single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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Student Question

In "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," what is the "fair trade" Thomas has always wanted?

Expert Answers

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The ending of this powerful story about cultural identity and loss is where the phrase "fair trade" is mentioned, and it is clear that this fair trade is what applies to the exchange that has taken place between Victor and Thomas. Victor has just given Thomas part of his father's ashes, and in response, even though Thomas knows that Victor is not going to treat him any differently, Thomas asks that Victor stop and listen sometime to a story Thomas tells. Note how the final paragraph details how Victor feels about this trade:

Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Thomas had ever wanted from his whole life. (scanned online text of "What It Means to Say Phoenix Arizona")

The "fair trade" is a phrase therefore that applies to Thomas rather than to Victor, and it is one that symbolises that Thomas can move forward with his cultural heritage and find new meaning: "[Thomas] heard a new story come to him in the silence...." Victor has gone through a series of flashbacks in which he had made fun of Thomas and rejected their cultural past, represented in the stories Thomas habitually tells. Now, Victor has agreed to listen properly to one of the stories that Thomas tells (the last story Victory listened to was the one about his father walking out), and as a result of this "fair trade" of trip for story, Thomas, like the phoenix in the title, is ready to be reborn through the renewal of his cultural traits. The fair trade referred to therefore is all about Thomas's relationship with his cultural heritage and how he will work out his renewal in his every day life.

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Thomas became known on the reservation for his stories. Despite the fact that he was ridiculed or ignored, more as he got older because his stories died when he and Victor quarrelled, he embraced his reputation as a storyteller because he felt that it was his purpose. His father died in the war and his mother died giving birth to him. He has no brothers and sisters. His connection to his people, to the world, are his stories and his visions. 

Thomas closed his eyes and this story came to him: "We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories that can change or not change the world. It doesn't matter which, as long as I continue to tell the stories."

Because of a vision/story Thomas had about Victor's father, he decides to help him. When they return, Thomas tells Victor not to worry about the money. But as Victor is leaving, Thomas does ask if he will listen to one of his stories "just once." "That's all Thomas ever wanted from his whole life." Therefore, it was a "fair trade." Thomas helped Victor get to Phoenix and back. Victor promised to stop and listen to one of his stories in the future. 

Thomas knew that most people on the reservation would not listen to him. But he would continue to tell stories and hope that one might change the world. The city in the title, Phoenix, and his name, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are significant. He continues to tell stories in the hopes that one might change the world. Metaphorically, he continues to build fires in the hopes that something new (a Phoenix) might rise from the ashes: a rebirth. Such a rebirth is comparable to changing the world. 

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