stephen King, an acknowledged model, John Steinbeck and the Brady Bunch tossed in. “He's young,” says my elder brother back home, “he'll ripen, given time.”
A breed Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, not just anybody, but thirteen-sixteenths blood, according to his poetry: “I write about the kind of Indian I am: kind of mixed up, kind of odd, not traditional. I'm a rez kid who's gone urban” (Indian Artist). What kind of an Indian is this?—a photogenic black mane of hair, dark-framed bifocal glasses, high-school class president, bookworm nose broken six times by bullies (he reminisces), English lit college degree from Eastern Washington State (after passing out as a premed student in his anatomy class, twice). His work is wizened with poetic anger, ribald love, and whipsaw humor. The crazy-heart bear is dancing comically, riding a wobbly unicycle, tossing overripe tomatoes at his audience. “This late in the 20th century,” the poet says in “Red Blues,” “we still make the unknown ours by destroying it.” His firecat imagination plays tricks on the reader, for our supposed good, for its own native delight and survival. “You almost / believe every Indian is an Indian,” the poet swears to Marlon Brando.
Sherman: not so much a rhymer in the old sense, as a circus juggler who can eat apples, he says, while juggling. A college graduate who played basketball sixteen hours a day to keep from boozing with his cronies: Seymour chugging beer as a poet writes poetry (up to the last one that kills you) and Lester dead drunk in the convenience store dumpster. Alexie's sister and brother-in-law, passed out in a trailer, died by fire when a window curtain blew against a hot plate.
The boy mimed everyone in his family and still won't stop talking. “I was a divisive presence on the reservation when I was seven,” he told an LA Times reporter, December 17, 1996. “I was a weird, eccentric, very arrogant little boy. The writing doesn't change anybody's opinion of me.” Promoting his new movie, Smoke Signals (coproduced with Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre), the writer describes himself today as “mouthy, opinionated and arrogant,” a court jester's cross of Caliban, Groucho Marx, and Lear's Fool, but underneath, “I'm a sweetheart” (Denver Post, October 20, 1997). He's the best native example yet of Lewis Hyde's wiley hinge-maker, Trickster, the infant Prince of Thieves, Hermes stealing into Olympus to claim legitimacy: “Wandering aimlessly, stupider than the animals, he is at once the bungling host and the agile parasite; he has no way of his own but he is the Great Imitator who adopts the many ways of those around him. Unconstrained by instinct, he is the author of endlessly creative and novel deceptions, from hidden hooks to tracks that are impossible to read.”
Artistic grist and ironic survival are inseparable in this verse, tracing a short lifetime of basketball (a team captain “ball hog” in high school), beer, TV, rez cars falling apart, pony dreams, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) babies, and fancy-dancing drunks. “You call it genocide; I call it economics,” Custer snorts. A warm-up for fiction and the movies, poetics are wrapped up in the politics of native poverty, torqued metrics, and ethnic protest: dime store Indi'n princesses and back-alley vision questers, 7-11 heroes and Vietnam vets, Marlon Brando and Crazy Horse. No insurance CEO or village doctor, Alexie has the near fatal, comic bravado of surviving an everyday rez, where every day is a blow to the stomach and a blaze of understanding. Being Indian means you're hanging on for dear life, hanging in there with catastrophic humor, kicking back at sunset, staggering through the '49 to dawn, laughing your ass off and on again (the short fiction says), and accepting that bottom line of your neighbor's butt next to you, misplaced, displaced, re-relocated into the present Red reality, so real that it hurts. So unreal in its hurtful beauty, so surreal that it makes you blink and smile to see another dawn. “How do you explain the survival of all of us who were never meant to survive?” It's a long walk from Sitting Bull bearing “hard times” to Charlie Blackbird “surviving.” Alexie takes to Internet chat rooms for essential defenses of native sovereignty and intercultural access to America's power structures, particularly publishing and the movies.
So, from Momaday's visionary form, through Welch's shamanic rhythm, here's a surreal trickster savage in two-dimensional poetic cartoon. Rather than close reading or parsing the lines, his work elicits charged reaction, critical gut response, positive or negative argument. Reading Alexie's work triggers a recoil from the shock of Indian reality, like looking into the Sun Dance sun, going blind, and slowly regaining sight, stars and blackspots and sunbursts floating across the field of perception, so you know it's your perception, anyway, at last, of reality: “whiskey salmon absence,” the poem “Citizen Kane” ends. Firewater, relocation, vanishing American. The images, concretely charged as Pound's Vorticist objects, are loaded in disconnections: the poison where food swarms, desperate homing, the absence that starves Indians to death. “Rosebud” is not a child's movie sled but a desperately poor Sioux reservation in the Dakotas.
“But, I mean, I really love movies. I always have,” Alexie said in “Making Smoke” (Aboriginal Voices May-June 1998). “I love movies more than I love books, and believe me, I love books more than I love every human being, except the dozen or so people in my life who love movies and books just as much as I do.” His favorite films are Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, and Aliens. The writer goes on, “I mean, screenplays are more like poetry than like fiction. Screenplays rely on imagery to carry the narrative, rather than the other way around. And screenplays have form. Like sonnets, actually. Just as there's [sic] expectations of form, meter, and rhyme in a sonnet, there are the same kinds of expectations for screenplays.” There are two dimensions in Alexie's work, screenplay to verse, often no more than two characters in the short fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. His work is mostly minimalist drama, back to the first Greek plays, alazon to eiron, dreamer to realist, fool to cynic. Toss in commedia dell'arte, Punch and Judy, Laurel and Hardy, Amos and Andy, Lewis and Martin, Red Ryder and Little Beaver. The embedded third dimension of this post-holocaustal comedy is cultural landscape, for lack of a better term, devastated native homestead. So a third character might be salvage-surrealist, Old Man absent and implied, as with Welch's winter-in-the-blood Na'pi. The third-dimensional axis then is Indi'n humor, a vanishing point of survival in the canvas of a hidden spirit world, including Trickster mimics, all around and behind us. Alexie takes Welch's foxy shaman a skitter-step forward to tease Mary Austin: “Sweetheart, history / doesn't always look like horses.”
Poetry comes on not so much a text as a comic ruse, a razored one-liner, a reader's riff to wake up America. The world is Indian as a coyote magician who makes every ordinary day a trick of survival, a vanishing act, a raw joke. A reader's breath catches in the throat and comes out laughing strange, still … a breath it is, of life. It gets you going, brothers and sisters, a buzzing, rattling, weeping, yipping imagination. Cry so hard you begin to laugh: run so fast you lap your shadow: dream so hard you can't sleep: think so hard you startle awake like a child. “Maia gave birth to a wily boy,” the Homeric hymn begins, “flattering and cunning, a robber and cattle thief, a bringer of dreams, awake all night, waiting by the gates of the city—Hermes, who was soon to earn himself quite a reputation among the gods, who do not die.” Crossing Ginsberg with Creeley, Hughes's Crow with Berryman's Mistah Bones, Alexie brews a homeboy devil's own humor. The voice makes junkyard poetry out of broke-down reality, vision out of delirium tremens, prayer out of laughter. “When my father first smiled,” the poet recalls, “it scared the shit out of me.”
Look back at “Seattle, 1987” (appendix to chapter three), an early Alexie poem, first published in The Jacaranda Review and tracked to Old Shirts & New Skins. It sets up in triads, with one-line answering interstices, but the rhymes are lame (century / lake / it) and the rhythms scattered, three to seven beats. The poet sounds mysteries “beneath” a lake at the century's end: “drowned horses snapping turtles cities of protected bones.” The gaps between the old horse-culture icons (sunka wakan, the Lakota called horses, “holy” or “super dog”), toothy denizens, and tribal runes space the poem across the page, as a “camera trick” jump-starts the sun on cable TV. “How the heart changes,” the poet laments urban strangers, made without totemic “song.” No dance, no song, Pound said, no poem. No tradition carries, no metaphor steadies, no structure holds, no tribal village binds. Instead, a clumsy magician gets a dollar bill in his top hat: the poet falls in love with street trickster failure and confesses, à la James Wright's “wasted” life, “There are so many illusions I need to believe.” The tone is flat, failed romantic, a touch sardonic, beat. This young Indian is holding out for vision, needing to believe, tricked by MTV and sidewalk magic, laughing up his sleeve. His is more performance than poem, more attitude than art, more schtick than aesthetic. Definitely talented, deeply impassioned, hyphenated American-Indian, but to what end?
Indi'n vaudeville, then, stand-up comedy on the edge of despair. A late-twentieth-century, quasi-visionary clown tells the truth that hurts and heals in one-liners cheesy as the Marx Brothers, trenchant as Lenny Bruce, tricky as Charlie Hill's BIA Halloween “Trick or Treaty.” The stand-up poet marvels in dismay, “Imagine Coyote accepts / the Oscar for lifetime achievement.” There's an old trickster-teacher role here in a young Indian's hands—jokes draw the line, cut to the quick, sling the bull, open the talk. “White Men Can't Drum,” Alexie announced in Esquire Magazine, October 1992, roasting the new-age men's movement, all the Wannabe fuss and fustian.
“How do you explain the survival of all of us who were never meant to survive?” asks the verse straight man.
“There is nothing we cannot survive,” the poet swears.
Surviving war is the premise. In The Summer of Black Widows (1996), Alexie's sixth poetry collection in as many years (composing by computer), “Father and Farther” (also performed on the rock cassette, Reservation Blues) recalls a drunken basketball coach and a losing team. “Listen,” his father slurs, “I was a paratrooper in the war.”
“Which war?” the boy-poet asks.
“All of them,” he said. Quincentennial facts: Native Americans as a composite are the only in-country ethnic group that the U.S. has declared war against, 1860-1890. Some existing 560 reservations, 315 in the lower forty-eight states, are natively seen from inside as occupied POW camps. Think of it as the delayed stress of contemporary Indian America: the post-traumatic shock of surviving Columbus to Cotton Mather, Buffalo Bill Cody to Andy Jackson, Chivington to Custer. “Goddamn,” the general says, again and again, “saber is a beautiful word,” in ironic cut against Auden's penchant for “scissors.” World War I Indian volunteers, as cited, gained Native Americans dual citizenship in 1924. Code Talkers in World War II made natives national heroes. Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm's chemical poisoning brought tribal veterans into millennial terror.
In 1993, the UCLA American Indian Studies Center published Old Shirts & New Skins as no. 9 in the Native American Poetry Series. Old shirts, not stuffed new suits: new 'skins, Redskins reborn, sloughing “old” skins. There are always two sides to things, bicultural ironies to new-age lies, & the “blessed ampersand,” hip shorthand to a coded new tongue, the with-it Indi'n poet. There's no text “set” here as such, but more a radical riff, something spilled over, a virus, a toxin released, a metastasizing anger. It's a “reservation of my mind,” the poet says. The opening epithet equates, “Anger × Imagination = poetry,” in the amplitude & invention of the angry young Indian. One shot short of death, Seymour says, drink as you write free verse, no matter if “our failures are spectacular.” Maverick Trixter talks back, makes a different kind of poetry for people with differences: “it was not written for the white literary establishment,” Adrian Louis says in the foreword to Old Skins & New Shirts.
A double buckskin language frays the edges of bicultural America, questions the multiple meanings of reservation, red, risk, Cody & Crazy Horse, Marlon Brando & John Wayne, Christ & Custer, who died for your sins. The critic is left with notes to bumper-sticker poetics, insult & antagonism, the fractious come-hither. Poetry as disruptive tease, a sideshow of historical truth & poetic hyperbole. Or, to borrow from the social sciences, “privileged license”: tribal teasing tests boundaries, deepens resilience, insures survival, bets on renewal. Not without the warrior history of Old English insults, flytyngs, hurled across a river a thousand years ago in “The Battle of Maldon.” LA South Central Blacks doin' the dozens, Yer granmother wears combat boots! The Last Poets in Harlem chant, Niggers like to fuck each other. … El Paso Hispanics drive slow 'n low riders. Inventories of abuses, imagined & otherwise: hunger of imagination, poverty of memory, toxicity of history, all in the face of cultural genocide and racial misrepresentation and outright extermination, to challenge musty stereotypes of vanishing, savage, stoic, silent, shamanic, stuperous Indians. Poetry is never bread enough & doesn't pay the bills, “damned from beginning to end,” Williams says. Who could quibble aesthetics in this setting?
money is free if you're poor enough
Are there any connections with canonical American poetry? Start with Langston Hughes's essentialist pride in the Harlem Renaissance, “I, too, sing America,” not just Walt Whitman fingering leaves of grass, or Carl Sandburg shouldering Chicago. Allen Ginsberg howled his native place in the 1950s: the marginalized, dispossessed, discriminated, hipster, homosexual, Jewish, offbeat antihero. It's an old revolutionary American motif, the lost found, the last first, the underdog bites back. Sylvia Plath's rage and exhibitionist daring to die for us as Lady Lazarus: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Ted Roethke's lost-son, lyric blues: “Thrum-thrum, who can be equal to ease? / I've seen my father's face before / Deep in the belly of a thing to be.” John Berryman's brilliant mad comic pain: “These songs were not meant to be understood, you understand, / They were meant to terrify & comfort. / Lilac was found in his hand.”
A kind of Indian antipoetry breaks form at the millennial end. Alexie pushes against formalist assumptions of what poetry ought to be, knocks down aesthetic barriers set up in xenophobic academic corridors, and rebounds as cultural performance. He can play technique with mock sonnet, breezy villanelle, unheroic couplet, tinkling tercet, quaky quatrain in any-beat lines. The rhymer trades on surreal images and throwaway metaphors in a drunken villanelle: Trail of Tears … trail of beers. The rush of his poems is an energy released, stampeding horses, raging fires, stomping shoes: the poet as fast & loose sharpster in accretive repetition. Alexie likes catalogues, anaphoral first-word repetitions, the accumulative power of oral traditions. There is something freeing about all this—free to imagine, to improvise, to make things up, to wonder, to rage on. Sharpening wits on quick wit, his poetry runs free of restrictive ideas about Indians, poems, ponies, movies, shoes, dreams, dumpsters, reservations, angers, losses. His lines break free of precious art … but free for what, that matters? Do we care? the hard questions come tumbling. Do we remember, or listen closely, or think carefully, or wonder fully, or regard deeply enough?
Readers certainly learn about New Rez Indi'ns who shoot hoop, stroke pool, fancy dance, drink beer, snag girls, hustle, hitch, rap, joke, cry, rhyme, dream, write everything down. These Computer Rad 'Skins write verse that does not stay contained in formal repose: does not pull away, or shimmer in the night sky, or intimidate the common reader, but comes on full as a poetry that begs visceral response. Often cartoonish, a gag, a point-of-view gimmick, more “like” Virtual Indian. “There is no possible way to sell your soul” for poetry, Alexie said in LA (December 17, 1996), “because nobody's offering. The devil doesn't care about poetry. No one wants to make a movie out of a poem.” This trickster has made one movie, as mentioned, and cast another from Indian Killer.
