|COPYRIGHT 2005 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States
“A World of Story-Smoke: An Interview with Sherman Alexie”
By Ase Nygren
Songwriter, film-maker, comedian, and writer of prose and poetry, Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, about 50 miles northwest of Spokane. The reservation (approximately 1,100 Spokane Tribal members live there), where the effects of what Alexie chooses to call an "on-going colonialism" still asserts its painful presence, is central in Alexie's fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and Reservation Blues (1995). Presented as a demarcated space of suffering, Alexie's fictional reservation is a place where his characters are tormented by collective memories of a genocidal past, of cavalry-approved hangings, massacres, and small-pox-infected blankets. It is a haunted place where "faint voices ... echo all over" (Reservation Blues 46) and where "dreams ... [a]re murdered ... the bones buried quickly just inches below the surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development" (Reservation Blues 7). Although some of Alexie's characters leave the reservation and enter the urban space in his second novel, Indian Killer (1996), the experience of growing up, as Alexie puts it in the interview, "firmly within borders," continues to affect the characters' lives, especially their emotional lives.
Inevitably when dealing with ethnic literature, it is impossible not to be self-conscious of one's own position. As a European white female scholar, I felt compelled to raise questions of perspective, including those of nationality, ethnicity, and gender. Within this context of self-reflection, the interview touches upon issues such as the desire for a "pure" or authentic American Indian identity and the critical demand for the genre "American Indian literature."
One of the most intriguing aspects of Alexie's fiction is his use of the comic. Although the subject matters in Alexie's fiction are morally and ethically engaging, the same texts are often ironic, satiric, and full of humor. As the characters in a caricature-like manner stagger across the reservation, between drinking the next beer and cracking the next joke, the reader is often invited to laugh along with them, even at them. Alexie's artistic vision thus mixes humor and suffering in a manner that for me resembles what Roberto Benigni does in his film Life is Beautiful or Art Spiegelman in his graphic novels, Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Such a comparison becomes all the more justified in the light of one of Alexie's most provocative comments in the interview, his parallel between the Indian and the Jewish Holocausts.
Alexie's texts can be considered trauma narratives, and the interview explores his views on trauma and the thematization of suffering. Although trauma does silence, and suffering does exist without expression in language and without metaphysics, the moment pain is transformed into suffering, it is also transferred into language. This enables the traumatized person to remember, work through, and mourn the lost object. Given the inarticulateness of many of Alexie's characters, I also suggest that Alexie's narratives call attention to the inherent difficulties of representing suffering. The characters are muted by the traumas of hatred and chaos, loss and grief danger and fear, and cannot--except in a few rare cases--articulate their suffering. Instead, they tend to resort to self-destructive behavior, including violence and substance abuse. Thus, while Alexie's narratives demonstrate the need to give suffering a language, they also call attention to the inherent unsharability of suffering. In the interview with Alexie, I was particularly interested in his views on trauma and his thematization of suffering.
While in Alexie's early fiction, the reservation is a geographical space of borders and confinement, in his more recent fiction, The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) and Ten Little Indians (2003), the reservation changes its ontology and becomes a mental and emotional territory. In the interview below, Alexie says that this ontological change is a result of his own "expanded worldview. "During the course of his writing career, Alexie explains, he has moved from what he calls a "fundamental" world-view which earlier made him "so focused on Indian identity that [he] didn't look at the details," to what he hopes will be "the triumph of the ordinary." His writing has thus shifted in emphasis from angry protests to evocations of love and empathy.
Ase Nygren: What are some of the inspirations and motivations behind your writing? Are they autobiographical, political, or historical?
