Sherman Alexie: The Lumberjack interview
Sherman Alexie walks into the Drury Inn Hotel & Suites with a stride that does not reflect his status as perhaps the most influential Native American writer working today. Dressed in a black suit with a blue collared shirt, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene poet, novelist and filmmaker drove himself up from Phoenix to Flagstaff for the Feb. 26 appearance at Ardrey Auditorium entitled “Without Reservations: An Urban Indian’s Comic, Poetic and Highly Irreverent Look at the World.”
Seeming slightly worn from his trip as he sits down for the interview, Alexie admires the laptop on which our discussion will be recorded.
The Lumberjack: You’re a huge basketball fan, right?
Sherman Alexie: Mmhmm.
LJ: Are you still a Sonics fan after their relocation to Oklahoma City (renamed the Thunder) or have you changed your loyalty to the Portland Trailblazers?
Alexie: (Laughs) I am a man without a team.
Alexie: Oh yeah. There is nothing more tribal than sports fans. I’ve watched a few (Thunder) games on TV. I’ve got a 10-game pack for the Blazers, so I’ve gone to about seven of those games this year. But I’m an outsider. I’m not from Portland, so it’s not my team. It’ll never be my team. So I’m a man without a tribe.
LJ: (Laughs) Alright, and now a more serious question…
Alexie: Oh, that’s the most serious question you’re going to ask today. Everything else is bull(expletive). Everything else is just my writing career, and that’s all bull(expletive). Now basketball… that’s serious.
LJ: How do you think representations of Native Americans have changed in recent years, if they have at all?
Alexie: We’ve gone from environmental superheroes to casino-owning Americans. That’s about the only difference. You know, there’s no mass-marketed images of Indians; there’s no TV shows, there’s no big movies, there’s no newscasters, sportcasters… there’s no professional athletes, so images don’t change at all. Every image you think of from 20 years go still persists.
I think…on an interpersonal level, I think casinos have done some good. In my area, I’ve seen that there’s a lot more interaction between previously antagonistic folks. You know, non-Indians on the borders of reservations who are often employed by the tribe now. So the casino has come to exist as a cross-cultural meeting ground, which is odd. But leave it to the complicated history of Natives and non-Natives, that this den of iniquity becomes a place of love and compassion.
But overall, no. I mean, who’s in charge of the image of Indians? Me! Do I present a different image? I think so. But I’m still just a writer. It’s like saying John Updike is in charge of white folks. (Laughs.)
LJ: So jumping off that, do you feel there are Native American stereotypes today, and do you try to address that in your work?
Alexie: There are no stereotypes of anybody, really. The stereotypes wouldn’t exist if they weren’t by some large measure true. That’s one of the jokes I tell, you know? White guys do want to own everything and Indians do have a problem with alcohol. You are a bunch of imperialistic bastards, that’s not a stereotype. And we do have issues with addiction, and unemployment, and time. You know, any group of people is viewed a lot more simplistically when you start talking about large groups. And mass media is in charge of that, again. So it’s not like white guys get off easy with media; it’s just that (Natives) have nobody originating the images.
That’s one of the real problems, that we have no voice of our own in the mass media…There is a lot of magic and beauty about us that isn’t accurately discussed. It has nothing to do with our religions, it’s actually more complicated than that. I don’t think anybody’s religion is all that cute. I think our tolerance of eccentricity, our senses of humor — those are the kinds of cultural aspects that don’t necessarily get covered fully.
LJ: So are those the kinds of aspects you try to bring forward, or…?
Alexie: I don’t — I just try to talk like I am. I try not to manufacture anything. When I’m tired, I start manufacturing things, but I just talk and write how I talk and write in real life. I think that’s one of the reasons my work has done so well, especially among Indian people, because I sound like an Indian. I don’t sound like an Indian college professor. I sound like an Indian guy who happens to be a college professor.
I think I work colloquially. I work in pop culture idioms. I’m a literary writer, but I’m also a pop culture addict. Previously, most Indian writers were almost purely academic. They came out of an academic setting and are college professors full-time. I’m sort of the first Native writer who rose to literary fame without that. It wasn’t about being a professor, and it wasn’t about approaching it academically. By in large, it was being a smart-ass.