Call it a reactive aesthetics, kinetic pop art, protest poetics to involve and challenge late-century readers—cajoled, battered, insulted, entertained, humored, angered to respond. A poetry that gets us up off our easy chairs. Tribal jive, that is, streetsmart, populist, ethnocentric, edged, opinionated, disturbed, fired up as reservation graffiti, à la John Trudell's Venice, California, rock lyrics, a Cherokee-breed Elvis as “Baby Boom Che.” Alexie joins the brash, frontier braggadocio of westering America, already out west a long time, ironically, a tradition in itself, shared with Whitman, Lawrence, Stein, Mailer, Kesey, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Vonnegut, Bellow, Heinemann, Mamet. Huckster, con man, carny barker, stand-up comedian, Will Rogers to Jonathan Winters, Cheech & Chong to Charlie Hill. The impudence of the anti-poetic Red Rapster, daring us not to call this poetry. “I'm not a rapper,” Russell Means crows of his punk album, Electric Warrior, “I'm a Rapaho!”
“You'll almost / believe every Indian is an Indian,” Alexie carries on. Frybread … Snakes … Forgiveness
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5111
SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Joelle Fraser. “An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” The Iowa Review 30, no. 3 (winter 2000-2001): 59-70.
[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his literary and film projects and talks about Native American literature and popular culture.]
On a rare sunny Seattle day, Sherman Alexie's manager offered me my choice of soda or bottled water and gave me a tour of Alexie's three-room office, a good-looking rooftop space with a deck that overlooks the tony community of Bellevue. Some worlds may contrast more starkly with Alexie's boyhood home on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation, but not many.
Alexie arrived late, comfortable in cotton, hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. As we introduced ourselves his smile hid a sense of weary obligation—this poet, fiction writer and filmmaker has many projects to promote. Though he became quite friendly after a few questions, at first his manner seemed to suggest, “Let's get to it.”
[Fraser]: You're called “the future of American fiction” by the New Yorker.
[Alexie]: It's because they needed a brown guy. They had five of us I think. A guy asked me how do you feel about there being so few white men on the (1996) Granta list. I said there were 11 out of 20: how could that be ‘few’? And 16 overall were white! I got all sorts of grief for being on the Granta list by the way. Like I didn't belong on it—
You only had Reservation Blues then. What about the response to the New Yorker list?
Everybody's really happy with it.
You've earned your place?
Yeah I guess. I'm an important brown guy now. (Laughs). Being different helps. I'm not going to deny that it helps a lot. I mean the work has to be good, but the fact that I'm different makes it more attractive to magazines.
So you grant that?
Oh yeah. I'm a firm believer in affirmative action—nobody unqualified ever gets a job through affirmative action. Maybe less qualified, but not unqualified. Certainly I might get on lists or get opportunities because I'm different, because I'm Indian.
And it doesn't bother you?
No! Hell no! Reparation. (Laughs). Nobody white is getting anything because they're white. It doesn't happen in the literary world, never, never once has a white guy gotten more because he's white. But then you have that cabal of New York writers, young good-looking New York literary boys, and they have their own sense of entitlement. I'm not anywhere near that stuff.
How did people react to your story in the New Yorker, “The Toughest Indian in the World?”
When I wrote it I honestly didn't think about the reaction people would have to it. It's funny—it really brings up the homophobia in people. When a straight guy like me writes about a homoerotic experience in the first person with a narrator who is very similar to me—I could see people dying to ask me if it was autobiographical. They always ask in regard to everything else, but no one's asked me about that story. In the Seattle paper here, the critic called it a “graphic act of homosexuality” and I thought “graphic?” There's nothing graphic about it at all. It was three sentences. He talked about me being a “literary rabble-rouser” again.
Someone else called you a similar name—the young rouser, the young something from Seattle—
Oh yeah—Larry McMurtry. Rambler. “The Young Rambler from Seattle.” Yeah I liked that one. It made me feel like I was in a bar brawl.
You've said of writers who aren't Indian, like McMurtry, that they shouldn't write about Indians.
At the beginning it was probably that but it's changed. People can write whatever they want—people accuse me of censorship when I say these things. But what I really want to say is that we should be talking about these books, written about Indians by non-Indians, honestly and accurately. I mean, they're outsider books. They're colonial books. Barbara Kingsolver's novels are colonial literature. Larry McMurtry's books are colonial literature. These are books by members of the privileged, of the powerful, writing about the culture that has been colonized. This is no different than Nadine Gordimer, who's a colonial writer, and she would call herself that.
So I think this illusion of democracy in the country—it's the best country in the world—but this illusion allows artists to believe that it isn't a colony. When it still is. The United States and South Africa: the only difference is about 50 years, not even that much. And people forget that. So when McMurtry does what he does, he thinks he's being democratic, but he's actually being colonial. I wish we could talk about the literature in those terms, beyond the quality of it, but actually talking about in terms of “hey this person doesn't know this—it's completely a work of imagination.”
How does this compare to, say, occupying the other gender?
(Laughs). Oh that's the same thing.
You've done that, and written from a white person's view, too.
Well, I know a lot more about being white—because I have to, I live in the white world. A white person doesn't live in the Indian world. I have to be white every day.
What about your female characters?
I'm not a woman. (Laughs). Never was. I think often my characters, outside of Spokane Indian guys, are often a little bit thin because I have a difficult time getting into them and getting to know them. My white people often end up being sort of “cardboardy”—which is thematically all right—but it isn't necessarily my original purpose. I just get uncomfortable writing about them.
Really. Is that something you're trying to develop and work on?
Yeah, I'm trying to become a better writer. I think in the end I'll get closer to that. And about women's experience—I'm better than most male writers. They see the Madonna-whore—it's incredible: these progressive, liberal, intelligent, highly-educated men are writing complex, diverse, wonderful male characters in the same book where the female characters are like women in a 3 a.m. movie on Showtime.
You've said having come from a matriarchal culture gives you more insight.
I think it helps. And I give my stuff to the women around me. ‘Does this work?’ I spend my whole life around women—I should know something. If I don't know it, I ask. It has to be a conscious effort. It's too easy to fall back on stereotypes and myths, and I think that's what most writers do about Indians and what most men do when they write about women.
So you're conscious of it …
I'm conscious of the fact that I mythologize. (Laughs). I'm still a caveman. I just like to think of myself as a sensitive caveman.
Going back to your growth as a writer, as you develop and gain facility—you're getting better technically, for example—do you fear that you'll lose some of that tension that comes from being a struggling new writer?
My friend Donna, who helps me edit, we talk about this. When I first started, my grammar was atrocious, but she said that often people don't care when so-called “unprivileged people's” grammar is atrocious because it's part of the “voice.” And they account for it in that way.
In fact readers might think it's “appropriate.”
When in fact it's just bad grammar. It's the result of a poor education. But I'm better now. Most of my sentence fragments now are intentional. (Laughs).
What did your parents expect you to be?
Oh God. Alive. In their fondest hopes. I'm the first member of my family—that's extended—who's graduated from college. No one else has since. I was a very bright kid; I was a little prodigy in all sorts of ways. There were friends and family telling me I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Nobody predicted I would be doing this, including me.
So you didn't have a sense of yourself as a writer until college?
Right. I wrote and I loved reading, and brown guys—you're supposed to be Jesus, saving the world with law or medicine.
And with writing can you save the world?
You can do more than a doctor or a lawyer can. If I were a doctor nobody would be inviting me to talk to reservations. I'd be a different person. Writers can influence more people.
Can poetry change the direction of society?
I don't know. A lot of people are reading my poems and other people's poems because of me. This 55-year-old white guy at a reading said, ‘I never got poems, I hated them, and then I read your book and liked them, and now I'm reading all sorts of poems.’ And that's great. If I can be a doorway …
Paula Gunn Allen says of Native Americans, “We are the land.” What do you think of that?
I don't buy it. For one thing, environmentalism is a luxury. Just like being a vegetarian is a luxury. When you have to worry about eating—you're not going to be worried about where the food's coming from, or who made your shoes. Poverty, whether planned or not planned, is a way of making environmentalism moot. Even this discussion is a luxury.
You and me—doing this. Besides, Indians have no monopoly on environmentalism. That's one of the great myths. But we were subsistence livers. They're two different things. Environmentalism is a conscious choice and subsistence is the absence of choice. We had to use everything to survive. And now that we've been assimilated and colonized and we have luxuries and excesses, we're just as wasteful as other people.
But the myth persists with contemporary Indians.
Part of it is that we had a land-based theology, but all theologies are land-based. Christianity is land-based in its beginnings. I think in some ways Indians embrace it because it's a cultural or racial self-esteem issue. We're trying to find something positive that differentiates us from the dominant culture. And the best way to do that—because the US is so industrial and so wasteful—is to say, ‘OK we're environmentalists’ and that separates us. When in fact, we're just a part of the US as well, and the wastefulness. The average everyday Indian—he's not an environmentalist—he could give a shit. Just like the average white American. I grew up with my aunts and uncles and cousins throwing their cans out the window.
How does this tie in with literature?
You throw in a couple of birds and four directions and corn pollen and it's Native American literature, when it has nothing to do with the day-to-day lives of Indians. I want my literature to concern the daily lives of Indians. I think most Native American literature is so obsessed with nature that I don't think it has any useful purpose. It has more to do with the lyric tradition of European Americans than it does with indigenous cultures. So when an Indian writes a poem about a tree, I think: ‘It's already been done!’ And those white guys are going to do it better than you. Nobody can write about a tree like a white guy.
Now why is that?
I don't know. They've been doing it longer.
I'd like to see what you'd write about a tree.
I'm not even interested! I'm interested in people. I think most native literature is concerned with place because they tell us to be. That's the myth. I think it's detrimental. I think most Native American literature is unreadable by the vast majority of Native Americans.
It's not reaching the people.
If it's not tribal, if it's not accessible to Indians, then how can it be Native American literature? I think about it all the time. Tonight I'll look up from the reading and 95٪ of the people in the crowd will be white. There's something wrong with my not reaching Indians.
But there's the ratio of whites to Indians.
Yeah. But I factor that in and realize there still should be more Indians. I always think that. Generally speaking Indians don't read books. It's not a book culture. That's why I'm trying to make movies. Indians go to movies; Indians own VCRs.
And maybe they'll read your books after.
I'm trying to do that—sneak up on them.
This is what your purpose is—to reach Indian people?
It's selfish in the sense that we haven't had our Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman; we haven't had our Shakespeare or Denis Johnson or James Wright. We haven't written a book that can compare to the best white novel. But they're out there. There's a kid out there, some boy or girl who will be that great writer, and hopefully they'll see what I do and get inspired by that.
There are many celebrated Indian writers—
But we haven't written anything even close to Faulkner or Hemingway or Jane Austen. Not yet. Of course, white people are about 30, 40 generations ahead in terms of writing. It'll happen. I meet young people all the time, email a lot of kids. The percentage of Indian kids doing some sort of artistic work is much higher than in the general population—painting, drawing, dancing, singing. The creation of art is still an everyday part of our culture, unlike the dominant culture, where art is sort of peripheral. It's not a big leap from a kid who dances to a kid who writes poems. It's the same impulse. It just needs a little push.
What about writing programs, teaching? You don't teach college students, but do you have opinions on MFA programs, on artists' colonies?
I think the summer stuff is just the place where writers go to get laid. You can't teach anything in a week or two.
What about a writing program like Iowa?
Yeah, that's fine. That's dedicated internship. But a summer thing? I've done two, both for friends. People do them because they need the money, and/or to get laid—because they will. Dedicated writers don't go—they're in MFA programs or they already have books. These people who attend the conferences and colonies are very privileged, mostly women, groupie types. They exist so ugly white guys get laid. (Laughs).
Ouch. You don't mind this going out?
No! It's true! Only in rock music and the literary world do you see so many ugly white guys with beautiful women. That says a lot about the women, their character. They're attracted to more than surface.
Will you ever get an academic position?
I hope not. I don't want a real job of any variety. I don't want to have to get up in the morning, that's what it comes down to. Work is not the issue; I don't want the structure.
Is it hard for you to switch hats, from poetry to screenplays to fiction? Some people might say you're trying to find your genre.
It's all the same. It's just telling stories. It's not like I think about it separately.
True, Smoke Signals is based on your poems and stories. And then there's your comedy …
Yes—you've seen me read: it's funny. There's always been a stand-up element. Now I'm doing real stand-up, and it's amazing the freedom I got when I called it stand-up. I talked about things I would never talk about in a literary world. I can do anything I want, and I get the same amount of laughter when I do stand-up. What I hope to do is bring literary humor to my comedy fans instead of more dick jokes (although I tell my share of dick jokes)—and I want to bring more comedy to the poetry fans.
Is there anyone else doing that?
I don't know. A really good stand-up comic is a poet; it's about the use of language. It can be really poetic. And I like politically conscious comedy.
Bill Hicks, I don't know if you've ever heard of him.
Well, you can have this one. (He gets a CD from a shelf). And Chris Rock. Dennis Miller—smart as hell.
So what's the future for you?
I don't know. I know I'll keep writing poems. That's the constant. I don't know about novels. They're hard. It takes so much concentrated effort. When I'm writing a novel it's pretty much all I can do. I get bored. It takes months. I wrote Res Blues in about 4 months, Indian Killer in about 6. Movies do the same thing. Smoke Signals was 14 months, and that's quick. It's all-encompassing. It feels like I'm going to end up writing poems, short stories and screenplays. I'll continue to work for studios, honestly because it's enormous sums of money and I'll use one project to finance the other. Some people teach; I write screenplays. One's a lot more lucrative.
What about memoir?
In the end you are sort of responsible to the truth, and I like to lie. (Laughs). I'm 33, and as much as I talked about it, it doesn't matter whether you're 25 or 45, not a whole lot has gone on; the journey I'm on is pretty young. And I've rarely read a memoir that wasn't masturbatory. In a sense, you're always mythologizing your life; it's always an effort to make yourself epic. At least in fiction you can lie and sort of justify your delusion about your “epicness.” But when you're writing a memoir, you're trying to make your life epic and it's not—nobody's life is. You know that book, Drinking, A Love Story? The whole time I'm thinking, “But you kept your job!”
You've been sober for years, but in college, how did drinking affect your writing?
I would wake up with stories on the typewriter and not remember writing them.
Did your writing change when you got sober?
I write less about alcohol, less and less and less. You're an addict—so of course you write about the thing you love most. I loved alcohol the most, loved it more than anybody or anything. That's what I wrote about. And it certainly accounted for some great writing. But it accounted for two or three years of good writing—it would never account for 20 years of good writing. I would have turned into Charles Bukowski. He wrote 10,000 poems and 10 of them were great.
Frost said a poem is a momentary stay against confusion. Do you feel like that's true?
(Laughs). That would mean that at some point in my life I didn't feel confused. He said that with more clarity than I've ever had. I'm trying to think—I was writing the other night, I wrote this poem called “One Stick Song,” one I really like at the moment. It relates to stick game, a gambling game. And I can tell you the story of that and we'll see what it means. I was at my uncle's wake. I don't know how other wakes work—
Swedish wakes are wild, everyone's drunk.
OK there you go, similar. (Laughs). It's a good time. Someone was talking about this song he'd sing—“one stick song.” You see, you lose sticks in this gambling game, like chips or whatever. You're down to one stick. And you're going to lose if you lose it, so this is your most powerful song. You're desperate. But I hadn't heard the phrase “one stick song” in years, and as soon as I heard it I thought, oh my God, that's everything I've been doing. “One stick song” is a desperate celebration, a desperate attempt to save yourself: putting everything you have into one song. I looked around the room, thinking, ‘what are these people's one stick songs? What would it be—what is their one stick, what is the one thing they have left?’