Sherman Alexie: Like we were saying just before we turned the tape on, people in Scandinavia don't really know about Indian writers or know that there even are Indian writers. I didn't know either. Even though I was growing up on a reservation, and going to reservation schools, I had never really been shown Indian literature before. So it wasn't even a possibility growing up. I loved reading but I hadn't thought of a career as a writer. I hadn't thought about books as a career in any form. I took a class in creative writing because I couldn't handle human anatomy lab and it was the only class that fit my schedule. This was the first time anyone had shown me contemporary poetry. The most contemporary poem I had read before was "The Waste Land." I had no idea you could write about NOW. I read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" for the first time. Even Langston Hughes felt new to me. And I fell in love with it immediately. Over night, I knew I was going to be a writer.
AN: Were there any Indian writers on the reading list for the poetry class you took?
SA: The poetry teacher gave me a book called Songs from This Earth on Turtle's Back, an anthology on Native literature by Joseph Bruchac. Before I read that book I had no idea that you could write about Indian life with powwows, ceremonies, broken down cars, cheap motels; all this stuff that was my life as I was growing up on the reservation. I remember in particular one line by Adrian Louis, a Pauite poet: "Adrian, I'm in the reservation of my mind!" It captured for me the way I felt about myself, at least then. It was nothing I'd ever had before. I thought to myself: I want to write like this! So that's where it began. The beginning was accidental. But I got very serious about it quickly. I went through the college library looking at poetry journals trying to figure out what was going on in the world, trying to catch up, essentially, for a lifetime of not reading.
AN: Did you read all different kinds of poetry, or did you focus on works by American Indians?
SA: Any poetry. Anything and everything. I pulled books off the shelves randomly because I liked the title, or the cover, or the author photo. I read hundreds of poems over a year or so to catch up. As I sat there in the poetry stacks in the library a whole new world opened to me. Before, I had always thought that I was a freak in the way I saw and felt about the world. As I started reading the works of all these poets I realized that I, at least, wasn't the only freak! [Laughs] I think we belong to a lot of tribes; culturally, ethnically, and racially. I'm a poet and this is the world in which I belong.
AN: So your ambitions and motivations weren't political to begin with?
SA: No. My writing was very personal and autobiographical. I was simply finding out who I was and who I wanted to be. As I started writing I became more political, much because of people's reactions to me. I was writing against so many ideas of what I was supposed to be writing. So even though much of my early work deals with alcohol and alcoholism because of personal experiences, I got a lot of criticism because alcoholism is such a loaded topic for Indians. People thought I was writing about stereotypes, but more than anything I was writing about my own life. As an Indian, you don't have the luxury of being called an autobiographical writer often. You end up writing for the whole race. At the beginning of my career I was 21 years old, and I didn't have any defense against that. So I became political because people viewed me politically. I got political to fight people's ideas about me. It is only in the last few years that my politics has found a way into my work that feels natural. Part of the reason is because you grow older. The way I think about it is that I used to spend more time looking inside myself, looking internally. Now I look at more of the world and a wider range of people.
AN: Ethnic literatures have a powerful social role in shaping ethnic identity and in making ethnic groups visible, thus filling an important political function. With the rise of ethnic literatures, there has been in criticism a tendency to link literature written by writers of a certain ethnic descent with a specific group of people, and thus with a specific ethnic experience. Is this a classification that you are comfortable with?
SA: I think it's lazy scholarship. For instance, Gerald Vizenor and I have nothing in common in terms of what we write about, how we write, and how we look at the world. There'd be no reason to link us other than our ethnicity. He has much more in common with experimental writing, like William Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.
I guess the problem is not that I'm labeled as a Native American writer, but that writers like John Updike and Jonathan Franzen aren't labeled as White American writers. They are simply assumed to be the norm, and everybody else is judged in reaction to them.
AN: But even though the term "Indian" is a limitation in some ways, couldn't it work as a door opener in other ways?
SA: Yes, it is good in some ways. The good thing is that there are so few of us that I'm automatically exotic. It makes me different automatically. We live in a capitalistic society and it's all about competition. In the world of writing, I have an edge because I'm an Indian. If I was a white guy writer I'd be just another white guy writer.
AN: Do you think that these labels--African American literature, American Indian literature etc.--are useful in promoting a specific group of writers?
