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October 1 - 7, 2009

Sherman Alexie, the performer
by David Accomazzo

Sherman Alexie isn’t like most fiction writers.

He doesn’t quite match the hermetic, reserved image many poets and novelists are so quick to embrace. Aside from being an accomplished and prolific writer of poems, short stories and novels (he has published more than 20 collections of his work) and having won a National Book Award, Sherman Alexie is a performer.

“Why would someone expect a writer of a book to be boring?” Alexie says, laughing, during a phone interview. “I just try to be as interesting as my books are. And I would expect every writer to want that. And some don’t. I have friends who hate performing.”

Alexie, who is Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indian, has said in the past that he has based his career off of giving engaging poetry readings, and his love of and emphasis on performance spill into his writing. In War Dances, Alexie’s latest collection of poems and short stories, there are three pieces in which the narrator speaks to an unnamed other, whose presence is denoted solely through italics. The effect is a mysterious sort of call-and-response interplay, with the second voice sometimes playing the role of friend or audience or even subconscious counterpoint. Alexie’s piece, “Catechism,” is comprised purely of questions and answers that reads, at the risk of journalistic projection, suspiciously like an interview. When asked what he called that unusual form and why he used it so frequently in War Dances, Alexie burst in laughter.

“What do I call that form?” he exclaims. “Uh, call-and-response? It certainly does have some religious roots, the original structure of it. I think most of the stuff I do in the book that is call-and-response has some sort of spiritual element to it, whether seriously or ironically.

And the great thing about it is that sort of ethereal quality — you don’t really know who the folks talking are. I like that mystery.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a sense of an audience appearing in Alexie’s work. The Seattle-based writer has made a reputation for himself by elevating typical ho-hum poetry readings into riveting poetry performances; at the same time, his writings have propelled him into the upper echelon of American fiction writers. But Alexie rejects the notion that his charismatic performances are somehow innovative.

“It’s so funny that people think it’s something new or odd or different. It’s actually old-fashioned. The idea of words on the page in human history is relatively recent, but people have been telling stories [since] the dawn of human history... So, I am following an ancient impulse. I think because it’s something ancient, I think that’s why a lot of people enjoy my performances so much,” Alexie says.

“And all of us, in the presence of a storyteller, turn into eager children.”

Alexie experiments with storytelling devices throughout War Dances, bundling it all together in the collection’s eponymous short story.

“War Dances” is undoubtedly the book’s highlight (something Alexie himself freely admits), containing, among other things, 73-word mini-chapters and a section called “Exit Interview for My Father,” which manages to be bitingly emotional and funny while consisting entirely of bullet-point lists and A), B), C) subsections with a poem somehow integrated along the way. The story itself weaves seamlessly between the narrator’s retelling of his father’s ultimately fatal health problems and a strange health issue he fears might take his own. Alexie, a master of moods, is able to write passages of tear-inducing poignancy and then sever that tension with something so funny you end up laughing as much from relief as from comedy. One page, the Indian narrator is singing a healing song with his weakened father in the hospital, and just pages later, his brother-in-law is bragging he can “shop the shit out of Trader Joe’s.” It’s a special story, and it’s worth the price of the book alone to read it.

Not to say the rest of War Dances isn’t worth a read. Alexie’s insight and profundity show up in the book’s notable stories. “Write what you know” is an appropriate axiom for Alexie, and the author’s own experience as a Native writer in a literary scene dominated by white men is apparent in many of his previously published works. In War Dances, Alexie depart from the “Whites vs. Indians” trope to explore racial tension between Indians and other minorities. “Breaking and Entering” raises plenty of race issues but none involving white people. The character’s protagonist, who, like Alexie, is a registered member of the Spokane nation, is working on a film-editing project when he hears his basement window shatter. He investigates and ends up killing the black, teenaged intruder out of self-defense. What happens next is a case of mistaken identity and misplaced anger as the dead boy’s family becomes enraged after assuming the story’s narrator is white. While the narrator thrashes with the ethical implications of what happened in his basement, the boy’s family holds a press conference and the grieving mother sobs that the police didn’t care about her son, that the police never care about a black person killed by a white person. By pulling the narrator into a centuries-old racial conflict in which he has little direct connection, race becomes a distraction from the ethical question of whether the boy deserved to die.

“What it comes down to is a pretty basic principle, I think,” Alexie says. “You know, it’s funny, I just read an article on about Roman Polanski. There’s all sorts of people rushing to defend him and all this stuff, and the woman on Salon wrote this essay where she repeats about 500 times, ‘He raped a child.’ And he did. The basic principle is, he raped a child. But all these other people writing about it and justifying it, and all these other considerations coming into play, based on people’s biases, based on their prejudices, based on their autobiographies, the way in which everything about it goes away from one basic fact: he raped a child.

“In [‘Breaking and Entering’], there’s one basic fact. A kid broke into a house, and in an act of self-defense, he got killed. That’s what happened. That’s the basic story. You start layering in race and class and politics and history on top of that, which is what we humans do, we start having competing narratives, and that’s when it gets interesting.”

Another story, “Fearful Symmetry,” tells the struggles of an accomplished poet-turned-screenwriter whose experiences with Hollywood movie-making infect him with an incurable case of writer’s block. In the story, Alexie, himself having dabbled in the film industry, explores the carnivorous nature of collaborative art and asks the question, does deep knowledge of an experience as magical as movies destroy the innocent wonder of our initial response?