Was that poem meant to be an elegy for the uncle?
It ended up being an elegy for all the family members I've lost.
I just heard Mark Doty give a talk on the elegy, about how it can be applied not only to people but to any loss, and why it needs to both memorialize and make meaning of loss. To what extent do you think you're doing the work of the elegy?
I recently wrote about a man from the reservation who drowned in a mud puddle. He was drunk, alone. How am I supposed to make meaning out of that? And yet I try. That's, in fact, what I'm here to do. You might say that now that man did not die alone.
In your poem, “Capital Punishment,” the refrain is “I am not a witness”—but it seems like you are.
I guess a witness is all I am. I think as a writer, you're pretty removed. As much as I talk about tribe or belonging—you don't, really. Writing is a very selfish, individualistic pursuit. So in that sense I'm a witness because I'm not participating.
And literally, you're in Seattle and you're a witness on your old life on the reservation, on the other side of the state.
Yes, I'm not there. And I'm not in the writing world; I'm outside a lot of circles.
Whom do you connect with?
With young people—one of the things I like to do is watch MTV, even though I don't like much of the music, I try to pay attention to what's in their lives.
What's your take on TV?
They've been screaming about the death of literacy for years, but I think TV is the Gutenberg press. I think TV is the only thing that keeps us vaguely in democracy even if it's in the hands of the corporate culture. If you're an artist you write in your time. Moaning about the fact that maybe people read more books a hundred years ago—that's not true. I think the same percentage has always read.
So you're not worried about the culture. You're not worried about video games—
No. Not at all. (Laughs).
A lot of people are, it seems …
People also thought Elvis Presley was the end of the world. (Laughs).
You do use a lot of pop cultural references in your work.
It's the cultural currency. Superman means something different to me than it does to a white guy from Ames, Iowa or New York City or L.A. It's a way for us to sit at the same table. I use pop culture like most poets use Latin. (Laughs). They want to find out how smart they are—or, they think they're being “universal.”
You said once that universality is a misnomer, that it's really a Western sense of the word.
Well, when people say universal they mean white people get it.
What about Smoke Signals' universal themes of grief, and loss and coming to terms with death?
That's an appropriate way to talk about it, saying universal themes. But some people call the whole work universal. That's wrong. And even if there are universal themes, it's within a very specific experience and character. And that's what made it good. It was promoted as the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans to ever receive distribution, and reviewers would fall all over themselves trying to discount that, saying ‘that doesn't really matter. Who cares.’ Of course if matters. It matters, and it's good, and it is what it is precisely because of that specificity. So “universal” is often a way to negate the particularity of a project, of an art. I hate that term; it's insulting. I don't want to be universal.
But do you want to touch people who will say, “I've felt that too”?
Yeah, but the thing is, people always told me their story. They didn't say, ‘This made me feel like 100 other people.’ The creation is specific and the response is specific. Good art is specific. Godzilla is universal. A piece of shit like that plays all over the world. Then you know you got a problem.
Along those lines, I'm wondering about a seeming paradox. You often say during readings and talks that you want to honor your culture's privacy, and yet your work is so public. It seems like you protect it and expose it at the same time. There's a tension created.
Yes, of course there is. One of the ways I've dealt with it is that I don't write about anything sacred. I don't write about any ceremonies; I don't use any Indian songs.
True. You mention sweat lodges but only obliquely. I'm thinking of the image of the old woman in the poem who emerges from the sweat lodge.
Yes, I'm outside the sweat lodge. In Reservation Blues I'm in it and I realized I didn't like it. I approach my writing the same way I approach my life. It's what I've been taught and how I behave with regard to my spirituality.
How do you draw the line as to what is off limits?
My tribe drew that line for me a long time ago. It's not written down, but I know it. If you're Catholic you wouldn't tell anybody about the confessional. I feel a heavy personal responsibility, and I accept it, and I honor it. It's part of the beauty of my culture. I've been called fascist a couple of times, at panels. I've censored myself. I've written things that I have since known to be wrong.
What kind of things … I guess you can't say.
(Laughs). All I can say is that I've written about cultural events inappropriately.
How did you know?
The people involved told me. After considering it, I realized they were right. In a few instances. Not every instance, but in a few. I can't take them out of what they're in, but I'm not going to republish them, or perform them in public, no anthologizing: they've died for me. There are Indian writers who write about things they aren't supposed to. They know. They'll pay for it. I'm a firm believer in what people call ‘karma.’ Even some of the writing I really admire, like Leslie Silko's Ceremony, steps on all sorts of sacred toes. I wouldn't go near that kind of writing. I'd be afraid of the repercussions. I write about a drunk in a bar, or a guy who plays basketball.
So the only flak you get is from individuals who say, “I think you're making fun of me.” Do you try to soothe things over?
Some people are unsoothable. But I'm a nice enough guy, and I think people know that. If I weren't pissing people off I wouldn't be doing my job. I just want to piss off the right people. I try not to pick on the people who have less power than I. It's one of the guidelines of my life. And if I have, then I feel badly about it. I try to make amends.
You're only in your early thirties—and you have 12 books and two screenplays behind you. What was it like to have written so much so young and yet feel like you need to be a better writer? Do you feel like some work came out too soon?
Everything, everything! Reservation Blues—ooh, ooh. I'm working on the screenplay now, and I see where I could be so much better. What I could have done. I can tell you what happened. In Reservation Blues, the original impulse was that I can't sing, and I wanted to write a novel about somebody who could. Everyone wants to be a rock star. You get to date supermodels (it's a joke!). With Indian Killer it was because I was sitting at Washington State with frat guys in the back row who I wanted to kill. And I would fantasize about murder.
What were they doing that made you want to kill them?
Just being white. Just drunk on their privilege, essentially. Showing up late, disrupting the class in all sorts of small ways that all added up to my thinking, ‘I want to kill them.’
So you write books about people you want to be.
Umm. Do I want to be a murderer? (Laughs). I don't think so, but we all want to kill somebody. It's fantasy. Well I guess then my next novel's about my love affair with Helen Hunt (Laughs).
One of the things you said is that poetry equals anger and imagination. Do you feel like a lot of the power of your earlier work came from being a younger man full of passion and anger, and do you ever worry about that lessening as you get older and things get easier for you? That is, are you still angry, and has it changed if you are?
I could respond to that in two ways: the richest black man in the country still has a hard time getting a taxi in New York at midnight. But for me, personal success or personal privilege—I have a tremendous amount of it now—I mean I have my own damned office. How many writers have that? Just to manage my life I had to hire somebody. And I'm rich. Not by Steve Forbes standards, but by Indian standards I'm the Indian Steve Forbes. I bought a TV last night because I wanted one for the office.
Are you still amazed by that?
Oh yeah. I just laugh. When I had no money, and a great book came out, I couldn't get it. I had to wait. I love the idea that I have hardcover books here and at home that I haven't read yet. That's how I view that I'm rich. I have hardcover books I may never read. (Laughs).
But even though I have success and privilege, my cousins don't. My tribe doesn't. I still get phone calls in the middle of the night—about deaths and car wrecks. I've lost uncles and cousins to violence or to slow deaths by neglect and abuse and poverty. I could try to walk away from that, to separate, but I don't. Every time I drive downtown Seattle I see dozens of homeless Indians. I would be callous beyond belief not to feel that, not to know I have cousins who are homeless in cities out there. So even if it's not happening to me directly, it's certainly happening to my family, and I have to pick up the phone. I'm incredibly privileged when I'm sitting at a typewriter, but once I get up and out of that role, I'm an Indian.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1945
SOURCE: McFarland, Ron. Review of One Stick Song. Wicazo Sa Review: A Journal of Native American Studies 16, no. 2 (fall 2001): 158-63.
[In the following essay, McFarland offers a review of One Stick Song.]
Nine years have passed since the warm reception of Sherman Alexie's first collection of mingled very short stories and poems, The Business of Fancydancing (1992), which was also published by Hanging Loose Press. One Stick Song is similar in nature, with respect both to genre blending and voice. Poetry, as he reminds us in the first piece, “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me,” is still the result of an equation in which Anger is multiplied by Imagination (20). And, as from the first time he employed this equation, it remains an oversimplification. What he fails, or perhaps refuses, to factor in is the element of irony, wit, or humor that makes it all palatable, or if that is too weak a word, endurable. Alexie's poetry (and his fiction, generally) follows an equation that reads more like this:
Poetry = Anger × Imagination/Wit
In this equation, as I am employing it, I intend the definition of wit that pertains to “the ability to perceive the incongruous and to express it in quick, sharp, spontaneous, often sarcastic remarks that delight or entertain” (Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition). The comedy generated by such wit is ironic in nature and satiric in application; it aims to correct or respond to folly or injustice by way of ridicule.
Some literary mathematicians may protest that my amended formula should take on a more direct form: P = W(AI). But I am inclined to stay with my formulation (P = AI/W) because I am convinced that Alexie's often razorlike wit, while it draws attention to the pain, almost always acts to alleviate it, to make it bearable. In his memoir, “The Warriors,” which begins, “I hate baseball,” Alexie teases the notion of a reservation Little League team called the Warriors: “Indians recognize irony when we see it. During that summer, irony played third base” (42, 44). The upshot of Alexie's wit is not always what we could describe as funny or laughable, but it is usually comedic. Can something be comic without being funny? Absolutely.
If they are familiar with Alexie and his writing, readers who open the book to the thirteen-page “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me” will most likely tell themselves, “That sounds like Sherman all right.” Self-abnegation is not his strong suit. But I would argue that Alexie exploits himself (more than he does his tribe or the reservation) for a worthy cause: see me as I actually am; see us as we actually are. That some other Indians, including other writers and members of his own tribe (perhaps even of his own family), do not appreciate what they are seeing is almost inevitable, and Alexie does not apologize for what he sees and says. Being Sherman Alexie means never having to say you're sorry. “Never apologize,” John Wayne barks to a young cavalry officer in one movie, “it's a sign of weakness.”
Alexie has many bones to pick, one of which concerns the issue of the mixed-blood: “If a book about Indians contains no dogs, then it was written by a non-Indian or mixed-blood writer” (21). Directly or otherwise, Alexie takes a measure of delight in denigrating mixed-blood writers—as if they had some control over the fact of their birth. “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me” moves in loose, achronological fashion: a PEN panel on Indian writers in 1994, a hard winter on the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1976, a KISS concert in 1977, suffering a racial slur at a stoplight in Seattle in 1995, forming a “reservation doowop group” in 1978. In the midst of the “autobiography” he offers “An Incomplete List of People I Wish Were Indian.” The autobiographical piece ranges from that list to page-long stories of the sort some call “sudden fiction.”
Similar in length but more narrative in construction is “The Warriors,” a sort of memoir in which Alexie confesses that as a boy and young man, “I lusted after white girls and women more than I lusted after Indian girls and women” (48). During the past few years, as Alexie's star has risen, several people who know I have written about him and his writing have confided that despite his stance on Indians marrying Indians and his repudiation of mixed-blood alliances (at least in his writing, if one may distinguish a “literary” from a “personal” repudiation), the Sherman Alexie they knew “back then” was hot for white girls. So what does one make of his confession? That Sherman Alexie is brutally honest with himself? That he is an outrageous hypocrite? That he is confused? Some readers will admire Alexie's writing because of his agenda, and some despite it. The problem I have with Alexie's confession is that he backs away from it in the next sentence: “Television taught me to do this” (48). I would like to see something fresher, more original, in his rationale, or rationalization, than dumping on the boob tube. “I wanted to have sex with white women simply because they were white women,” Alexie writes without much in the way of remorse. Where he is headed with the confession, however (it is not an apology, after all), is the celebration of his love for his Hidatsa-Potawatomi wife, Diane, and declarations such as these: “I know now that a white woman could never love me in the way an Indian woman can. … I know now there is something redemptive in loving an Indian” (49).
Does this agenda leave Alexie vulnerable to charges of racism, or reverse-racism? Almost inevitably, it does. An idealistic Latin American history professor I knew more than thirty years ago at Florida State University argued persuasively that the racial melting pot of Brazil should be regarded as a paradigm, as man's best hope for a future devoid of racial and ethnic conflict. (My visit to Rio several years ago left me somewhat less optimistic.) The vicious apartheid in South Africa he held up to us as a warning, and he predicted an apocalyptic racial war in Africa that was not difficult to imagine in the aftermath of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during the 1950s. Despite Alexie's “lifelong crush on Jane Pauley” and his “definite measure of regret” over the way he touched the “ordinary” white women “who lived ordinary lives,” some readers will resent Alexie's racial ideology and see it as at least implicitly reactionary. Those who have read his novel Reservation Blues, currently being made into a movie, will recall Thomas Builds-the-Fire's intention to marry the full-blood Flathead woman Chess Warm Water in order to fill the world with “brown babies.” Those who have read the novel Indian Killer will recall the unsympathetic, often harsh treatment accorded the well-meaning white family that adopts an Indian boy.
But those are fictional characters. What about the truth of poetry? In “Soon to be a National Geographic Special,” Alexie features “All of the Indian boys in the world / gathered into one red Toyota Celica” (62), but the number is quickly reduced to a microcosm of three, including himself; Tom, who is white (actually it was his brother Dan, so Tom is “only there metaphorically”); and Steve, who is only “a little bit Indian himself, but he grew up // on the reservation, and therefore / was a full Indian pretty much / by osmosis.” Alexie's ecumenical spirit in this poem and in “Why Indian Men Fall in Love with White Women” seems at odds with much of what he preaches elsewhere, but he embraces ambivalence and unpredictability. One predictable name in his list of whites he wishes were Indians is Walt Whitman, the poet who asserted, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)” (“Song of Myself”).
Certainly the twenty-two poems and stories that comprise One Stick Song embrace a multitude of implicit definitions of what poetry can be. Several short, haiku-like lyrics, including “Migration, 1902,” come close to what Alexie has elsewhere, agreeing with Adrian Louis, scorned as “corn pollen and eagle feather” poetry:
The salmon swim so thick in this river
that Grandmother walks across the water
on the bridge of their spines.
Such poems, reminiscent, too, of the Imagist poets (notably, William Carlos Williams), will appeal to some readers as gemlike, while others will shrug them off as inconsequential.
Several poems in the book could be described as performance pieces, similar to his early poem, “Horses,” from Old Shirts & New Skins. These heavily rhetorical poems feature incantatory repetition, usually anaphora, as in the following passage from “Open Books,” where Alexie lashes out at the literary establishment and probably at critics and professors like me:
Let us now celebrate the literary allusion. Let us now celebrate the trope and willful enjambment. Let us now celebrate the assonance and alliteration of all of it. Let us now celebrate the sound of our own voices.
Close readers will observe that Alexie introduces “willful” enjambment in the line where he mentions it and that the line on alliteration and assonance is crammed with both. The title poem of the volume is very much in this vein, and those familiar with traditional Indian songs, as gathered by such anthropologists and ethnologists as Franz Boas, will recognize similarities in the way Alexie uses repetition.