SA: Economically, I think this type of labeling helps because it focuses the market. But in terms of criticism I don't think it does. Such labels are often used by critics to diminish the works, or by supporters to promote it. There are people who love Native literature, for instance, just because Indians write it. They don't really view it critically. On the other hand, some critics think that we have careers or success just because of our ethnicity. You end up being pushed by two sides: Loved only because you're an Indian, or hated because you're an Indian!
AN: In discussions on American Indian literature, some critics claim that one of the characteristic features of American Indian literature is often a certain dose of sentimentality. What critics mean by this is that references to the Indian beliefs and spirituality--the four directions, Father Sky, Mother Earth, corn pollen, etc.--are somehow always already charged with sentimentality. In your fiction, you seem to refuse this sentimentality through various means, for example, through your use of irony. I would like to hear your reaction to such a categorizing of American Indian literature and how you work against it in your fiction.
SA: I'm not sure if sentimentality is the right word. But I would agree that there is a lot of nostalgia. Like any colonized people, Indians look to the pre-colonial times as being better just because we weren't colonized. There is a certain tendency there of nostalgia as a disease. Because our identity has been so fractured, and because we've been subject to so much oppression and relocation--our tribes dissipated, many destroyed--the concept of a pure Indian identity is really strong in Indian literature. For instance, very few of the top 30 or 40 Native writers publishing now grew up on the reservation, and yet most Native literature is about the reservation. So there is a nostalgia for purity: a time when we were all together and when our identity was sure, and when our lives were better.
AN: It's an understandable nostalgia in one sense.
SA: Yes. And there is great writing coming out of that nostalgia. I would say that bad Native writing is sentimental, and there is plenty of it. But writers like Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Simon Ortiz are not sentimental.
AN: In an interview by Swiss scholar Hartwig Isernhagen, American Indian writers Gerald Vizenor and Scott Momaday, and First Nations writer Jeanette Armstrong were all asked the question "How do you address the question of violence in your works?" Is there, in your opinion, a central narration of violence in Indian literature?
SA: Well, yes, I think so. After all, we come out of genocide, and our entire history is filled with murder and war. Perhaps violence is not the right word, though. But there is definitely a lot of humiliation in Native literature. We write about being humiliated a lot. And that takes physical forms, emotional forms, and mental forms. I think Native literature is the literature of humiliation and shame.
AN: How important is tribal specificity to your own writing? Is it the Spokane Tribe or a more generic concept of "Indianness" that is of interest to you?
SA: To me, there are a few things going on. I'm very aware of my Spokaneness. I grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation, and my tribe heavily influences my personality and the ways in which I see the world. But there is also a strong Northwest identity. Because we spend so much time interacting now, I think Indian identity is more regional than it is tribal. Navajos and Apaches are going to have a lot more in common with each other than they would have with the Spokane. I strongly identify with salmon people and so I get along with the tribes on this side. The way in which they talk and act feels close to home.
AN: One important concern among American Indian writers has been the question of how one deals with a painful past, such as the one shared by the Indian peoples of the United States, without falling into the trap of victimization. How important is this issue for you when you write your fiction?
SA: I write autobiographically, so when you talk about surviving pain and trauma and getting out of it--I did, I have! But the people I know have not. So what do I do in my literature? Do I portray the Indian world as I see it? And I do see it as doomed, and that you have to get lucky to escape that. Should I write the literature of hope no matter how I feel? No! I'm not hopeful. So how do you avoid victimization? We can't. We are victims.
AN: Vizenor is very adamant when it comes to this question. I spoke with him in 2002 and what he seems to want to avoid more. than anything else is victimization, something which is reflected in terms that he uses in his literature, like, for instance, "survivance."
SA: Survival is a low hope. I don't want just survival, or "survivance." I want triumph! But you don't get it. That's the thing. You don't get it. Also, our story is not worse than anybody else's.
AN: How do you mean?
