Sunday, October 26, 2003
Sherman Alexie's critics charge him with portraying the worst of American Indian culture. Readers who misunderstand him ask him why he hates white people.
But those who really "get" Alexie, he says, know he's just a "rowdy, liberal Indian" who writes honestly about Indian culture both on and off the reservation. Rarely do stock Indian characters -- mystical shamans and brave warriors -- enter his work. Rather, he portrays three-dimensional Indians interacting with 21st-century culture.
The 37-year-old Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian -- a poet, novelist, poetry-slam champion, lecturer and screenwriter -- has been hailed for wielding a sharp wit, a sense of compassion mingled with humor and a certain generosity.
His most recent story collection, "Ten Little Indians," has garnered stellar reviews. The Rocky Mountain News says "Alexie is unafraid to express ideas that most people would not admit to thinking, and to express them with such rare wit that the sentiments stay with the reader long after the book is closed."
The book continues an underlying mission that links all of Alexie's work: to challenge white culture's stereotypes of American Indians while at the same time offering portraits of Indians grappling with their own assumptions about themselves and others.
Alexie's writing credits include "Reservation Blues," "Indian Killer" and "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven." He wrote and produced the 1998 movie "Smoke Signals," which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and Filmmaker's Trophy. His current project is a nonfiction family history called "Inventing My Grandfather."
Speaking from Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two sons, he reflected on his critics, his duty as an artist and his ego -- all with his characteristic sense of humor -- as he prepares to deliver the third installment of Kansas University's Hall Center Humanities Lecture Series on Wednesday evening. The talk is called "Killing Indians: Myths, Lies and Exaggerations."
Q: Indians from your own reservation have confronted you for not portraying Indian culture in a documentary manner rather than through fiction? What do you say to them?
They would be even more upset if I actually showed what happened in the Indian world. I could pull a Michael Moore on tribal councilmen. My critics are much happier I stick to fiction. They don't even know how happy they are. The thing is, no sober Indian complains about my depiction of alcoholism. At the end of the day, I'm an artist with an individual vision, and that's my job.
Q: What do you say to those people who ask if you hate white people?
A: That's just silly. When I'm kidding I put on my best stoic face and say, 'Not all of them.'
Q: What sets you apart from other writers?
A: I'm taller.
Q: OK, seriously, what about your writing style sets you apart from other authors?
A: Oh, oh. I think I'm funnier than most. Probably the combination of tragedy and comedy.
Q: You wrote a great introduction to "Real Indians" for the American Indian College Fund. Does that book do in photographs and personal profiles written in Indians' own words what you're trying to do in your work?
A: That's a very diverse group of people portrayed positively. That's not necessarily what I'm trying to do. That's what that book is trying to do. In your art, you're trying to present the whole spectrum. That book is not going to have a picture of a murderer, but I might write about one. That book's purpose is quite different from what I'm doing.
Q: Do you remember any of those portraits? Which struck you most or what about the entire collection struck you?
A: The ballerina really got me. I love it when Indians are great at something they're not supposed to be great at, when they take a Western art and master it.
Q: You've said you're not content with just having literary fiction readers as your audience ...
A: (Interrupting) That's still what I have, though. I'm not Mr. Commercial yet. I'm not going to be happy until every human being on the planet has read one of my books.
Q: Is that because you feel like you have a greater social responsibility to educate people?
A: That's part of it, but also part of it is I'm an artist. I have an ego.
Q: Your biography mentions that you struggled with alcohol abuse but kicked the habit when you found out "The Business of Fancy Dancing" would be published. Why did you share that information?
A: That's not a direct causal relationship. I decided to quit drinking, and then the next morning the acceptance came. I decided to sober up, and then that acceptance letter came, so it was a wonderful coincidence that I decided to interpret magically. (I included it) because it's important for all sorts of people to know I'm sober, especially young Indians. No matter what my critics think of my depiction of social problems, I'm the sober Indian writer. If you get me in a room full of Indian writers and have the sober ones raise their hands, there's only going to be a couple of us.
Q: So that's not just a stereotype?
A: No. You get me in a room full of writers of ALL colors and ask for the sober ones (trails off laughing). Everybody's an addict.
Q: Your appearance in Lawrence is part of a humanities lecture series. How will it be different from, say, a book tour engagement?
A: Much longer. It's not pegged to a certain story or a certain book, so I can be more wide-ranging and improvisational. I can speak to the events of the day or the week, so I'm sure I'll be talking about Rush Limbaugh and whatever happens in the next week.
Q: I understand you turn your talks into more of a performance than a lecture. You memorize your stories, don't you?
A: And the poems. I like to think of it as Emily Dickinson meets Richard Pryor.
Q: Why is that important to you?
A: People pay attention, and people remember. Nobody's going to remember some boring-ass lecture. Students and people get that all the time. I just want to be new.
Q: What are some of the myths, lies and exaggerations that you're going to be addressing?
A: Oh wow. That's the old title. I will be addressing those simply by being there. My presence will refute all of that.
Q: How are those myths, lies and exaggerations "Killing Indians," or is that what you mean by the title?
A: Oh God, that's such an old topic. It just prevents us from being seen as complicated, diverse human beings. The second you simplify people that way, then you cease to exist as humans and they become cartoon characters or sports mascots.
Q: Do you have a new title for your talk?
A: "Without Reservations: An Urban Indian's Poetic, Comic and Irreverent -- NOT IRRELEVANT -- Look at the World." It's probably irrelevant, too.