Somewhere near the opposite end of the spectrum lies the powerful villanelle that opens the last poem in the book, “Sugar Town,” with its intricately modified refrain lines. A fixed form that many consider more challenging than the sonnet, the villanelle dates from the end of the seventeenth century and is often exemplified by Dylan Thomas's “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and Theodore Roethke's “The Waking.” More recently African-American poet Rita Dove has employed the form as the first section of a two-part poem entitled “Parsley.” The nineteen-line villanelle, which is the standard, although both longer and shorter versions exist, is constructed in tercets, typically rhyming a-b-a. The first and third lines of the opening tercet alternate throughout the poem as refrain lines (sometimes with modification) until they come together in a closing quatrain as the concluding two lines of the poem. “Sugar Town” begins
My father, my Van Gogh, is crazy from hunger. He cuts off his ear, loses his foot to the wildfire of diabetes.
“Amputation must be a form of insanity,” he tells me. “Because I can still feel my foot.” My father, my Van Gogh, is crazy from absence.
In subsequent stanzas the father will appear as “crazy” not only from hunger and absence, but also from genius, until, in the concluding quatrain, he is “crazy / from the wildfire of diabetes.” Instead of producing additional b-rhymes throughout the poem for the midline of each tercet, Alexie repeats “foot” in the first three and “sugar” in the last three stanzas. His control of the open line (twelve of the nineteen lines are enjambed) typifies Alexie's mastery of the informal or conversational line, even when it is employed in a conventional form. The high incidence of diabetes among Indians is well known (coincidentally, three out of four Indian writers I know fairly well suffer from diabetes).
Passing remarks by way of conclusion: (1) I did not find a single use of the word “enit,” and I did not miss it; (2) what Alexie once described as “the holy trinity of me,” Thomas, Victor, and Junior (who commits suicide at the end of Reservation Blues), are not mentioned in this collection (Alexie introduced them in his first book); (3) several poems, including “Powwow Love Songs,” “Rise,” and “The Theology of Cockroaches,” feature Alexie's wife Diane, whose impact on his writing may be significant.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11735
SOURCE: Evans, Stephen F. “‘Open Containers’: Sherman Alexie's Drunken Indians.” The American Indian Quarterly 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 46-72.
[In the following essay, Evans discusses Alexie's depiction of contemporary reservation life in his poetry and fiction.]
Ironic and satiric impulses consistently suffuse the tone, structure, realization of characters, and vision of contemporary reservation reality in the small press collections of poems and stories of Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), from The Business of Fancydancing (1991) through The Summer of Black Widows (1996), as well as his mainstream works of fiction, from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) to The Toughest Indian in the World (2000).1 Much of the praise bestowed on Alexie's early efforts and The Lone Ranger and Tonto has focused on the author's unflinchingly bold depiction of the dysfunctional nature of contemporary reservation life and the fragmented, often alienated “bicultural” lives of characters who daily confront the white civilization that encaptives their world—physically, historically, spiritually, and psychically.
Clearly, part of the attractiveness of Alexie's early volumes of verse and works of prose, at least for many mainstream readers, can be attributed to the author's conscious construction of a hyperrealistic “hip” persona, one that at times might be indistinguishable from his biography. Kenneth Lincoln's recent assessment of Alexie's poetry, for example, voices both puzzlement and concern over Alexie's authorial stance: “With Sherman Alexie, readers can throw formal questions out the smokehole. … Parodic antiformalism may account for some of Alexie's mass appeal. This Indian gadfly jumps through all the hoops, sonnet, to villanelle, to heroic couplet, all tongue-in-cheeky.” To Lincoln, Alexie is “A stand-up comedian, the Indian improvisator [who himself] is the performing text” (267). While Lincoln acknowledges that some readers may find meaning in Alexie's performance-art poetry—“His firecat imagination plays tricks on the reader, for our supposed good, for its own native delight and survival” (268)—he also questions Alexie's motives: “His is more performance than poem, more attitude than art, more schtick than aesthetic. Definitely talented, deeply impassioned, hyphenated American-Indian, but to what end?” Although Alexie's poetry shows an obvious delight in surfaces, Lincoln finds little more beyond the façade:
Indi'n vaudeville, then, stand-up comedy on the edge of despair. A late-twentieth-century, quasi-visionary clown tells the truth that hurts and heals in one-liners cheesy as the Marx Brothers, trenchant as Lenny Bruce, tricky as Charlie Hill's bia Halloween ‘Trick or Treaty.’
Following publication of The Lone Ranger and Tonto and Reservation Blues (1995), however, Alexie also came under fire from certain quarters for his purportedly negative use of irony and satire—namely, literary connections to (white) popular culture and representations of Indian stereotypes that some consider “inappropriate” and dangerously misleading for mainstream consumption. Despite his early praise of The Lone Ranger and Tonto, for example, Louis Owens finds that Alexie's fiction
too often simply reinforces all of the stereotypes desired by white readers: his bleakly absurd and aimless Indians are imploding in a passion of self-destructiveness and self-loathing; there is no family or community center toward which his characters … might turn for coherence; and in the process of self-destruction the Indians provide Euramerican readers with pleasurable moments of dark humor or the titillation of bloodthirsty savagery. Above all, the non-Indian reader of Alexie's work is allowed to come away with a sense … that no one is really to blame but the Indians, no matter how loudly the author shouts his anger.
In his chapter on “new” American Indian fiction, Owens contends that “the most popularly and commercially successful Native American works thus far are marked by a dominant shared characteristic: They are the direct heirs of the modernist tradition of naturalistic despair, of which the Indian is the quintessential illustration” (81). For Owens, these new American Indian novels
articulate in sometimes extraordinarily well-disguised form the familiar stereotype of the Vanishing American, the crucial difference being that white people no longer have to shoot or hang the Native, who is quite willing to do the job him- or herself. Most crucially, they are human beings incapable of asserting any control over their lives, infantalized and cirrhotic, waiting to exit stage west. What do Euramerican readers want to see in works by American Indian authors? They want what they have always wanted, from Fenimore Cooper to the present: Indians who are romantic, unthreatening, and self-destructive. Indians who are enacting, in one guise or another, the process of vanishing. Borrowing from William Faulkner, that epic poet of inexorable, tragic history, I'll call this the “Chief Doom” school of literature. It seems we cannot escape it, even when it is manifested as a form of inner-colonization.
Point well taken. But criticism along the lines of Lincoln's, Owens's, and others' clearly denigrate and misjudge Alexie's purpose in crafting a different and fresh imaginative literary realism by prescribing, at least implicitly, the kind of Indian literature that they would like for him to write. Considered from another critical angle, Alexie's artistry, I believe, may be seen as that of a consciously moral satirist rather than as a “cultural traitor.” In fact, a close examination of Alexie's work to date shows that he uses the meliorative social and moral values inherent in irony and satire, as well as certain conventional character types (including the prejudicial stereotype of the “drunken Indian”) as materials for constructing a realistic literary document for contemporary Indian survival.
In his foreword to Alexie's Old Shirts & New Skins (1993), Adrian C. Louis rightly notes that “Many of the poems in this collection turn on an axis of irony, and, as a consequence, the reader may view Alexie himself as a trickster figure telling stories” (ix). Consonant with Barbara Babcock and Jay Cox's view of the trickster-coyote figure in Indian literature(s), Louis observes that Alexie's voice “transgresses both genres and periods of tribal literature.” That is, “In mythic time and narrative coyote appears as one of the first beings, responsible for ‘the world as it is,’ in historic legend. … [H]e is the crazy, creative Indian negotiating urban America. Polysemic as well as multifunctional, coyote and his stories just keep ‘going along,’ somewhere beyond interpretation, epitomizing resistance and survival” (100).2 From yet another prismatic angle of vision Louis discerns a positive, salvific quality in Alexie's Old Shirts:
Filled with poems that can make you laugh and cry, this book is neither strident nor self-pitying. … Choreographed with those objects and events that construct American Indian life today, these poems bind us to the present, yet at the same time connect us to the ancestral voices of our past. In the forlorn saloons, on the gym floors of the Six-foot and under basketball tournaments, among the stacks of commodity foods in hud houses, lost in cities, or at powwows, we still hear the whispers of Crazy Horse.
The recurrence of characters, situations, and themes in Fancydancing through Toughest Indian suggests that Alexie's work may be estimated most fairly in terms of its accretionary power, a salient feature of oral tradition. In other words, what may be taken as repetitiveness in a casual read-through of Alexie's work actually reveals ongoing development that is entirely consistent with oral tradition techniques. Taken thus, Alexie's literary endeavors collectively form his artistic vision of a survival document—a defiantly realistic coping mechanism for modern reservation “warriors.” One of Alexie's speakers concludes the prose poem “Sundays, Too,” for example, by remarking with irony that “There is nothing we cannot survive” (Old Shirts 47). As Louis puts it, “It is so important for us when a poet like Sherman Alexie emerges to detail our dreams, our hopes, and our embattled states of being. He fulfills the traditional decrees of poetry: He speaks to people in hopes of bringing about change; he speaks as a functioning ear and eye of the people; he speaks as a seer” (viii). Considered as a whole, the best artistic moments in Alexie's poems, stories, and novels lie in his construction of a satiric mirror that reflects the painful reality of lives that have become distorted, disrupted, destroyed, and doomed by their counter-impulses to embrace or deny traditional Indian culture, to become assimilated to or resist absorption into white civilization—or both.
Inevitably, perhaps, it is precisely the success of Reservation Blues among the mainstream literary establishment that has brought Alexie criticism from some Indian writers and scholars. In her review-essay of the novel, Gloria Bird (Spokane), author of the novel Full Moon on the Reservation (1993), raises a number of important issues concerning the future direction of new Indian fiction, its subject matter, Alexie's fictional representation of the “reality” of contemporary reservation life (including that of individual members), and what Bird considers the moral responsibility of Indian authors writing for the mainstream to “accurately represent our communities without exploiting them” (51). In effect, Reservation Blues provides Bird with a platform from which she argues for a renewed traditionalist approach for writers of Indian fiction. Any critical assessment of whether or not Reservation Blues is artistically successful or satisfying, as well as questions of whether the book qualifies as a novel, its relative degree of “Indianness” (Bird 48, 51), or its “accurate” representation of reservation “reality,” ultimately are personal in nature. Bird's apprehension regarding Reservation Blues clearly is consonant with concerns voiced by one of her colleagues who, Bird writes, “has pointed out that referring to pop culture is not the problem; it becomes problematic, however, when this is the only exposure to native literature to which mainstream readers are exposed” (48). On this level Bird's criticism takes on a political dimension. Her essay, “The Exaggeration of Despair in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues” (1995), considered along with previous critical pronouncements by Bird and other Indian scholars as well as Alexie's own responses to the criticism, together form something of a polarized and politicized debate over the direction of new Indian fiction.
Bird faults the novel, for example, for what she terms its “cinematic” narrative technique, whereby Alexie connects “scenes” via tawdry remnants of (white) popular culture, likening him to an “Indian Spike Lee” (47-48). She contends that, like the portrayals of African American individuals and culture in Lee's films, much of the structure and ethos of Reservation Blues depends on readers' knowledge of popular culture, including film, to be successful; this reliance, Bird argues, distorts, debases, and falsifies Indian culture and literature at the same time that it reinforces mainstream notions of Indian stereotypes.3 Other charges by Bird are patently unfair to both Alexie and Reservation Blues, as when she finds the novel inferior in comparison to canonical classics of Indian literature such as N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn (1968) or Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977). Bird's vision for new Indian fiction espoused in “The Exaggeration of Despair” and elsewhere has little room or tolerance for satire or irony; her desire to refashion Alexie's fiction into work that resembles the “sweeping, lyrical prose” of Momaday, or into something “dense with meaning” (50) like Silko's, overlooks, ignores, or refuses to accept what Alexie achieves in his satiric fiction.4 For Bird, Reservation Blues exhibits Alexie's strongly personal vision of reservation life and experience at the same time that it exploits, in Spike Lee - fashion, the very community and culture from which it arises and that it claims to represent (49). “As a native reader,” Bird explains, “my concern is with the colonialist influence on the native novel, and how that influence shapes the representation of native culture to a mainstream audience” (48). In other words, her concerns are for the kinds of new Indian fiction being produced and selected for mainstream publication, the “right” of authors to write new Indian fiction, the moral obligations of those authors to Indian cultures, and how that art may be perceived and received by “reservation tourist” and Indian readers. Indian culture(s) should not be fictionally envisioned in terms established by white culture or to affirm long-established preconceptions and inbuilt prejudices of that culture.
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Sioux) takes Bird's stance a step further in her criticism of new Indian fiction in general, and the work of Alexie and other writers in particular, when she complains against the number of recent works that “catalogue the deficit model of Indian reservation life.” These works, some of which Cook-Lynn characterizes as “trash or fraudulent or pop” (132), are troubling to her because they do not “suggest a responsibility of art as an ethical endeavor or the artist as responsible social critic, a marked departure from the early renaissance works of such luminaries as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko” (126). As with Bird's general take on Reservation Blues, Cook-Lynn reveals an unwillingness to recognize or accept for modern Indian literature the meliorative cultural and social values of satire, as well as the satirist's essential social conscience and moral values. Bird and Cook-Lynn share a concern for the pernicious effects of Indian authors' replication of stereotypes for mainstream consumption, while disregarding the fact that much Indian fiction actually has relied upon stereotypes and formulaic constructions for the achievement of meaning. Of course, when literary forms, types, and features become overused and outlive their original vitality, they often become transformed into stereotypes, inviting a literary mode such as satire or the inflection of irony to reinvigorate them with meaning. Note Bird's interest in how “colonialist influence … shapes the representation of native culture to a mainstream audience” (48). The desire to constrain literary representation and thematic issues within simplistic, cause-and-effect boundaries, which are themselves artificial and rhetorically polar (as though to oppose “colonialist influence,” is by definition always negative, versus “native culture,” which is inherently always positive), actually may foster or promote the replication of stereotypes, good and bad.5 Cook-Lynn boldly casts the issue into prescriptive terms:
I have not heard much discussion from the Modern Language Association scholars or from literary critics (mostly white) or from inner circles of Native writers who must know … that bad art has a harmful effect on society. Native scholars often suggest that to be critical of the work of fellow Indian writers is a function of jealousy or meanness. It is my opinion that literary fiction can be distinguished from popular fiction. I think a responsible critic will challenge the generic development of what is called Native American fiction by using the idea that there are such concepts as (1) moral fiction and (2) indigenous/tribally specific literary traditions from which the imagination emerges.
One of Bird's most serious charges against Alexie is that in Reservation Blues he “‘prey[s]’ upon” his community and culture in perpetuating damaging stereotypes, including that of the drunken Indian.6 As she puts it, “Stereotyping native people does not supply a native readership with soluble ways of undermining stereotypes, but becomes a part of the problem, and returns an image of a generic ‘Indian’ back to the original producers of that image” (49).