SA: Pain is relative. For instance, in the last movie I made I worked with a woman who grew up very wealthy, very privileged economically, but she had lived through such hell in her family that it made my life seem sweet and gentle. So I try not to measure people's pain. I mean, if I'd throw a rock randomly right now I'd hit someone whose life is worse than mine ever was. Nothing in my life can measure up to the kids in that school [in Beslan]. Nothing! Nothing! And nothing in my life can measure up to losing somebody in the World Trade towers. Everybody's pain is important.
AN: I find the concept of "collective trauma" particularly useful concerning the suffering that many of your characters are experiencing. Many of them suffer from not only personal losses and grievances--absent fathers, poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, etc.--but also from a cultural loss and a collective trauma, which include experiences of racism and stereotyping. Their losses and grievances affect their behavior and their lives on many levels. In my view, your fiction explores how such trauma both damages and creates community and identity alike. Both identity and community are, of course, condemned to ongoing dysfunction. Do you think that suffering is part of what constitutes Indianness? Perhaps in a somewhat comparable way by which we have come to associate African American identity with slavery, or Jewish identity with the Holocaust? If so, how does this relation differ from, e.g., the relation between African Americans and suffering, or Jews and suffering?
SA: Yes! The phrase I've also used is "blood memory." I think the strongest parallel in my mind has always been the Jewish people and the Holocaust. Certainly, their oppression has been constant for 1900 years longer, but the fact is that you cannot separate our identity from our pain. At some point it becomes primarily our identity. The whole idea of authenticity--"How Indian are you?"--is the most direct result of the fact that we don't know what an American Indian identity is. There is no measure anymore. There is no way of knowing, except perhaps through our pain. And so, we're lost. We're always wandering.
AN: Like the lost tribes of Israel?
SA: Yes. It's so amazing that the indigenous people of the United States have become the most immigrant group. The process is slowly changing. My generation and the next generation--we are immigrants! I am an immigrant into the United States, and now my children are fully assimilated.
AN: A scholar by the name of Kai Erikson has put a social dimension into the term "trauma." He talks about "traumatized communities" in the sense of damages to the tissues that hold human groups together as well as to the dominant spirit of a group, which is a fitting concept when we talk about "collective trauma" or "blood memory."
SA: Yes it is. Some day they're going to find it, but I feel that it is true that pain is carried in the DNA. And because it is carried in the DNA, pain can mutate through generations. One of the most obvious proofs for that is child abuse. Kids who get abused so often grow up and become abusers.
AN: Many of your characters--Victor and Junior in The Lone Ranger and Reservation Blues, John Smith in Indian Killer, Harlan in Ten Little Indians, to mention a few--are struggling with their experiences of what it means to be an Indian, and what they are told it means to be an Indian. At times, they seem at a loss as to what Indian identity really IS. Is their struggle linked with the fact that Indian identity has often been reduced to stereotype? In other words, do you think that the long-term reduction of the Indian to stereotype in American culture has resulted in a collective crisis of identity for many Indians today?
SA: Yes, certainly, because you can never measure up to a stereotype. You can never be as strong as a stereotypical warrior, as godly as a stereotypical shaman, or as drunk as a drunken Indian. You can never measure up to extremes. So you're always going to feel less than the image, whether it's positive or negative. One of the real dangers is that other Indians have taken many stereotypes as a reality, as a way to measure each other and ourselves. Take Harlan Atwater, for instance. Because he was adopted out, and because he grew up this way or that way, he would be viewed by other Indians as not being Indian. White people wouldn't see him as Indian and now Indians don't see him as Indian. Indians have accepted stereotypes just as much as non-Indians have. We believe them too. I think that many Indians have watched too much television! [Laughs]
AN: In a sense, of course, the search for identity is endemic for everyone, isn't it? Aren't we all searching for a sense of belonging?
SA: Yes, I guess that's a good way to put it. The search for identity is not special.
AN: But for Indians, that search has been complicated by, for instance, the stereotype?
SA: Well, we have no economic, political, or social power. We have no power to change our lives. We are powerless.