LJ: I notice you used the term “Indian” several times rather than something like Native American. I think that’s really interesting, because a lot of people are like, “No, we’re not!” And so…
Alexie: Indians call each other Indians. As soon as you hear an Indian say “Native American,” you know there’s a non-Indian in the room. You know, just trying to make you feel bad. I mean, Native American is just as inaccurate. “Native American” means “anybody born in the Americas.” If you want to get technical, you’d have to go with “indigenous,” which actually isn’t all that accurate either, considering we all came from a man and a woman in Africa. Those two were indigenous. Everyone is else is “Eehh?” “First Nations” works, but that’s arrogant. It pretty much all comes down to Indian. Beyond that, it comes down to the name of your tribe — but there’s 2,000 of us, and nobody really gives a crap.
LJ: People have told me that you not only have a tendency, but also the intention, to make white audiences uncomfortable when you speak. Is this true, and if so, why do you do that?
Alexie: I guess because I veer in and out of so many identities on stage (comic, political activist, satirist, poet, short-story writer, novelist) depending on my mood, at one point or another, somebody’s expectations are not met. But the problem isn’t their expectations; it’s how people deal with it. I’m always shocked, I guess, when people get offended because — well, why did you come? Haven’t you read my books? We’re supposed to be doing this.
And I’m just so shockingly tame compared to most of the history of writers. I mean, all over the world there are authors that panic entire countries. I offend 10 or 12 people in an audience because I tell a dick joke. People who have the privilege of being offended by a dick joke live in a great country…honestly, I’m offended that people get offended.
LJ: What drove you to filmmaking?
Alexie: It was simply driven out of my love of movies. But that, more than any artistic endeavor, is completely driven by money and the size of the audience. And we don’t have an audience. Every Indian in the country could go see a movie and it wouldn’t guarantee anything. It would make a box office of $14 million, which is nothing. Paul Blart: Mall Cop made that in four hours on a Saturday afternoon.
Really, there’s no point. Indian people talk to me now about filmmaking, and I tell them you can buy those little HD cameras now for about $190. And you can have Final Cut on your laptop for $400. And those little tapes will cost you $30-$40 a piece. Make your own movie. Put it online. Give up on the whole Hollywood thing. Stay away. If you’re an Indian actor, you’re going to end up in a loincloth, and if you’re an Indian writer or director, you’re going to end up in a metaphorical loincloth.
LJ: On the subject of literature, do you have any projects in the pipeline now?
Alexie: I’ve got tons of books. I’ve got a new book of poems coming out shortly called Face. This fall, I have a book of short stories coming out called War Dances. Next spring is the release of the sequel to my young adult novel. The sequel’s called The Magic and Tragic Year of my Broken Thumb. And I have a novel coming out fall of 2010 called Fire with Fire. And then I have another young adult novel coming out the Spring after that called Radioactive Love Song, and then I have another novel coming out the fall after that called Thunder and Lightning.
LJ: Where do you think Indian literature is headed, and where do you think it should go?
Alexie: I don’t know where it’s headed. You know, there hasn’t been a Native writer rise to national prominence since Susan Power in 1996 with Grass Dancer. And then she sort of stepped back from literary fame. Before that, it was me in 1993. So Susan and I are the last two Native American writers to rise to national prominence. There have been no others. Nobody has even come close.
I’m not sure, but I’d be very curious… I don’t think another new Native has made it into The New York Times Book Review. I mean, I can think of a couple who have been published by major presses, but their books haven’t done very well. I think a lot of Indian writers are going into poetry, which guarantees their obscurity. They’re also writing a kind of poetry that is great. Their aesthetic is really broadening, and they’re being far more influenced by non-Native writers.
LJ: Do you have an opinion of where it should go, or what is the next step?
Alexie: I entered when there was less competition from less media. You know, the technology has changed so much. I imagine it has something to do with that…I think in some sense, from what I’ve seen, young Native writers are far too influenced by us. When I read their poems and stories, I can look at it and say, “Wow, there’s one artist. There’s me. There’s Adrian Louis. There’s Soko.” You can see it.
I hope — I would love for them to take their tribal identities and filter that through non-Native literary influences. And I would love to see genre work. You know, where’s the Indian writing Indian mysteries? Fifty white people are making a living at it, but no Indians are doing it, which is striking to me.
LJ: What sort of advice do you have for aspiring poets, novelists and screenwriters?
Alexie: Read, read, read. Read 1,000 pages for every one you try to write. Everybody wants to come up and ask “What advice do you have?” and I say “What’s your favorite book?” or “What book did you last read?” If you don’t have that information…If you aren’t carrying a book around with you, then you’re doomed.
When you look at great writers, you’re looking at people who are actually better readers. Period. So that’s where you start.