Of the centuries-old stereotype of the drunken Indian, Fergus Bordewich writes: “Although perhaps less openly acknowledged than it once was in this era of politically correct skittishness, it is an image of the Indian that is as deeply entrenched in the popular psyche as that of the Noble Red Man and encapsulates within it a widespread perception of modern Native Americans as fundamentally pathetic and helpless figures, defeated by a white man's world with which they cannot be expected to cope” (246). Neither Bird nor Cook-Lynn, however, apparently sees or is willing to credit Alexie's essentially moral aims in writing poetry and fiction that is heavily infused with irony and satire, including his ethical reversal or extension of stereotypes in order to establish new valences of imaginative literary realism. C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon's well-known and broadly inclusive definition of “satire” clearly matches the tenor of Alexie's artistic intent in fashioning realistic Indian survival literature: “A literary manner that blends a critical attitude with humor and wit for the purpose of improving human institutions or humanity. True satirists are conscious of the frailty of human institutions and attempt through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling” (447). Again, much of Alexie's work to date comprises a modern survival document from which his readers gain strength by actively participating in the recognition of reality as viewed through Alexie's satiric lens or from the reflections of his satiric mirror. As with all literature generally, and literature that reflects oral tradition techniques in particular, the author (speaker)—audience (listener/reader) dynamic implies and requires mutual participation for the making of meaning. As with any author, reading Alexie always is a consensual act.7
For some reason Bird never mentions Alexie's supposed replication and reinforcement of the drunken Indian stereotype in his works preceding Reservation Blues, works virtually saturated with images and characters that reveal and embody the devastating, debilitating, and destructive effects of alcohol on Indian culture. Bird's oversight in this regard, taken with her almost exclusive focus on Reservation Blues (her article is a review of the novel), clearly underscores her concern for the mainstreaming of those literary features for a reservation tourist readership. Bird concedes, however, that “The portrayal of alcoholism that has been rampant through the generations cannot be denied and presents a paradox with which native writers must grapple” (51). Certainly, Alexie's fictional realism in his portrayal of the effects of alcohol on reservation life meets head-on the facts of real Indian existence and experience.
Indeed, sobering statistics from Bordewich's own work are reflected variously in characters, incidents and situations, and themes throughout Alexie's work:
The cumulative effect of alcoholism on Indians is staggering. According to the Indian Health Service, Indians are three and a half times more likely than other Americans to die from cirrhosis of the liver, a benchmark of addiction. They are also four times more likely to die from accidents, and three times more likely to die from homicide and suicide, in all of which alcohol is usually present. Between 5 percent and 25 percent of Indian babies may be born mentally and physically damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome, compared to less than one-fifth of 1 percent in the general population. Alcohol is also at least a contributing factor in many, perhaps most, Indian deaths from pneumonia, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, and it ultimately accounts for perhaps as much as 70 percent of all the treatment provided by the Indian Health Service's hospitals and clinics. … Alcohol also takes an immeasurable toll in chronic disability, lost earning capacity, unemployment, emotional pain, family disruption, and child abuse.8
Compare, for example, this stark recitation of real human destruction with Alexie's initial description in Reservation Blues of the habitual felon and all-around “loser” Michael White Hawk, nephew of Spokane Tribal Council Chairman David WalksAlong:
Michael's mother had died of cirrhosis when he was just two years old, and he'd never even known his father. Michael was conceived during some anonymous three-in-the-morning powwow encounter in South Dakota. His mother's drinking had done obvious damage to Michael in the womb. He had those vaguely Asian eyes and the flat face that alcohol babies always had on reservations. But he'd grown large and muscular despite the alcohol's effects.
White Hawk grew into a dangerous bully, the passage goes on to reveal—and worse. Like Victor and Junior's pathetic attempts at appropriating shabby features of white popular culture, White Hawk tries to energize his essential Indianness during spells on another kind of “reservation,” the prison, in a reverse form of the same impulse: “White Hawk took off his t-shirt to show his uncle the dozen tattoos he had received in prison. There were dragons, bears, feathers, and naked women. There was a naked Indian woman with braids on his back and a naked Indian woman with unbraided hair on his stomach” (39). For Alexie, White Hawk is neither a modern Queequeg nor a “good” Indian. The negative valences in the portrait of Michael White Hawk are entirely purposeful, however. In them, Alexie the moral satirist displays for his readers the image of an Indian destructively encoding his own body with cheesy, almost profane, images that themselves reflect prejudicial white stereotypes of his own culture and heritage.9
Speaking in terms of her own work, Muskogee poet Joy Harjo, Bird's coeditor of Reinventing the Enemy's Language (1997), perhaps would support (conceptually, at least) Alexie's morally satiric purpose in confronting the effects of alcohol on his literary version of the Spokane Reservation: “Alcoholism is an epidemic in native people, and I write about it. I was criticized for bringing it up, because some people want to present a certain image of themselves. But again, it comes back to what I was saying: part of the process of healing is to address what is evil” (“A Laughter of Absolute Sanity” 140). One must wonder why Bird never mentions what she calls the replication of a dangerous stereotype in the small press poems of Harjo, whose volume of poetry The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (1994) has been reprinted by Norton for a mainstream audience. For example, Harjo glosses the prose poem “Mourning Song” by commenting
Because my family has suffered from the destruction of alcohol, as have most Indian families in this land, I don't want to encourage the drinking with spare change, but I also understand the need to deaden the pain. It's a quandary I haven't settled.
(20; italics in original)
Immediately following is the powerful “Northern Lights,” a poem that relates the near-destruction and ultimate survival of Whirling Soldier and his daughter from white weapons of war: Vietnam and alcohol.
In Yuma, in the hangover of a dream of his mother beading a blanket in his honor, … [Whirling Soldier] tore the medals from his pack and pawned them for a quart. He snuffed his confusion between honor and honor with wine, became an acrobat of pain in the Indian bars of Kansas.
Yet, like Alexie, Harjo at times also can be humorously ironic concerning the effects of alcohol. The speaker in “Witness,” for example, recounts spending an evening with a friend, “driving the back roads around Albuquerque, the radio on country and a six-pack”; “Soon there were sirens, turning lights and she pulled to a stop at the side of the road. Damn the cops. She rolled down the window, wailing Jennings tearing up the cab. They cited her for weaving! (She came from a family renowned for weaving.)” (42). From Bird's perspective, the difference may be that Alexie's mainstream fiction, starting with The Lone Ranger and Tonto and concluding with Reservation Blues, has reached an extended audience for its consumption—hence, the widespread dissemination of what she views as a troublesome collection of images that are further cheapened by Alexie's “gimmicky” appliqué of base elements from popular culture.
For Bird, “the representation of alcoholism in Reservation Blues, however accurate, still capitalizes upon the stereotypical image of the ‘drunken Indian.’ It's not the kind of ‘mirroring,’ portraying colonial impact, that non-native people want to accept—and is a sore subject for Indians because it is all too familiar for most of us” (51). Oppressed peoples rightly are sensitive to the many forms of damage that negative stereotyping can cause, and one can sympathize with Bird's concern about this issue.10 But she fails to credit the artistic and moral strengths that are found in Alexie's depictions of the drunken Indian in the poems, stories, and novels that he has produced throughout his career. In the collaborative making of meaning between Alexie and his readers, images of the drunken Indian function as “open containers” (pun intended) to house or decant realistic valences of meaning for modern reservation life and people. These forms function positively in terms of the original notion of the term stereotype, or “mold”—but with an important difference. Whereas usual notions of stereotype generally reflect “commonly held and oversimplified mental pictures or judgments of a person, a race, an issue, a kind of art” (Holman and Harmon 481), Alexie's purportedly stereotypical drunken Indians achieve and convey for readers vital resonances of realism when he uses them to express the recursive, historical patterns of defeat and exploitation of Indian peoples by white civilization. As demonstrated in a number of his works, Alexie certainly would agree with James Welch's contention that, more than a century after the Battle of Little Big Horn, “Custer seems to be alive and well and riding in our midst” (226). That is, the endlessly recursive cycle of defeat on multiple modern battlefields (cultural, economic, geographic, and more) with which the “victors” of Little Big Horn have been rewarded, has become institutionalized in the fabric of reservation life. Alexie's moral role as a poet and fiction writer enables him to construct through imaginative literary realism a viable means for his peoples' survival—through works that are ironic, self-reflexively satiric and, at times, suffused with wit and humor. Bird's complaint that Alexie's portrayal of alcoholism extends well beyond the simplistic blaming of the problem on “colonial impact” perhaps reflects a certain cognitive dissonance toward the issues. Alexie's poetry and fiction sometimes locate the problem within the historical terms of colonial impact, to be sure, but just as often he insists on confronting, through satire and irony, the culturally embedded patterns of modern Indian defeat, of which alcohol-related problems are symptomatic.
Alexie's drunken Indian appears as early as page one of his first collection of stories and poems, The Business of Fancydancing, and alcohol-related images occur in more than half of the volume's pieces. As will become his stylistic and structural hallmark, Alexie wields the pen of irony and satire powerfully at times, at others with touches of self-reflexive cultural humor and, if the volume is considered as a whole, always with the sense that his community must and can survive cultural extinction. (Indeed, the idea of survival in its various permutations may be seen as the overarching theme of Old Shirts.) For example; “Traveling,” the first story of Fancydancing, depicts the young narrator watching as his father is pulled over by a state trooper for “weaving” (a cultural cliché, noted above in the example from Harjo) and then humiliated by being forced to surrender to a catechism of white popular culture questions in order to test the depth of his “assimilation.” The poem “House Fires” presents an incident of family destruction by alcohol that Alexie will reprise in both The Lone Ranger and Tonto and Reservation Blues; here, the narrator's father comes home drunk and smashes the furniture, leaving the narrator and his mother to escape to a better life. The theme of family destruction and personal abandonment due to alcohol appears again in the highly ironic and graphic poem “Futures”:
We lived in the hud house for fifty bucks a month. Those were the good times. Annie Green Springs Wine was a dollar a bottle. My uncles always came over to eat stew and fry bread to get drunk in the sweatlodge to spit and piss in the fire.
Throughout Fancydancing Alexie presents an uncompromisingly realistic portrait of the reservation and its inhabitants in terms of their pain, the coping mechanisms they use for dealing with reality, their fear of personal relationships, and the oppositional pull of guilt for being made to feel responsible for their failed existence against the self-defeating need to forgive white civilization for destroying their lives. Alcohol and its effects infuse the majority of the pieces in Fancydancing, either as the cause or as the effect of situations and characters' behaviors.
But it is in poems like “Evolution” that Alexie's satiric impulses blend most effectively with fictional realism to revitalize Indian history in terms of modern realities. Here the historically transcendent and ubiquitous figure of Buffalo Bill enters the world of contemporary Indian poetry to conquer again, when he “opens a pawn shop on the reservation / right across the border from the liquor store” (Fancydancing 48). The border crossing from reservation to liquor store and back becomes a powerful metaphor of recurring Indian defeat by white civilization and the white-conditioned habit of Indian self-defeat (a “trail of beers,” Alexie's voice later quips in “Poem” [Old Shirts 77]). In “Evolution,” reservation Indians pawn everything, even their bones, in order to cross the road for alcohol. Buffalo Bill collects and catalogs everything the Indians have pawned and, when he has acquired it all “closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old / calls his venture The Museum of Native American Cultures / charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter” (lines 13-15).
Alcohol and its attending complex of issues for Indians continues in Alexie's collection of poems and stories First Indian on the Moon (1993); he again reveals the devastation and destruction of personal relationships by alcohol and the constrained ability of characters to cope with an alien, bicultural reservation environment, as in the satiric burlesque of Alcoholics Anonymous in “A Twelve-Step Treatment Program” (33-35). The speaker in “The Alcoholic Love Poems” (36-37) poses an historically persistent and contentious question that for some Indians has distinctly racial overtones: “Is alcoholism genetic / or conditioned” (No. 3: lines 1-2). Until the appearance in 1996 of Indian Killer, the number of alcoholics that populate Alexie's literary version of the Spokane Reservation seems to be equally matched by the number of recovering alcoholics (who are consumers, along with Indians afflicted with diabetes, of oceans of Diet Pepsi), and characters who fear alcohol and its effects because of devastating family experiences (as earlier in “House Fires” [Fancydancing 29]). It is uncertain from the texts whether Alexie himself considers alcoholism as heritable, as part of essential Indian dna, or as culturally conditioned and perhaps a substitute outlet for vanished or suppressed modes of expressing warrior identity (an issue he addresses with loud irony in Old Shirts). What is clear, however, is that a number of his Indian characters themselves fear a genetic inheritance that may include the propensity toward alcoholism.11 For example, the suicide-by-alcohol of Samuel Builds-the-Fire (a.k.a. “Drunk and Disorderly”) is movingly presented in terms of personal and familial destruction in the chapter of Reservation Blues entitled “Father and Farther” (93-129). Builds-the-Fire's son Thomas, who does not drink, fears that alcoholism may be genetic, his “destiny,” part of his Indian dna (114-16).12 Indeed, except for Thomas all the principal Indian characters in that novel (including the Warm Water sisters) either drink or are children of alcoholic parents:
Victor had started to drink early in life, just after his real father moved to Phoenix, and he drank even harder after his stepfather moved into the house. Junior never drank until the night of his high school graduation. He'd sworn never to drink because of his parents' boozing. … Thomas's father still drank quietly, never raising his voice once in all his life, just staggering around the reservation, usually covered in piss and shit.
While killing time in Seattle's Pike Place Market before their gig at the Backboard Club, members of the band Coyote Springs encounter a number of drunken Indians who call this urban reservation home: “Junior left Victor to the drunks. Chess thought those drunks scared Junior. He might have seen himself in their faces. Junior wondered if their disease was contagious. A fall-asleep-on-a-heating-grate disease. Junior was frightened” (Reservation Blues 151).13 The narrator continues, with not a little irony: “As a child, each member of Coyote Springs had run from drunks. They all still ran from drunks. All Indians grow up with drunks. So many drunks on the reservation, so many. But most Indians never drink. Nobody notices the sober Indians. On television, the drunk Indians emote. In books, the drunk Indians philosophize” (151).
A fine and clearly moral synthesis of irony and satire that Alexie uses to address the issues of alcohol in First Indian appears in the poem “Freaks” (49), when the speaker encounters on the Seattle waterfront “three Indians sharing a bottle of wine and a can of Spam” (lines 1-2). In conscious self-humiliation the winos initially claim Yakima and Lakota Sioux heritage, only to reverse themselves jokingly into an Indian version of the Three Stooges, and in so doing manipulate their author's satiric mirror, escaping into an image from lowbrow white popular culture. The habitual self-defeat that forces the trio to refashion themselves in this manner clearly is their coping mechanism for dealing with the never-ending defeat of Indians by white civilization through “shots” of alcohol.14 Alexie's fusion of satire and irony here is an example of his moral strength as a poet for his people—though it is exactly this technique that Gloria Bird deplores about Reservation Blues. Perhaps the best poem in First Indian in terms of theme, richness of exposition, and the reworking of Indian history into a survival document for contemporary reservation experience, however, is “The Native American Broadcasting System” (83-87), which stylistically may be likened to an Alexian “Prufrock,” complete with multiple levels of narrative consciousness and intrusion of voices from the mythic past. Along with another cultural hero-villain, Buffalo Bill, Custer forever is “alive and well and riding in our midst” (Welch 226):
Custer came back to life in Spokane managing the Copper Penny Grocery, stocked the rubbing alcohol next to the cheap wine: Rubbing Alcohol 99¢ Thunderbird Wine ＄1.24 The urban Indians shuffle in with tattered coats and boots counting quarters while Custer trades food stamps for cash, offering absolution.(15)
(First Indian 84)
As earlier in “Evolution” (Fancydancing 48), Alexie masterfully coalesces Indian history and contemporary reservation reality to evoke the speaker's pain of bicultural fragmentation. For the reservation “victors” the specter of Custer, though historically vanquished, remains ubiquitous, omnipresent, and victorious in countless daily struggles for survival.