AN: Is that one of the reasons why, although images of Jews and Blacks displaying exaggerated ethnic features--such as big noses and lips--have been forbidden in the US decades ago, racist images of Indians continue to flourish? The image of the Indian mascot is only one example here. Does the answer lie in what you have just touched upon, that Indians are powerlessness?
SA: Yes. We have no power to change the stereotypes. We have no allies. No other group is joining with us to fight those things. The romantic idea is that if people are feeling a lot of pain you'd wish that people would empathize more. I wish that was true.
AN: Of course feminism as a movement encounters similar problems.
SA: Yes. It's the whole idea of the human range of empathy. Honestly, I think that people who can't empathize with the mascot or with feminism, for instance, are not so far removed from a criminal. The inability to understand why something might be offensive is a form of sociopathy.
AN: Although the subject matters in your texts are morally and ethically engaging, the same texts are often ironic, satiric, and full of humor. I read your ironic and satiric re-thinking, even defamiliarization, of a painful past, in alignment with writer Art Spiegelmann and film maker Roberto Benigni. Spiegelmann's two books in cartoon form, entitled Maus: A Survivor's Tale I and II, and Benigni's film Life is Beautiful both deal with the Jewish Holocaust in the comic mode, and have, consequently, shocked readers/viewers out of any lingering sense of familiarity with the historic events described. Would you like your books to have a similar effect on your readers? What are some of the gains? Dangers?
SA: Well, I'm a big fan of graphic novels. I like their immediacy. Automatically when you look at a graphic novel, or when you look at a cartoon, there is always an ironical, satirical edge and an underlying humor. So yes, I aim to be funny, and I aim for my humor to be very political. But I think more along the lines of political stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce than I do about other writers.
AN: What might be some of the gains and dangers?
SA: Dangers? Playing to the audience. Reacting completely to the audience rather than generating it from yourself, so that you're reflexive and you're performing rather than dealing with something on an emotional level. I think I have a tendency in my work to lapse into performance mode. Rather than something out of my heart, it ends up being something on the surface designed for effect. One of the great things is that through that immediacy of performance and humor you can reach people who otherwise might not be listening. I think being funny breaks down barriers between people. I can get up in front of any crowd, and if I make them laugh first I can say almost anything to them.
AN: In "The Search Engine" (from Ten Little Indians), the Indian student Corliss is reading a book by (the somewhat amateurish) Indian writer Harlan Atwater. You write that "Harlan Atwater was making fun of being Indian, of the essential sadness of being Indian, and so maybe he was saying Indians aren't sad at all" (7). In "The Approximate Size of my Favorite Tumor" (from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), we can read about the Indian man who is dying of cancer, but who still manages to joke about his situation: "Still, you have to realize that laughter saved Norma and me from pain, too. Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds" (164). My third example is taken from your novel Indian Killer, where you write that among Indians "laughter [is] a ceremony used to drive away personal and collective demons" (21). What is the function of humor, then? Do you mean to suggest that humor can be transformative and liberating?
SA: [Laughs] When I write it I believe it! I don't know if it works in real life. Making fun of things or being satirical doesn't make me feel better about things. It's a tool that enables me to talk about anything. I don't know if it necessarily changes things, or changes anybody who is listening to me. It makes dialogue possible, but I don't think it makes change possible.
AN: Are you ever afraid that the comical element will subvert attention from the gravitas of your writing?
SA: Yes, it happens all the time. People assume that you're not being serious because you're being funny. By and large I figure that people who say those sort of things aren't funny. And being funny is just how I am. I can't just stop ... [Laughs]. But it's also a personal defense, of course. When I don't want to talk about something, or when I'm uncomfortable. It's not all good, humor, but it's always serious.
AN: Your parodic intertextuality and ironic re-thinking of historic events are commonly seen as markers of postmodernity. What do you think the term "postmodernism" promises, or does not promise, with respect to your fiction? Can we understand your works of fiction better by aligning them with postmodernist ideas?
