A Conversation with Sherman Alexie
A couple of winters ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Spokane, Washington, to interview the great Sherman Alexie just before the release of his latest book of poetry, Face. I was worn-out and deep into some dark winter months of making a record, and I couldn’t wait to cross the continent to refresh my inspiration by meeting one of the people whose art made me feel brave enough to try to write things down in my own words. The fact that Alexie was going to be on home turf was extra special in my mind. Eastern Washington was a place I called home for much of my life, so to return there meant a great deal to me. The fact is, there aren’t very many writers from Washington, and even fewer who speak the language of kids who grew up in poverty there, and probably less than a handful of those speak the poetry of our region. “Our” trees are not “their” trees, if you know what I mean.
Sherman Alexie is a Spokane Indian who grew up on the reservation in eastern Washington from the time of his birth, in 1966. He stayed on there through the early ’80s. Much of Alexie’s family still live on the Spokane reservation, and their hometown, Wellpinit, has been vividly created and re-created in many of his books, short stories, and poems.
Alexie’s first book, the story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), quickly brought him international acclaim and established him as a powerful presence in American literature. One of the stories from that book, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” was the basis for the screenplay of his widely acclaimed feature, Smoke Signals, which he also wrote. Alexie has published thirteen books of poetry, four novels, and four story collections, and has won many honors, including a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. His work has been translated into dozens of languages, including Swahili, Punjabi, Japanese, Hungarian, and Hebrew.
We met at a hotel restaurant in downtown Spokane, where we recorded this interview. Sherman then took me on a tour of the breathtaking Spokane reservation, as well as surrounding places of interest that feature prominently in his work. One highlight of the tour followed the next: I watched an emotional Alexie address a diverse and loving hometown crowd at a reading, then watched him speak one-on-one with some young students considered by the school system to be “at risk.” They told him to his face that The Absolutely True Diary made them hungry to read for the first time ever, because someone spoke in “their” language—the way kids really talk where they’re from. They confessed it was their own idea to wear ties to come meet him in person, out of respect.
We ended the two-day excursion, most appropriately, by eating frybread with his family in his mom’s kitchen. I haven’t sampled every mom’s frybread on earth, but I’ll stand in front of a Supreme Court judge and swear that hers is the best ever, throughout all time, anywhere in this galaxy.
I. A BREAST-MILK FARM
NEKO CASE: You’re really supersmart, and I think you’re really awesome.
SHERMAN ALEXIE: [Laughs]
NC: I’m not a historian, and I’m not well educated, but I’ve been taught by my stepfather not to believe anything I hear about North American history, which I think is really interesting and pretty much true. Do you think history is knowable? Where do you go when you really need answers?
SA: Oh, god… literature!
NC: Just literature in general?
SA: Yeah. I mean, I think you take the sum of history. You add it all up and then you come to a place, right?
NC: I just go with my heart most of the time.
SA: It’s like that for me with politics. I mean, I’m a liberal, I’m way left, but I also know that we’re full of shit, too. So I read a lot of the far right, and pay attention to that, because I know that we’re in a big mess and the way to see it is to get inside of it. And it’s not left or right, it’s some combination of—
NC: It’s not about being on the same sports team, or whatever. There has to be some uniting going on for people to be happy, because everybody wants the same thing.
NC: There’s the crazy people who are megalomaniacs who want power. And then there’s everybody else, who wants to be nice to their families and eat and—
SA: —have a chance at some advancement in their lives.
NC: Exactly. Or they just want to sit down and not think about being worried for ten minutes, and read a book, or whatever they want to do.
SA: Yeah. I think the same way about history. I know the accepted version’s not accurate.
NC: Not even close.
SA: Not even close. But I don’t think the revisionist historians are accurate, either. I mean, I think their agendas are clouded by selfishness and anger and rage.
NC: Yeah, like postfeminist theory in art school. Oh, it’s oppressive! [Laughs] I don’t wanna paint with my menstrual blood! I just wanna learn how to use this printing press, man! Come on!
SA: [Laughs] That just killed me! Oh, man…
NC: That really happened, actually. Several times.
SA: Really? God.
NC: It’s pretty funny.
SA: I don’t know if you saw that thing where PETA sent that letter to Ben & Jerry’s, requesting that they start making their ice cream with breast milk—human breast milk…
NC: I didn’t see that. Is there going to be a breast-milk farm? How do you get that much breast milk, is my question. Don’t the babies kind of already need the breast milk that’s out there?
SA: [Laughs] You know, all these poor people—that’s PETA’s response to the decline and depression: we’re going to employ all these women to make ice cream. I mean, they’ll be lining up!
NC: That sounds really—uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? I can’t even think of it…
SA: Fuckin’ insane?
NC: Fuckin’ insane, yes.
II.THE DIAMONDS ARE EVERYWHERE
NC: It makes you bummed out when there are groups out there that say lots of things that you really agree with, but then they co-opt it so hard, they kind of ruin it for everybody else.
NC: I’ve always had a really hard time with the feminists of the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe it’s because I’m too close to see it from the historical perspective. I’d like to. Like the way I imagine those women who were going to jail and wearing corsets and marching up the front steps of—wherever in New York City people march up steps—so that women could vote! It’s idealized and romantic in my mind.
I think my favorite more modern feminist is Angela Carter. She was fantastic! She was so humorous and wasn’t an elitist, and she really loved men. She realized they were getting just as shitty a deal as the ladies, so… I don’t know. I’m so conflicted inside. I don’t know what being a woman means. I sometimes have to temper my sentimentality with a little bit of—
NC: Exactly. If you start a sentence by telling people how bad they are, they’re never going to listen to you. You’re just going to preach to the choir forever.
SA: I read it all. I watch it all. FOX News, conservative commentators…
NC: And you distill within yourself where your heart tells you it should go.