The presence of alcohol and its abuses and effects diminishes considerably in Old Shirts, but the prose poem “Sundays, Too” (47) perfectly expresses Alexie's take on a perhaps-flawed and certainly controversial attitude toward alcohol held by some Indians: that, deprived by white civilization of traditional social bonding mechanisms and outlets for expressing innate prowess as warriors, some Indians find in alcohol a medium to replace those elements. Bordewich's study provides factual underpinning for Alexie's fictional realism: “Some suggest that drunkenness among Indians is something fundamentally different from alcoholism among non-Indians and, indeed, that it sometimes even embodies positive traits, a spirit of camaraderie rooted in tribal tradition or an assertion of ‘Indianness’ in the face of a hostile white world” (255).16 “That was the summer all of us Indians drank the same brand of beer,” the narrator explains, adding that “At first, it was coincidence, economics. Then, it grew into a living thing, evolved and defined itself, became a ceremony, a tribal current, a shared synapse” (“Sundays, Too” 47). In this season of delusional tribal unity, the sharing of alcohol became “communion, baptism, confession” until the totemic Indian gods—Bear, Coyote, Wolf, Raven—became hideously transformed, distorted by white civilization through the agency of alcohol. One cannot but wonder at the irony of the speaker's self-delusion voiced in the piece's concluding line: “There is nothing we cannot survive.” For Alexie the moral satirist, the mirror that he turns toward his readers is minatory, admonitory, and shaming, beaming a reflection of false values that themselves must be defeated in order to insure real survival. There can be no mistaking that Alexie deplores self-destruction and the debasement of cultural values through alcohol, especially as it is rationalized through the easy illusion of tribal “unity.”
Alexie's first foray into extended prose fiction, the group of interrelated stories that together form The Lone Ranger and Tonto, is decidedly lighter in tone throughout, the satire mellowed somewhat by fuller views of characters who embrace life on the reservation as a humorous disjunction of traditional ways and modern reality—as defined, of course, by white civilization. Alcohol and its effects are omnipresent, as usual, but often in humorous contexts, as when Adrian momentarily forgets that he is on the wagon and asks Victor for another beer:
“How many times do I have to tell you? We don't drink anymore.” “Shit,” Adrian said. “I keep forgetting. Give me a goddamn Pepsi.” “That's a whole case for you today already.” “Yeah, yeah, fuck these substitute addictions.”
(“The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore” 50)
A more somber view of alcoholism opens in “A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result,” where Samuel Builds-the-Fire Sr., grandfather of the young visionary Thomas, drinks to find the wisdom and courage to face his defeated existence, only to reach an epiphany of despair: “At the halfway point of any drunken night, there is a moment when an Indian realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future” (134). For Alexie's readers, however, the literary world in which Builds-the-Fire exists is precisely that: a modern map for negotiating the realities of contemporary reservation life that can lead to survival.
Undoubtedly Alexie's most sobering portrait of alcoholism in The Lone Ranger and Tonto is in the story “Amusements” (54-58), in which the narrator, Victor, and his companion, Sadie, enjoy a little “fun” at the expense of another Indian at the carnival of reservation life: “After summer heat and too much coat-pocket whiskey, Dirty Joe passed out on the worn grass of the carnival midway and Sadie and I stood over him, looked down at his flat face, a map for all the wars he fought in the Indian bars” (54). Victor and Sadie persuade the roller coaster attendant to give the passed-out Indian a twenty-dollar ride, thereby displaying to the crowd of astonished white onlookers a palpable image of the prejudicial stereotype of the drunken Indian, his life defined metaphorically as a perilous thrill ride. Self-reflexively, Victor and Sadie find themselves watching the whites watching the Indian carny show of drunkenness that they have staged. As Victor explains:
We sat there beside Dirty Joe and watched all the white tourists watch us, laugh, point a finger, their faces twisted with hate and disgust. I was afraid of all of them, wanted to hide behind my Indian teeth, the quick joke.
“Shit,” I said. “We should be charging admission for this show.”
“Yeah, a quarter a head and we'd be drinking Coors Light for a week.”
“For the rest of our lives, enit?”
Thus the crowd of whites functions as “jury and judge for the twentieth-century fancydance of these court jesters who would pour Thunderbird wine into the Holy Grail” (56). Finally recognizing the inhumanity of their actions, and in attempting to rescue Dirty Joe, the tables turn, O. Henry-like, on Victor as he is pursued and finally captured in the fun house (that represents his personal reality) by the white keepers of the carnival of life:
Crazy mirrors, I thought, the kind that distort your features, make you fatter, thinner, taller, shorter. The kind that make a white man remember he's the master of ceremonies, barking about the Fat Lady, the Dog-Faced Boy, the Indian who offered up another Indian like some treaty.
The story perhaps is Alexie's most powerful statement on the exploitation of Indians through alcohol; here, however, Indians victimize another Indian in an ironic reversal of the usual historic relationship—that is, the “favorable” traditional depiction of Indian victimization by whites, what Bird calls the effects of “colonialist influence on … native culture” (48).17
Of course, the exhibition of the Indian for white amusement, itself a form of physical, cultural, and spiritual colonialism, has a long-established literary history as well, going back at least as far as Shakespeare's The Tempest (staged in 1611). There Trinculo, stumbling upon Caliban, who is trying to hide from Prospero's storm and spells, is astonished at the sight of the “salvage” and remarks,
Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.
Shortly thereafter the drunken butler Stephano arrives on the scene and enters into a colonialist pact with Trinculo, not only to seize Caliban's island but also to profit from exhibiting him for the amusement of whites. The Europeans conquer and enslave Caliban through the agency of liquor, and he comments, “That's a brave god, and bears celestial liquor: / I will kneel to him” (118-19). In “Amusements,” by contrast, Victor counters his own impulses: Alexie's satiric mirror turns back on his readers a searing view of Indian self-victimization and shame, for Victor himself becomes not only a victimizer but also a victim of his own inhumane impulses, an “inside” agent for the defeat of Indians by white civilization through alcohol and humiliation—engaging in what Owens calls “inner-colonization” (82). Among a number of important differences that separate Shakespeare's and Alexie's satiric treatment of exploitation through alcohol is that Victor allows himself to be appropriated by white popular culture, and the results are both disgusting and maddening—not only because he wants to replace Indian with white dna, but also because his efforts end in a pathetic, superficial, second-rate image of whiteness, something of a satirically inverse form of stereotyping that Alexie later evokes in vivid detail in Reservation Blues.18 “Amusements” does not depict “colonialist influence … and how that influence shapes the representation of native culture to a mainstream audience” in a positive way that Bird would condone (48). Alexie's satiric mirroring back of the trope in ironic terms, however, is at once contemporary in tone and moral, and is a superb example of his imaginative literary realism as well.
For Alexie's characters and their readers the most poignant and devastating moment related to alcohol and its effects is the incident, late in Reservation Blues, when Junior Polatkin commits suicide atop the reservation water tower after the band Coyote Springs fails to land a recording contract with Cavalry Records. That predetermined “failure” is yet another reworking, in pure Alexian fashion, of Custer's defeat-victory at Little Big Horn for, finally, the white record producers do not really care about or need the band's “Indianness,” actual or otherwise, just as long as the band's surface image matches white preconceptions of Indians and Indian music. When the recording contract is preempted by the two vanilla groupies from comic-strip land, Betty and Veronica, in another sophisticated and modern defeat for Indians (one that is actually enhanced by popular culture connections), it sends the usually mild-mannered Thomas Builds-the-Fire into a rage in which he destroys their tape of pseudo-“Indian” rock music. The reaction of Victor Joseph to Junior's suicide draws strong criticism from Bird, though she overlooks Alexie's depiction of the characters' marginal lives at the beginning of Reservation Blues, as well as his representation of the depth of Victor's reaction to the tragedy.
Early in the novel Alexie's narrator calls Victor and Junior “two of the most accomplished bullies of recent Native American history” (13). Victor's self-usurpation by shabby externals of white popular culture makes him “the reservation John Travolta,” a misfit Indian whose “wardrobe made him an angry man” (12). His sidekick is figured in similar terms:
A tall, good-looking buck with hair like Indians in the movies, long, purple-black, and straight, Junior was president of the Native American Hair Club. If there had been a hair bank, like a blood bank or sperm bank, Junior could have donated yards of the stuff and made a fortune. … There were rumors he had fathered a white baby or two at school.
The visionary Thomas Builds-the-Fire, however, sees through their façade: “He knew that Victor and Junior were fragile as eggs, despite their warrior disguises” (16). After the suicide, while Victor is parked on the shores of Turtle Lake, Junior appears to him in a vision and offers his friend a drink from his flask; Victor responds by imagining himself in the middle of the cult horror movie An American Werewolf in London; he tells Junior's “spirit” that he has not taken a drink since the suicide.19 Silence reigns heavily during the scene, and the effect of the tragedy is compounded when Victor reveals his shallowness (and fragility) in resorting to the defense mechanism of dealing with the event in terms of popular culture. Victor communes with Junior's spirit, and Junior passes along some realistic advice to his friend: “I think you should go get yourself a goddamn job. I ain't going to be around to take care of your sorry ass anymore” (291).
Bird complains that popular culture references cheapen this episode, but she neglects to acknowledge the full development of Alexie's morally satiric purpose: after the episode with Junior's spirit, Victor, who already has stopped his suicidal drinking, puts together his sad résumé of skills and applies for Junior's old job of driving the reservation water truck. Spokane Tribal Chairman David WalksAlong takes this opportunity, however, to strike a devastating blow to Victor by denying his application. The denial, defeat, and humiliation transmitted to Victor by white culture through the power invested in another Indian is wrenching—and note Alexie's conscious connection of “shots” with both alcohol and bullets:
Victor left the office, feeling something slip inside him. He stole five dollars from WalksAlong's secretary's purse and bought a six-pack of cheap beer at the Trading Post.
“Fuck it, I can do it, too,” Victor whispered to himself and opened the first can. That little explosion of the beer can opening sounded exactly like a smaller, slower version of the explosion that Junior's rifle made on the water tower.
WalksAlong victimizes Victor in part because he fails to meet white (WalksAlong's) expectations just as Victor humiliates (also in white terms) the inebriated Dirty Joe of “Amusements.” Again, alcohol defeats, destroys, and is used as a coping or avoidance mechanism for confronting the harshness of reservation reality; in no way is Alexie's use of the “drunken Indian” here stereotypical or gratuitous. Victor's reaction to Junior's suicide mirrors many of the coping difficulties of Indian men who suffer one defeat after another and who succumb, like Victor, to various forms of addiction. As with Thomas Builds-the-Fire's fear of a genetic “destiny” he may have inherited from his father's and grandfather's alcoholism, Victor literally is the product of an alcoholic legacy that he reveals in the story from The Lone Ranger and Tonto entitled “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock”: “I was conceived during one of those drunken nights, half of me formed by my father's whiskey sperm, the other half formed by my mother's vodka egg. I was born a goofy reservation mixed drink, and my father needed me just as much as he needed every other kind of drink” (27). The extended context of Junior's suicide, which includes Victor's reaction to the event and ultimate defeat by WalksAlong, therefore must be considered in its totality—and the overall picture is by no means pleasant, uplifting, or ennobling. Its harsh realism cannot be denied, however, especially when one considers the fact that Victor's addiction to the shallow and cheap manifestations of white popular culture actually defines his precarious sense of identity, a constant struggle to deny his Indianness. In his defeat at the hands of another Indian, albeit through white mechanisms, Victor must face the reality that he can never be white enough.
Though she admits the very real problem of alcoholism in modern reservation life, Bird argues that Alexie's portrayal of the addiction in Reservation Blues is nothing short of cheap, a pandering to preconceived white prejudices:
The buffer in Reservation Blues is to sugarcoat the picture with enough sidetracks and comic scenes to tone down the real issues. Despite the verisimilitude of Alexie's portrayal of alcoholism and its impact upon individual lives, he does not attempt to put the social problems of economic instability, poverty, or cultural oppression into perspective. Instead, alcoholism and drinking are sensationalized: Lester is “the most accomplished drunk on the Spokane Reservation” (151), a notoriety that wins him “tribal hero” (151) status. Victor, incapable of coping with rejection, turns to the bottle for solace, the tragic failed artist.
Bird's criticism of Alexie is strong here; it also suggests that she does not recognize or admit that irony and satire are essentially moral elements of his artistry. The ongoing character of Lester FallsApart serves almost as a unifying feature of Alexie's work, from his first appearance in the second poem of Fancydancing (“13/16” [16-17]) to a cameo in The Summer of Black Widows. Lester, in fact, is nearly archetypal, something of a presiding spirit for Alexie's work, an aggregate of the forms of Indian defeat, including alcoholism, that he represents.20 Returning to Holman and Harmon's broad definition of satire, Alexie's impulse in his works up to and including Reservation Blues is not to destroy the reservation, but rather to mirror his vision of its present reality for the moral purpose of refashioning it and its members.
In a 1997 e-mail posting in which he commented on Bird's response to Reservation Blues, Alexie expressed concern over what he considered her harsh assessment and at least partial misunderstanding of the novel—especially for what she termed his depiction of the “exaggeration of despair” on the Spokane Reservation:
[M]y Mom is the drug and alcohol treatment counselor on the rez, so I'm quite aware of what's going on out there. There are two major cocaine and crack dealers on the rez now. They're Crips gang members. In every government housing village, crack vials are on the lawns. Fewer and fewer kids are going to college. Domestic violence incidents are rising. Property crime, almost unheard of during my years on the rez, has risen dramatically. My fiction doesn't even come close to how bad it can be, and how good it can be, on my reservation.
(“Re: Alexie Article”)
Alexie's response only lends credence to the surveys of reservation addiction and dependency outlined in the studies of Bordewich, Donald Fixico, and others. In his 1996 volume of poems, The Summer of Black Widows, Alexie formulates in satiric verse the rationale for his fictional realism in the poem entitled “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” (94-95), a scathing catalog of the stereotypes, formulas, and clichés that together comprise the “artistic repertoire” of some Indian writers. Interestingly, the poem that follows, “The Exaggeration of Despair” (96-97), clearly alludes to the title of Bird's review-essay of Alexie's Reservation Blues. Here Alexie's imaginative literary realism and ironic and satiric impulses are compressed through the medium of poetry into his harshest vision of reservation reality ever. After a litany of images that expresses the omnipresent Indian inheritance of cyclical defeat and self-defeat, the speaker closes the poem by repeating its opening lines: “I open the door / and invite the wind inside” (97).
The year 1996 also marked the appearance of Alexie's second novel, Indian Killer, the title of which plays, in typical Alexian fashion, on the notions of “Indian Killer” (as in Custer) and “killer Indian” (247). Where in First Indian (1993) Alexie's speaker claims that “The highways are closed / between Spokane, the city / and Spokane, my reservation” (“Fire Storms” 23), the author's vision of contemporary reservation reality both expands and dilates in Indian Killer. That is, from a broad view the entire United States is conceived as a reservation contained and managed by whites, while under Alexie's satiric lens Seattle, the “urban rez,” becomes a microcosm of that larger phenomenon. Moreover, in Indian Killer Seattle is a modern site for yet another of the endless reenactments of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Indeed, the coming of title character John Smith is seen as a latter-day incarnation of the promise of Bigfoot's Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee in 1890:
The word spread quickly. Within a few hours, nearly every Indian in Seattle knew about the scalping. Most Indians believed it was all just racist paranoia, but a few felt a strange combination of relief and fear, as if an apocalyptic prophecy was just beginning to come true.