SA: Again, it's a generic label. I don't think the term "postmodernism" says anything more about my work than the term "Native American" does. It's just a label. My idea of postmodern will always be the language poets or Andy Warhol--that sort of more intellectual and less emotional work. That's how I look upon postmodernism; as more of an intellectual enterprise. And that's not me.
AN: Alternate responses to a loss of the past and of a communal feeling among your characters are repeating or re-membering, in Toni Morrison's idea of the latter. This is particularly true about your first three works of fiction--The Lone Ranger, Reservation Blues, and Indian Killer. While re-membering is a painful process, which brings back personal and collective horrors, it may also have a healing and freeing effect once memory is properly re-visited and worked-through. The character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire is actively, almost obsessively, re-membering a painful past, and is described as "the self-proclaimed storyteller of the Spokane tribe": "Thomas repeated stories constantly. All the other Indians on the reservation heard those stories so often that the words crept into dreams.... Thomas Builds-the-Fire's stories climbed into your clothes like sand, gave you itches that could not be scratched. If you repeated even a sentence from one of those stories, your throat was never the same again. Those stories hung in your clothes and hair like smoke, and no amount of laundry soap or shampoo washed them out. Victor and Junior often tried to beat those stories out of Thomas, tied him down and taped his mouth shut.... But none of that stopped Thomas, who talked and talked." Have you taken on a similar role of a storyteller? If so, for whom are you telling, and re-telling, your stories?
SA: [Laughs] Do you mean I'm irritating? Well, demographically speaking, most of the fiction in this country is bought by middle class, college-educated white women. So that's who I'm writing for. That's who's getting my stories in their hair like smoke. If you go to my readings, that's who's there. At the beginning I had ambitions about a specific audience, but now I write for pretty much everybody. I want everybody! And I'm not waiting for people to come to my stories, I'm going to them. I want the whole world to smell like story-smoke, my story-smoke! So in that sense I'm like Thomas. Thomas is really obsessed about making sure that people hear him, but his world-view is tiny in terms of his audience. My world-view was small in the beginning, too. Now, it has expanded.
AN: According to some, man is a fiction-making animal, one that is defined by fantasies and fiction. Peter Brooks, for instance, sees the narrative impulse as an attempt to cope with the human facts of our existence in the body and in time, that is, with death. Silence, as equivalent to death, is what must be avoided in order to "remain in the world." I am curious to hear some of your thoughts on such existential claims as to the function of literature.
SA: That's a very serious way to put it, I guess. I think what that definition is missing is the element of play. Even animals play, even animals create fiction. Narrative is play and we all practice that. I think that's more of what it is.
AN: That's a postmodern idea, narrative as play.
SA: Is it? Well, I guess I am a postmodern writer then. [Laughs] But the play could be very serious. The thing is: I love telling stories. I'm not in agony when I'm telling stories. I'm not serious. Most of the time I'm pretty excited!
AN: I suppose that Brooks's theorizing on the narrative drive doesn't exclude the question of play. What he is talking about is that narrative drive we have, the desire to create plots out of our lives.
SA: Well, yes. I would agree with him on that. When I'm really in the groove, everything disappears. The whole world just fades away and it's just me and the story. I do know that that's when I feel closest to God, whatever God is. That's when I feel like I'm praying. I never feel spiritual anywhere, except in the presence of my own stories.
AN: In trauma literature, the storytelling impulse is generally seen as an attempt not only to work-through a painful past but also a necessary means to break through the silence imposed by trauma. In my own work, I conceive of silent suffering as the endurance of pain over time, while complaint, or conscious suffering, should be understood as the beginning of narrative. If attended to by another's anticipation and empathy, the silence imposed by trauma can be broken through. In your view, could an imaginary reader--any reader that the writer has in mind when writing his/her text--fulfill the function of a "witness" who attends emphatically to the text's complaint (through an act of engagement and remembering)?