“They always say, ‘Never watch sausage being made’ ... I guess I’d amend that. You don’t want to know how sausages or movies are made,” Alexie says. “Movies have such a powerful pull on us. You can sit on a dark theater, and you’re in that world in a way that you aren’t with any other art form. In a great movie, you’re utterly transported. Because it’s a collaborative medium and because there’s so much money involved, it’s naturally corrupt and nasty. Even a gorgeous, wonderful, beautiful movie about the power of the human spirit was probably made by a series of sociopathic assholes.”

Alexie laughs.

“That character [in ‘Fearful Symmetry’] and I are still drawn to making movies and to watching movies. So, once you have the knowledge about it, how can you go back into a theater and recapture that? How can you, you know, eat the sausage again?” He pauses. “And you try, and I try, and it’s a constant struggle.

“You know, the best of who we are, and the best of what we do and the best of our hopes and ambitions are often contained in art. But it’s messy, messy people that create it. So in the end, you need a sort of innocence to separate the art from the artist. You need a sort of innocence to separate the best part of a person that’s contained within their art from the incredibly fragile human being they are.”

Editor’s note: There were parts of our conversation with Sherman Alexie that, due to space constraints, did not fit into the printed version of this article. Highlights from the rest of the conversation follow in Q-and-A format.

BW: In the past, you said two things about 9/11 and Ward Churchill and I didn’t really understand how they work together.

[Editor’s note: here are the statements: “I remember the vocabulary, the rhetoric, was always about the ‘innocent victims.’ The heroes and the innocent victims. And I kept thinking, ‘It’s lawyers and stock brokers. Are you telling me there’s not one complete and total asshole among them?’ Nobody even talked about individuals and the idea of individual sin. There was somebody in there beating on his kids. There was somebody in there embezzling. Right away, they became metaphors and symbols. And the best of the people in the buildings were grouped in with the worst.”


“I was fairly fundamental before 9/11, but that morning everything changed. What really got me pissed was Ward Churchill blaming the victims — saying that the people in the Trade Towers deserved their deaths.”]

SA: Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, that’s exactly what Ward Churchill did. He objectified the people in the buildings. He objectified human beings. That’s what he was wrong about. And by objectifying, he put all of them together as one idea, when in fact it was an incredibly complex group of people.

BW: He said that people were not innocent victims.

SA: Yeah, he was wrong. They aren’t innocent in their own lives. That’s what I was talking about in that piece. People say to them, that they weren’t, they were human beings, there were some pretty awful people in there, too, I’m sure, but none of them had done anything to deserve dieing that way. They were all the victims of a criminal act. They were all murdered. Once again, it goes back to the same story: Roman Polanski raped a child. Those 19 guys murdered 3,000 or so people. If you don’t begin with that statement, then you’re wrong. And that’s not where Ward Churchill begins. He wouldn’t call it murder. He would call it self-defense. He would blame the United States. When it comes down to it, he’s wrong about all of it. And he remains wrong. There were over 3,000 people murdered that day. Both sides, right and left, rarely talk about that in those terms. The right elevated it to justify world war, and the left elevated it to justify their rhetoric about American imperialism. But regardless of the way in which the left or right used it, it was a criminal act that resulted in over 3,000 murders. That’s what happened. And if the United States government had pursued it, had reacted to it as if it were a criminal act that involved over 3,000 murders, we’d all be in a better place. We wouldn’t be at war in Afghanistan or in Iraq. We’d be pursuing the people who did it and the organizations that funded it and masterminded it as if they were criminals. And that should have been the way we approached it.

Once again, Roman Polanksi raped a child.

BW: A lot of people are quick to call you the foremost Indian writer, Native American writer. How do you feel about that label, bringing in race?

SA: I’m an Indian. That’s what I am.

BW: It’s not like they say, “Phillip Roth is America’s foremost white novelist.”

SA: Well, he’s not. They say he’s America’s foremost Jewish novelist—

BW: Jewish novelist. Bad example.

SA: (Laughs) They do. That’s very much the case.

BW: Well, I haven’t heard anyone referred to as a White Anglo-Saxon protestant author —

SA: John Updike!

BW: John Updike. Damn. Well, do think those labels are necessary?

SA: Yeah, of course they are! It’s who we are. It’s where we come out of! That stuff is the stuff we write about inside of our books, so why shouldn’t we be talked about that way, too?

BW: So there’s no desire to transcend that label and just be called an author or a writer?

SA: Transcending implies there’s something wrong with being Indian.

BW: Hmmm. I didn’t mean to imply that at all, but —

SA: No, but this whole conversation does. I’ve had this conversation now for 20 years now with my literary career, and I never could figure out how to answer it, because there is no answer. It’s all reductive. The irony is that in trying to pretend you can transcend your identity, that ends up reducing it. That’s what reduces it. Denying who you are racially is just as bad as denigrating someone because of it. I am who I am. That said, it’s just one definition. When you read the work, let’s put it this way: Someone’s ethnic identity is the first floor of somebody’s house. The good stuff is in the basement and attic.

BW: (Laughs)

SA: Oh that’s good. I just thought that up. (Laughs) There it is!

On the Bill:
Sherman Alexie will speak about and sign War Dances. Tickets are $7 or free with a purchase of the book. 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 12.  Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.

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