Marie Polatkin, ever confrontational, ever the voice of conscience, ever the stereotype, attacks Professor Mather (who teaches “Ind. Lit.” using forgeries) late in the novel in terms reminiscent of passages previously cited from both Bordewich and Reservation Blues:
“If Crazy Horse, or Geronimo, or Sitting Bull came back, they'd see what you white people have done to Indians, and they would start a war. They'd see the homeless Indians staggering around downtown. They'd see the fetal-alcohol-syndrome babies. They'd see the sorry-ass reservations. They'd learn about Indian suicide and infant-mortality rates.”
In Indian Killer Alexie's satiric mirror functions inversely to reflect the notion that homeless, “invisible” urban Seattle Indians do not drink, though often they are mistaken for drunks by white characters who do drink and continue to harbor prejudicial stereotypes of Indians. Alexie's title character, driven by the knowledge that he is “an Indian without a tribe” (35), clearly is aware, though naively and with some paranoia, of the “colonialist influence” (Bird 48) of alcohol:
John knew his co-workers wanted to poison him with their alcohol and mean words. They wanted to get him drunk and helpless. John had never taken a drink of alcohol in his whole life and he was not about to start now. He knew what alcohol did to Indians. Real Indians did not drink.
The satirically appropriate venue for Indian-white socializing in the novel lies downtown, in Big Heart's Soda and Juice Bar, a time-warp where Pepsi-drinking Indians dance to white country western and pop music and Terrible Ted, “an especially drunk and belligerent homicide detective” (237) rages, consistent with the white stereotype, that Indians are “fucking drunks and welfare cheats. They ain't got no jobs. They're lazy as shit” (240). Alexie's use of stereotypes in Indian Killer, including prejudicial images held by whites, must be seen to take on, as his work usually does, a moral function through satire and irony: they are the “open containers” holding negative “familiar” notions of Indians that add texture and valences of meaning to the novel's mythic dimension through their inversion, demolition, and defamiliarization. In other words, Alexie tends to turn inside out stereotypes such as the drunken Indian; refashioned through satire and irony, these “open containers” can resonate with fresh values.
The frequency of images of the drunken Indian in Alexie's work nearly vanishes with the appearance of Toughest Indian, perhaps the author's most mature handling of the themes of racial essence (“Indianness,” “whiteness,” mixed-blood dilution), assimilation (nuanced by notions of racial/cultural betrayal), and sexual identity. Indeed, the overarching theme of the volume may best be expressed in the insistent question “What is an Indian?” (218; italics in original), a question that punctuates the book's final story, “One Good Man.” As in Indian Killer, the ethos of a number of stories in Toughest Indian arises in part from the urban rez setting, with all the physical, historical, and metaphorical implications that the concept and contemporary Indian reality suggest for Alexie's satiric artistry. His conventional use of stereotypes, even for satirically moral purposes, which has marked much of his work heretofore, seems to disappear in this volume or to be renewed in terms of different valences. In stories like “Assimilation” and “Class,” for example, Alexie fashions a relatively new Indian character type: the sophisticated, upwardly mobile urban Indian who drives a Toyota Camry, Saab, or bmw, wears Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, or designer leather, smokes chic faux cigarettes, and who, just as important, is espoused to a white partner. Mary Lynn, a full-blooded Coeur d'Alene character in “Assimilation,” and Edgar Eagle Runner (formerly Edgar Joseph), who appears in “Class,” both feel a racial longing for completeness that, they both come to realize, can only be regained through sexual intimacy with another Indian—an expression of the theme of “going home,” a jumping of the roadblock that separates rez from city, which informs the entire volume. As Mary Lynn's chemical engineer husband, Jeremiah, crudely says to her, “Fucking an Indian doesn't make me Indian” (10). The idea also is developed in another way in the male homoerotic relationship between the nameless Indian journalist and the fighter-hitchhiker in “The Toughest Indian in the World.” Mary Lynn, the upscale lawyer Eagle Runner, and the journalist are light-years apart from Junior and Victor of Reservation Blues. Their problems are different as well, as each has acquired a certain kind of status from pawning much of their essential Indian dna in exchange for the spiritual emptiness of the white American Dream. Both characters return, it must be mentioned, from their sexual excursions into “Indian Country” to the security of their white spouses.
Alcohol figures prominently in the story “Class” in a satiric way never before attempted by Alexie. Instead of beaming the reflection of the drunken Indian stereotype onto other characters and his readers, Alexie's Edgar Eagle Runner turns the mirror back on himself: “I don't drink alcohol, never have, mostly because I don't want to maintain and confirm any of my ethnic stereotypes, let alone the most prevalent one, but also because my long-lost father, a half-breed, is still missing somewhere in the bottom of a tequila bottle. I had always wondered if he was a drunk because he was Indian or because he was white or because he was both” (47). Eagle Runner gets his kick not from alcohol but from substitute addictions, like gassed “yuppie water” (Perrier or Pellegrino, for example), with its class-conscious cachet. For Eagle Runner, who always has pursued assimilation to white culture, it is the very act of drinking, through which he can socialize with and confront his pawned dna, that really matters. In “Class” he feels the pull to unify himself sexually with another Indian, only to call an escort agency and hook up with a white prostitute who stages herself, with conscious irony, as “Tawny Feather.” Left unsatisfied, he goes off to Chuck's, an “indigenous bar” where, in drinking the tap water that can serve as a vehicle to return him home, he “heroically” and aggressively engages in a fistfight with an Indian bully—named Junior, of course. After physically surviving his personal barroom Little Big Horn, in which he fights the demons of race, identity, and desire, Eagle Runner returns to the white bed that he has carefully made for himself. A masculinized mirror of Mary Lynn's experience in “Assimilation,” Eagle Runner's spiritual defeat in “Class” represents Alexie's admonitory satiric mirror turned inward on the character and outward toward his readers. No substitute addiction, not even tap water, can temper the conclusion of Eagle Runner's narrative of his odyssey to regain lost Indian identity:
Without changing my clothes, I crawled back into bed with Susan. Her skin was warm to the touch. The house ticked, ticked, ticked. In the morning, my pillow would be soaked with my blood.
“Where did you go?” Susan asked me.
“I was gone,” I said. “But now I'm back.”
The force of assimilation wins again, but the surrender or “defeat” of Eagle Runner, like that of Mary Lynn in Toughest Indian's first story, is only a partial or qualified surrender, since both characters return to the homes they have chosen and made—and both actually love their white spouses.
On the surface it may seem that Alexie contradicts himself by using in his own work some familiar Indian character types, including stereotypes such as the drunken Indian, when he inveighs against their use, along with other tired, formulaic literary features found in other recent Indian fiction. (Considering the decidedly infrequent appearance of the drunken Indian in Alexie's works that appeared following Bird's review-essay of Reservation Blues, it is difficult to ascertain the influence of such criticism on his apparent aesthetic shift in Indian Killer and Toughest Indian. That aesthetic shift may be just that—apparent—for Alexie continues to confront contemporary issues in those works as well, though in new ways.) The difference is that Alexie uses conventional forms and stereotypes satirically and ironically, often by inverting, demolishing, or defamiliarizing their accepted meanings, yet always with the moral purpose and social conscience that marks the true satirist. While Bird is uneasy with Alexie's modern “edginess,” contending that he exploits his people and culture (49) and fashions a satiric mirror that reflects (she might say “distorts”) unpleasant reservation realities, Cook-Lynn finds work such as Alexie's disturbing because, as she argues, it does not “suggest a responsibility of art as an ethical endeavor or the artist as responsible social critic” (126). True, Alexie does not produce work in the grand tradition of Momaday and Silko—nor does he seem to care to. Clearly a critical misunderstanding of Alexie is going on here, especially considering the overall character of his work in terms of the definition of satire given earlier: “A literary manner that blends a critical attitude with humor and wit for the purpose of improving human institutions or humanity.” Further, Cook-Lynn claims that the “responsible critic” should judge modern Indian fiction on the degree of its “moral” character and how well it reflects or sustains “indigenous/tribally specific literary traditions from which the imagination emerges” (131).
The abundant examples of Alexie's moral use of the drunken Indian stereotype discussed in these pages amply demonstrate that his satiric artistry actually functions in ways valued and prescribed by Cook-Lynn. Despite the fact that he wrote as a white male in the European tradition, the words of the great literary critic, social critic, and satirist Oscar Wilde help to explain Alexie's aesthetic purpose for using elements such as the drunken Indian stereotype in his imaginative literary realism:
All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to Art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything.
(319; emphasis added)
Indeed, Wilde's remarks are applicable to any writer of satiric forms in English.
At their best, Alexie's poetry and fiction often are risky, edgy, and smart; his satiric and ironic tone and his use of certain character types and stereotypes doubtless are unsettling to some readers, including those who would rather be reading Momaday and Silko. Of course the mirrors and lenses on society that are the satirist's tools, including the uses of potentially troubling character types and stereotypes, are not meant to disclose comfortable images; doing so would defeat the satirist's inherently moral function and social conscience. Like any satirist, sometimes Alexie succeeds, sometimes he does not—but that is a different critical issue to be debated. That is, one may disagree with or critique the work of any author on political, moral, or cultural grounds—but that is a separate issue from addressing the work as art. Likewise, work that may satisfy on political, moral, or cultural grounds also may fail as literature—propaganda, for example. What is of paramount importance in evaluating Alexie's satiric artistry is the fact that he uses stereotypes, like that of the drunken Indian, in new and entirely moral and ethical ways, drawing his readers in to participate with him in the creation of meaning—a familiar oral tradition technique, as mentioned earlier. In this way Alexie's “open containers” function as key elements in his ongoing construction, through his use of imaginative literary realism, of a viable survival document that enables his readers to cope with the issues of contemporary reservation reality.
See Holman and Harmon on irony (264-65) and satire (447-49). Herein the term “irony” is used in its most basic sense of “referring to the recognition of a reality different from appearance” and “to describe a poet's ‘recognition of incongruities’ and his or her controlled acceptance of them” (264). Though Alexie rarely writes pure examples of the two forms, the majority of his work is both ironic and satiric, exhibiting tonal and intentional relationships to irony and satire.
For Alexie's most extended treatment of Coyote, see the poem “That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump” in The Summer of Black Widows (19).
Valuable recent treatments of Indian stereotypes, including that of the “drunken Indian,” include Fixico (26-42) and Mihesuah.
Harjo and Bird's introduction to Reinventing the Enemy's Language (19-31) serves as a prolegomenon for a new, exclusive, “purist,” almost “privatized” Indian fiction.
See Holman and Harmon, s.v. “stereotype” (481).
Owens (74-76) finds himself “in strong agreement with Bird's and Cook-Lynn's critiques” of Reservation Blues (76), though he considers the latter's take on Alexie in some ways “idiosyncratically skewed” (75).
In Reservation Blues, the narrator remarks that Thomas Builds-the-Fire “had always shared his stories with a passive audience and complained that nobody actively listened” (212).
For the statistical effects of alcohol on Indian peoples, see also Fixico, Mancall, Mihesuah, Unrau, and Vizenor (which is an extended version of his earlier essay, “Firewater Labels and Methodologies,” American Indian Quarterly 7.4 [fall 1983]:25-36).
As mentioned earlier, Owens—who contends that Alexie is a “perhaps unwitting product of the dominant culture he abjures in his writing” (77)—perhaps might find this and comparable episodes in Alexie's work not satirically salutary, but negative examples of what he terms “inner-colonization” (82). See Owens 76-82.
See, for example, the personal accounts of alcoholism collected in Vizenor and Bordewich (240-69).
Contrast Fixico's chapter, in which he maintains that “One false assumption attributes alcoholism to heredity among American Indians” (87), with Bordewich's survey of the literature (252-56).
Alexie addresses alcoholism and other father-son issues in his extended poetic portrait of the Indian father, which shares the title “Father and Farther” in The Summer of Black Widows (40-43).
In one sense the journey of the band Coyote Springs away from the reservation toward its confrontation with Cavalry Records (a modern reenactment of the battle of Little Big Horn on the very different battlefields of white popular culture and economics) is organized around gigs in successive bars—the Powwow Tavern, the Tipi Pole Tavern, Toadstools Tavern, and the Backboard Club, for example.
More than once Harjo equates “shots” of alcohol with “bullets,” as in the poem “Northern Lights” (The Woman Who Fell From the Sky 22). In the same volume she also puns on the double meaning of “alcohol” and “spirits” (“The Song of the House in the House” 31).
Compare the companion poems in Old Shirts: “Custer Speaks” (36-38) and “Crazy Horse Speaks” (61-63).
Bordewich dismisses as an extreme form of rationalization Michael Dorris's claim, espoused in The Broken Cord (1989), that some Indians drink as a way of “affirming group identity” (qtd. in Bordewich 255). Compare, however, Vizenor (307-12) and Fixico's discussion of Indian “bar culture” (45, 162) and “group drinking” (91-92). Note that the Indians who gather socially at Big Heart's Soda and Juice Bar tend to drink Pepsi and, their essence diminished, dance in ceremonial fashion to white country western music (Indian Killer 275-76).
See Owens's quite different analysis of Alexie's authorial stance in this episode, about which he comments that “it is a shrewd posture for an author who wishes to have an essentialist cake and sell it, too, even if he does not perhaps understand what he is doing” (80). See also note 9 above.
See Chess and Checkers Warm Water's discussion of Indian men, dna, and racial loyalty (Reservation Blues 82), as well as John Smith's imaginative contemplation of himself in terms of “real” Indian essence: “[H]e also knew that he shared genetics and common experiences with his mother, that they were paragraphs that belonged next to each other. John saw his tribe as a series of paragraphs that all had the same theme. They all belonged to the same tribe, shared the same blood” (Indian Killer 291).
See Harjo's metaphorical connections of shots of alcohol with “bullets” and alcohol with “spirits” (note 14).
A reading of the poem “The Unauthorized Biography of Lester FallsApart” (Old Shirts 48-52) is essential for understanding the importance of the character in Alexie's work in Reservation Blues. See also “The First and Last Ghost Dance of Lester FallsApart” (The Summer of Black Widows 18).
Alexie, Sherman. The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems by Sherman Alexie. Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 1991.
———. First Indian on the Moon. Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 1993.
———. Indian Killer. New York: Warner, 1996.
———. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. Rpt. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1994.
———. Old Shirts & New Skins. Foreword by Adrian C. Louis. Illustrations by Elizabeth Woody. Native American Series No. 9. Los Angeles: ucla American Indian Studies Center, 1993.
———. “Re: Alexie Article.” Online posting. Newsgroup firstname.lastname@example.org. Ross1. 3 July 1997.
———. Reservation Blues. New York: Warner, 1995.
———. The Summer of Black Widows. Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 1996.
———. The Toughest Indian in the World. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000.
Babcock, Barbara and Jay Cox. “The Native American Trickster.” Handbook of Native American Literature. Ed. Andrew Wiget. New York: Garland, 1996. 99-105.