SA: The ideal reader would do that. But as the reader takes the story or witnesses it, doesn't he or she use it to witness their own lives? I don't think the readers jump across the text to the author very much, except in a very generic way, An ideal reader would, but real readers don't. I wish I had an ideal reader!
AN: Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write?
SA: I gave up predicting what readers will do, or wanting a certain reaction. It's just impossible to know. That's a serious control issue if you think you know what your readers are going to do. I like to think of myself as the ideal reader. Not necessarily of any individual texts, but I love everything, and I approach everything with excitement and love. I'm a reading addict. I love books, comics, magazines--everything! So I guess an ideal reader for me would be less about a specific reaction to the work than a way in which they approach it. I just want passion!
AN: In my own work, I contend that traumatic inarticulateness is typically accompanied by an inherent need to break the silence imposed on the traumatized victim. The silence of trauma, I argue, is broken out of necessity, since a trauma unrelieved will typically lead to neurosis or pathology, i.e., illness or violence. To witness, or to endure such suffering, would be deeply disturbing to say the least. Would you say that your characters in this sense simply suffer their pain in time? Or do some of them transform their pain into suffering? Does your fiction, in a sense, give them the right to suffer? Does it assign their suffering an ethical (metaphysical) value?
SA: Oh, God. Huge question!
AN: Because in your first three works of fiction in particular, there is a lot of suffering ...
SA: Oh, yes. It's terrible! I myself as a person have gotten out of that, and my characters have gotten out of it in a way. I was suffering with the characters earlier when I was writing. What they felt, I felt. Because the work was so autobiographical, it was like reliving it again. In a therapeutic sense, I guess you could say that. That also happens in therapy. You talk about it, you say it!
AN: Like Freud's idea of the "talking cure"?
SA: Yes. I've done play-acting, reenacting, taking the voices of all the people.... The thing is, that when you're in therapy doing this crap you do the exact same crap you do as a writer. So I don't know that it helps writers. Because the thing that fucked you up in the first place is what you're doing again. As for the characters--I make them suffer! I specifically designed them to be suffering. John Smith, for instance, there's no redemption there; there's no healing, there's no talking cure. For a lot of the characters there's no cure. All there is, is suffering. The whole point of their identity is suffering. What keeps coming back to me is that when I think about Indians all I think about is suffering. My first measure on any Indian is pain.
AN: In an earlier interview, you have stated that if there is one thing you would like to achieve as a writer it would be to contribute to the building of an American Indian Holocaust museum. In the poem, "The Game Between the Jews and the Indians is Tied Going Into the Bottom of the Ninth Inning," you draw a parallel between the experience of the Jewish people and the Indians: "Now, when you touch me, my skin / will you think of Sand Creek, Wounded Knee / What will I remember / when your skin is next to mine / Auschwitz, Buchenwald?" And in the poem, "Inside you also draw a parallel between the Jewish Holocaust and the centuries of colonization that Indians in the present day US have been subjected to: "We are the sons / and daughters of the walking dead. We have lost everyone. / What do we indigenous people want from our country? / We stand over mass graves. Our collective grief makes us numb. / We are waiting for the construction of our museum." In your opinion, is the term "holocaust" applicable when describing the effects of five centuries of colonization on the Indian peoples of what is today the US? Are genocides comparable?
SA: Yes, I think genocides are comparable. The difference is that this country did what they planned to do. Hitler didn't get to finish it. He didn't get to accomplish it.
AN: What about the risk of de-historicizing unique experiences of oppression, then? There are, for instance, varying views in academia as to whether you can use the term "holocaust" or not, with regards to other events than the Jewish Holocaust, which is considered a unique event by many. Demographer Russell Thornton does, however, refer to what happened in this country as "The American Indian Holocaust."
SA: I call it that. It's a political move to call it that. It's rebellious. I'm sure it could be interpreted as anti-Semitic in a way of claiming ownership of somebody else's word. But I call it that to draw direct parallels in a way that people don't want to. People outside of this country will tend to view what happened here as genocide. But you will not get people to admit that here. It's a very exclusivist view. People will not even own to the fact that they live in a colony. That it's still a colony. They won't even accept that term, let alone the idea of genocide. So it's very much a political move on my part to call it a Holocaust. I realize the term was generated to mean something specific, but I want it to mean more. They had the same ambitions, and the end result is the same. So yes, I want what happened here to receive the same sort of sacred respect that what happened in Germany does. I want our dead to be honored.
AN: Are genocides comparable?
SA: It's not necessarily a comparison. I'm not measuring the size. One death is too many. But I think other people measure the value of lives differently. Some deaths are more important. And I think they're all important. I want them all to be acknowledged. I think we end up measuring them by their success rate rather than the philosophy that started it. We talk about the genocide itself rather than the genocidal impulse. And it's easy to become a Nazi.
AN: The focus and mood has slightly shifted in your two latest books, The Toughest Indian in the Worm and Ten Little Indians. Rather than exploring the terrain of reservation life where anger times imagination is the ascribed method for survival, your characters have entered the urban scene where they continually negotiate between their Indian identity, their "American" identity (whatever that is), and other identities based on, for example, sexuality, class, and generation. While many of your characters in your earlier works seem to be denied subjectivity, or character, and have been assigned, as it were, to such mental reservations as stereotypes, it seems that your "new" characters are beginning to claim, and attain, subjectivity. In that capacity, many of them seem to be exploring the inner and intimate landscape of love--searching for love, holding on to love, falling in love, failing love, etc. There are portraits of loving fathers and husbands, ethnically mixed marriages, one of them lesbian, where your characters "lov[e] each other across the distance," and then there is, of course, Seymour who goes on a non-violent killing spree in search of love. You have said that when you read the line "I'm in the reservation of my mind" from a poem by Pauite poet Adrian Louis you knew that you wanted to be a writer. How would you say that Louis's concept of "the reservation of my mind" relates to the characters I have referred to, let us call them love-seeking? Do your "new" characters so to speak alter how you relate to Louis's concept of a "mental reservation"?
SA: As an Indian the idea of the reservation is always there. You grow up firmly within borders. As you grow up as an Indian, you know mathematically for certain your ethnicity. I'm 13/16 Indian. Everything is assigned and valued and placed. When I was born, I had a social security number and a tribal identification number. So I think my new characters carry that idea of borders into their love lives and into their new lives. Even if they can be successful, the idea of borders goes beyond their ethnicity and into their personal decisions, and they limit themselves in other ways. Love for me has always been political. It has always been informed by the reservation, and it still is. I guess some of my characters are trying to get away from that.
AN: Love is very much in focus in your two last books, The Toughest Indian in the Worm and Ten Little Indians.
SA: Yes. I've been married for ten years, more than a quarter of my life now. And the changes in my life have been dramatic. My house is 1300 square feet. This [where we are sitting] is my floor. But I grew up poor! So to survive I had to assign a certain set of values for myself, when it came to measuring any emotion. I was so rigid that I had to set up a way of survival that was really mercenary, and narcissistic. My characters go through similar things. Once you get to a place where you have financial success or security, when you don't have to Worry about the light bill or food, and you still have all those mercenary narcissistic feelings, what do you do? What do you do when survival is assured? Then it really gets complicated. Worrying about racism is easy! Easy! Dealing with racism is easy, compared with dealing with being in love.
AN: Love is tough. It's hard work.
SA: Yes, it is. And it's the stuff I go through, and that I see now. I couldn't see all this stuff before. I was fundamental. I was so focused on Indian identity I didn't look at the details. So having children, having friends, my life diversifying--all that has changed me. When you talk about love, part of what I write is simply fantasy fulfillment. Part of it is simply alternative worlds--taking an emotion and going somewhere with it. So back again to the play. I'm no longer a reservation Indian. I don't want to be extraordinary anymore, or exotic.
AN: Just ordinary?
SA: Yes, just ordinary. Low bar again. I want to be the triumph of the ordinary!
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Blekinge Institute of Technology
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