Bird, Gloria. “The Exaggeration of Despair in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues.” Wicazo Sa Review (fall 1995):47-52.
Bordewich, Fergus M. Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century. New York: Anchor, 1997.
Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story.” Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians. Ed. Devon A. Mihesuah. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. 111-38.
Fixico, Donald L. The Urban Indian Experience in America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Harjo, Joy. “A Laughter of Absolute Sanity: Interview with Angels Carabi.” The Spiral of Memory: Interviews. Ed. Laura Coltelli. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. 133-42.
———. The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: Poems. 1994. Rpt. New York: Norton, 1996.
Harjo, Joy and Gloria Bird, eds. Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America. New York: Norton, 1997.
Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
Lincoln, Kenneth. “Futurist Hip Indian: Alexie.” Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 267-74.
Mancall, Peter C. Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Mihesuah, Devon A. American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities. 1996. Rpt. Atlanta: Clarity Press, 1999.
Owens, Louis. “Through an Amber Glass: Chief Doom and the Native American Novel Today.” Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. 57-82.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Frank Kermode. 6th ed. 1958. Rpt. London: Routledge, 1988.
Unrau, William E. White Man's Wicked Water: The Alcohol Trade and Prohibition in Indian Country, 1802-1892. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
Vizenor, Gerald. “Firewater and Phrenology.” Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo, and Other Reports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. 300-319.
Welch, James with Paul Stekler. Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. 1994. Rpt. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” Nineteenth Century (January 1889). Rpt. in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Richard Ellman. 1968. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 290-320.
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SOURCE: Etter, Carrie. “Dialectic to Dialogic: Negotiating Bicultural Heritage in Sherman Alexie's Sonnets.” In Telling the Stories: Essays on American Indian Literatures and Cultures, edited by Elizabeth Hoffman Nelson and Malcolm A. Nelson, pp. 143-51. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.
[In the following essay, Etter discusses Alexie's modification of the traditional English sonnet, asserting that this particular structure supports the author's literary treatment of tensions between Native American and Anglo-American cultures.]
As James Clifford notes in The Predicament of Culture, cultural contact has consistently been portrayed as either “absorption by the other or resistance to the other,” a dichotomizing event (344). However, is it ever so absolute? What do we make of Sherman Alexie's sonnets? Because they lack rhyme and meter, hence avoiding the strictures of Western form, do we interpret them as acts of resistance? Or does Alexie's willingness to undertake Western forms, among them the sonnet and the villanelle, suggest his absorption? Clifford goes on to ask, “… what identity is conceived not as a boundary to be maintained but as a nexus of relations and transactions actively engaging a subject?” (344). Through his sonnets, Alexie negotiates between his cultural inheritances, Coeur d'Alene/Spokane and Anglo American, a negotiation that enables the speaker of his poems to move from the stance of a passive observer to an active participant. Simultaneously, Alexie's restructuring of the sonnet enables him to upset the reader's expectation of resolution and thus promote the idea that the Indian dilemma is never a matter that can be easily or hastily solved.
From his first book, The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie modifies the English sonnet to handle its traditional themes—death and romantic love—as well as a different concern, familial relations. These sonnets utilize the traditional grouping of elements of a problem, and yet rather than employ the English three quatrains and a couplet, Alexie uses three tercets and one quatrain, making each thirteen lines. In The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts & New Skins, Alexie rejects the couplet, and more importantly, its function of resolving the preceding progression. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, in Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, notes the widely held belief that the terminal couplet of the English sonnet makes for “striking resolution,” yet qualifies this by saying it derives its force from the formal structure that precedes it. Even so, I argue that the English sonnet's presentation and development of an apparent dilemma also lead to an expectation of resolution. Thus, each of the sonnets works against resolution, urging that every Indian dilemma resists the pat denouement of the English sonnet.
Even so, the agency such action seems to offer eludes the speaker within the poems themselves. In “Indian Boy Love Song (#4),” the speaker reflects on his father's alcoholism and at the end waits at his window, “dreaming / bottles / familiar in [his] hands, not [his] father's, always / empty.” “Sudden Death” ends similarly; the speaker describes his father's memory of a football game in which he missed the field goal and his father's consequent desire to relive and revise that moment. Watching football on TV over twenty years later, his father,
roaring past the fourth quarter like a train
leaving a lover behind, stands eagle-armed on the platform, whistling for God and 1956 to pick him up, carry him on their shoulders.
All of the speakers in The Business of Fancydancing's eight sonnets present observers who only watch and record, ending in ambivalence and yearning for change.
This passivity results from a dialectic positioning. In these sonnets, Alexie divides his world into an American Indian us and an Anglo American them. The pervasiveness of this division evinces itself most vividly in “Indian Boy Love Song (#3).”
I remember when I told my cousin she was more beautiful
than any white girl I had ever seen. She kissed me then with both lips, a tongue
that tasted clean and un- clean at the same time like the river which divides
the heart of my heart, all the beautiful white girls on one side, my beautiful cousin on the other.
By naming the river with both its Indian and its Anglo sides “the heart of [his] heart,” Alexie acknowledges his bicultural inheritance, and both the white girls and the cousin appear similarly beautiful at the end as opposed to the distinguishing compliment he gives his cousin earlier in the poem. He feels compelled to align himself with the American Indian side despite his realization of a bicultural identity. Similarly, in “November 22, 1983,” the father “for twenty years [whispers]” to his wife “‘ain't no Indian loves Marilyn Monroe.’” The title of the poem dates the twentieth anniversary of former president John F. Kennedy's death, suggesting that since Kennedy's death the father has claimed and reclaimed an identity opposed to the Anglo American Kennedy who presumably “loves Marilyn Monroe.” Apparently the son learns from his father's model of an identity defined, in part, by difference. This reluctance to claim a bicultural identity arises, in part, from the speaker's self-identification as other; as Leslie Ullman recognizes in her review of The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie's characters “are free to leave and often do, only to find themselves facing another kind of boundary, a sense of being foreigners, bound more than they realized by a sense of where they came from and who they are” (187). As American Indians in an Anglo culture, Alexie's characters cling to their Indianness, at least partially, by announcing their differences from whites; any acknowledgment of an Anglo inheritance is not voiced aloud.
Yet claiming, even embracing, one's American Indian identity is not enabling in Alexie's 13-line sonnet. That identity comes with a historicity of inability to determine one's own fate, as it is limited again and again by the changing regulations and policies of the U.S. government. How does one claim that historically bound identity and yet forge the empowerment of agency that has been so long curtailed or denied? Ullman continues, “Many characters in this book are shown in a no-win situation at the end of a scene or poem, simply waiting ‘for something to change’ or to ‘happen,’ like the group of Indian boys on their way home from a basketball tournament, out of food, their car out of gas in the middle of the night on a cold highway in ‘Traveling’” (15). Other characters are caught in a kind of no-man's-land between dreams that will never be realized and memories of past glory …” (187). Alexie's speaker aligns himself with his American Indian identity and finds himself locked into its historical lack of agency, despite the sonnets' irresolution and consequent insistence on an alternate vision.
In part, the lack of agency results from Alexie's insistence on a dialectic. David L. Moore explains, “A dialogic … makes visible the possibility of exchange without dominance or co-optation, whereas the dialectic is haunted by the hierarchies of dominance inherent in dualism” (18). To claim Indianness in and of itself is to reinforce the traditional Anglo-Indian hierarchy, and that reinforcement ultimately disables the speaker, rendering him a passive recorder. This is the one ability that remains: to record the experience without romanticization. As Jennifer Gillian notes, “Rejecting both nostalgia for Indian life as it was and a claim for his own authenticity as one who knows Indian experience, Alexie struggles against the tendency to romanticize the past that he sees in much Native American writing” (95-96); Alexie's use of the sonnet enables him to render American Indian experience with greater authenticity by denying resolution, even as his insistence on a dialectic disempowers the speaker's agency.
Even though agency eludes the speaker, it does not elude Alexie. While any reader might identify the sonnets' inherent irresolution, a reader trained in Western poetics would be more likely to follow the sonnet progression and expect the resolution Alexie denies. In The Mirror and the Killer-Queen: Otherness in Literary Language, Gabriele Schwab supports Wolfgang Iser's claim that “texts carry within themselves their own model according to which they attempt to shape their contact with readers.” That is, the text possesses “strategies of communication, its ‘guiding devices’ that exert a certain control by inviting or privileging specific responses.” These devices give rise to a “textual agency that actively confirms, interferes with, or disrupts a culture's familiar communicative patterns that are presumably internalized by its readers” (19). Alexie's sonnets enact their irresolution most effectively with the reader most informed in Western/Anglo poetics, disrupting her expectations for resolution. The Anglo-Indian hierarchical dialectic remains, and yet Alexie finds a way, within that hierarchy, to communicate, even as his poems' speakers remain disabled by the focus on a dialectic split between cultures.
This dialectic becomes more entrenched in Alexie's next book, Old Shirts & New Skins, as the sonnets focus on American Indian identity and become much more ironic in tone. Discussing Franz Boas's Race, Language, Culture in Ethnocriticism, Arnold Krupat remarks, “[W]hat is true of irony thematically, as an ‘attitude,’ is true of irony structurally, as a form, as well: ironic structures achieve their effects by frustrating conventional expectations for climax and closure” (94). Alexie has created an ironic structure in his sonnet, “frustrating conventional expectations for … closure”; he insists to an implied readership which includes American Indians and Anglo Americans that any Indian dilemma cannot be hastily resolved. In “Architecture,” the speaker becomes speakers; the individual American Indian becomes all reservation Indians in an inclusive “we” which implies a “they” who created this confining and defining “architecture” of the reservation. “Translated from the American” makes the dialectic relationship between whites and Indians both explicit and divisive. “[A]fter all the drive-in theaters have closed,” the speaker plans to “make camp alone” and “replay westerns,” “wait[ing] for white boys / climbing fences to watch this Indian speak.” While plural fences separate the races, suggesting a greater divide between them than race alone, the whites can climb over these fences to enter Indian territory—or so they think. One fence is race, another is language—one that, as the end of the poem indicates, the whites cannot surmount.
Nevertheless, despite this racial and cultural division, the imagined space becomes the place for action. The speaker concludes not with reflection but with a response: “… when they ask ‘how’ / I'll give them exact directions.” This gives rise to the two visionary sonnets of First Indian on the Moon. There, the form changes from the 13-line structure to a structure more closely paralleling the English sonnet form with three quatrains and an ostensible couplet at the end. Yet these couplets do not resolve the preceding dilemma. Even within a closer approximation to the Western form, Alexie retains the irresolution; these couplets reflect on the preceding dilemma summarily without resolving it—if anything, they work to lodge the irresolution more firmly.
These poems come to terms with a dual cultural inheritance by deriving their visions from a cultural dialogic. Even so, this does not diminish Alexie's or his speaker's claim to an American Indian identity. As Moore asserts, “… [D]ialogical survival … maintains difference within the dynamics of opposition” and “[n]on-oppositional dialogics does not mean ‘harmony’ or ‘communication,’ any more than it means conciliation or complicity” (17). In “I Would Steal Horses,” the speaker imagines all that he would do for his lover and hence for himself; the lack of what he has to give results as much from his own weaknesses as from historical ramifications. The speaker finds the basis of his identity not in a divisive “us/them,” but in an inclusive we—an enabling American Indian identity without a dialectic opposition. While the activity is imaginary, it does release the paralysis of the historical, hierarchical dialectic that persisted in the 13-line sonnets.
“The Game Between the Jews and the Indians Is Tied Going into the Bottom of the Ninth Inning” demonstrates this cultural dialogic most effectively. Alexie recognizes a similarity between the Jews and Indians—a history of suffering and injustice intertwined with a history of survival. The cultural contact is not between two hierarchically divided groups but between two groups engaged in a similar struggle for cultural survival. The very act of this imagined game—tied at the bottom of the ninth—goes beyond the memories of suffering to create a reminder of their joint survival, offering action (the reminding) in place of passive observation.
So, now, when you touch me my skin, will you think of Sand Creek, Wounded Knee? And what will I remember
when your skin is next to mine Auschwitz, Buchenwald? No, we will only think of the past as one second before
where we are now, the future just one second ahead but every once in a while we can remind each other that we are both survivors and children and grandchildren of survivors.
As Schwab says, “As a medium of cultural contact, the experimental forms of poetic language are instruments in an aesthetic experience that may well form a countersocialization—as long as literature retains its subversive potential” (46). Through his sonnets, Alexie “countersocializes” his reader to accept the irresolution inherent in American Indian experience, revising the Western belief that action solves. What imagination and irresolution together create is the potential for agency—not as a move toward a definitive solution but, through the imagined dialogic, a place where the hierarchical dialectic cannot impose its historically bound limitations, and thus, a place that enables agency for the native speaker.
Alexie, Sherman. The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose P, 1992.
———. First Indian on the Moon. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose P, 1993.
———. Old Shirts & New Skins. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, UCLA, 1993.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.
Gillian, Jennifer. “Reservation Home Movies: Sherman Alexie's Poetry.” American Literature 68.1 (1996): 91-110.
Krupat, Arnold. Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.
Moore, David L. “Decolonizing Criticism: Reading Dialectics and Dialogics in Native American Literatures.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 6.4 (1994): 7-33.
Schwab, Gabriele. The Mirror and the Killer-Queen: Otherness in Literary Language. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.
Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968.
Ullman, Leslie. “Review of The Business of Fancydancing.” Kenyon Review 15.3 (1993): 182-97.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332
Sherman, Alexie. “She Had Some Horses: The Education of a Poet.” Teachers & Writers 26, no. 4 (March-April 1995): 1-8.
Edited transcription of a talk given by Sherman Alexie at the Teacher & Writers' Center for Imaginative Writing in Spring, 1994.
Cline, Lynn. “About Sherman Alexie.” Ploughshares 26, no. 4 (winter 2000-2001): 197-202.
A biographical overview of the career of Sherman Alexie.
McNally, Joel. “Profile: Sherman Alexie.” The Writer 114, no. 6 (June 2001): 28-31.
An interview-based profile of the author.
Hollrah, Patrice. “Sherman Alexie's Challenge to the Academy's Teaching of Native American Literature, Non-Native Writers, and Critics.” Studies in American Indian Literature, Series 2 13, nos. 2-3 (summer/fall 2001): 23-35.
An analysis of Alexie's use of a fictional character to challenge the status quo of Native American studies in contemporary American education institutions.
McFarland, Ron. “‘Another Kind of Violence’: Sherman Alexie's Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 251-64.
Traces critical assessment of Alexie's early poetry and short story collections, from The Business of Fancydancing (1992) through Old Shirts & New Skins (1993).
Newton, John. “Sherman Alexie's Autoethnography.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 2 (summer 2001): 413-28.
Analyzes themes of ethnic identity and personal confession in Alexie's early works of poetry and fiction.
Radar, Dean. “Word as Weapon: Visual Culture and Contemporary American Indian Poetry.” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 27, no. 3 (fall 2002): 147-67.
Assesses the use of lyric poetry as a mode of resistance in selected works of three Native American writers: Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and Wendy Rose.
Additional coverage of Alexie's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 28; Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Aduts Vol. 15; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 138; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 65, 95; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 96, 154; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 175, 206, 278; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Native North American Literature; Novels for Students, Vol. 17; and Short Stories for Students, Vol. 18.