NC: [Pause] So… does it make me a dick that I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins when I was a kid?
SA: Oh god, no! I loved that book, too.
NC: Really? Because I was like, Is that just one of those books that white people were writing to sound like they knew what it was like to be an Indian? But when I was seven—
SA: Kind of, yeah.
NC:When I was seven years old I needed a female role model so bad, and I thought she was so cool, I was like, “Ooh!”
SA: [Sighs] I mean, I was more fundie about this stuff before, earlier in my life. I don’t care as much now. The problem is not creation of the art or representation of Indians by non-Indians, it’s who gets to have authority.
SA: Nobody ever asks us to have authority. Nobody assigns us authority. I’ve got it now, but…
NC: Do you ever feel like it’s kind of like that episode of Star Trek, the one where Captain Kirk goes to this planet and he’s trapped there with a crazy lizard monster that walks really slow, and you’re like, “You could just run away, Captain Kirk!”
SA: [Laughs] Yeah.
NC: But he looks around and he totally—it’s like, the first MacGyver episode ever—he looks around and he’s like, “Planet! Covered with sulfur!” [Laughs] And so he finds a piece of bamboo, and there’s diamonds lying around everywhere, and there’s carbon lying around everywhere. Don’t you feel like TV has kind of made people not see the diamonds that are lying all over the ground? Do you feel like it’s all about bluffing? You could, in this day and age, go, “I’m going to assign myself the authority, and so it’s going to be so.”
NC: In my life, that’s what I want to be able to do with art, is to point out to everybody: “There’s just a fog over what you’re seeing! But I swear to god, there’s diamonds and sulfur, and you could make these awesome guns and defeat the evil slow-moving lizard guy! The diamonds are everywhere! You’ve just gotta look. They’re right there!”
NC: Do you think things are changing, in that younger people are going to be able to see that a lot easier and assign themselves the authority and just step up?
SA: I hope so. I mean, we have a black president. Probably that’s largely a result of young people. I certainly notice when I travel among young folks that—just to name one topic—race is far less of an issue. But then they also get older, and they get protective and defensive…
NC: People get scared. They really do.
SA: But I also sometimes think, If things get really good, what’s my job?
NC: I know. When I started playing music, there weren’t a whole lot of ladies. And when more ladies came on the scene, I had a few moments of being a little jealous, like, “But I’m the lady who does this!” I had to say to myself, “You know what? You need to celebrate this. This is what you always wished would happen.” Ever since I made that change in my life, it’s been great. I was like, “You can’t be jealous of other ladies!”
III. PEOPLE COMPLETELY ZERO THEMSELVES OUT
NC: How does it feel to have a study guide in the back of your book?
NC: Does that freak you out, or does it make you feel really cool, or…?
SA: I’ve never even really read it.
NC: But you know it’s there.
SA: Yeah. I mean, I get taught in hundreds of colleges and high schools, so… it’s freaky! It’s the kind of stuff you can’t think too much about. Because, I mean, the attention… you have to—
NC: Do you think there’s a weird amnesia that people have built in for self-protection?
SA: You have to! Or you become some insufferable, arrogant prick. And I’ve seen them. I know them.
NC: Oh, yeah. Me, too.
SA: They believe it! They believe it! It’s like, when people are in line and you’re signing books and you’re talking to them, they just hand over their lives to you. And it’s too easy to let that become a completely one-sided adulation of yourself. People just completely zero themselves out in your presence, and you can’t let them do it. They won’t even tell you their names sometimes.
NC: I know, it hurts my feelings when they come up and they’re like, “I know you get this all the time, I’m sorry, I don’t want to bother you, I’m just a whatever, I’m just a stupid person.” You’re like, “No! People wouldn’t write books for you to read if they didn’t care about you in the first place, whether they’ve ever met you or not!” You always want people to know that, but they don’t always.
SA: I tell them, “I write this shit for you!” But a lot of writers won’t admit to that, a lot of artists won’t admit to that. They’ll get artistic, or pretentious, or, you know, talk about some “higher calling.” The fact is, I want to move rooms full of people. I want to move someone sitting alone under a reading lamp. I want to move someone sitting on a beach. I want to make them laugh and cry. I want them to see me and come running up to me and tell me how the books made them feel. I love that!
NC: What would you want your readers to know about you that they don’t know?
NC: What do you desperately want your readers to know about you? Like, even if it’s one little simple fact.
SA: Oh, no…
NC: Is that too big of a cannon to boom off?
SA: [Exhales] I mean, certainly one of the things I was talking about: I’m a big fan, too. I’m a fanboy! So, you know the way in which they love what I do? I feel the same way about all sorts of artists. I may create the stuff, but I’m also a huge fan. So, I mean, I understand.
NC: Wouldn’t it be terrible if you weren’t a huge fan?
SA: There are a lot of people like that.
NC: I know! I think about those people all the time. I think, God, you must be so lonely. You’re not excited about things. Or people who believe that artists have to be completely tortured to do anything good. I hate that stereotype, too. It’s destructive.
SA: It’s partially torture. [Laughs]
SA: But people encourage their own torture, or perpetuate their own torture.
NC: It’s more like giving-birth torture, which is good. Like, you have to push the idea to where it’s a little bit painful for you, as in “I don’t wanna work on this anymore!” But you need to keep on to have the breakthrough, and then you’re like, “Yes! I feel killer! I’ve made it to the next level!”
SA: The process is painful. Your whole life doesn’t have to be.
NC: Do you enjoy the process of writing your books as much as the being-done?
SA: No! [Laughs] It’s hard! I mean, I’m prolific, so it’s not so hard that I can’t do it, but—
NC: It takes a lot of taco chips?
SA: Yes. Yes.
NC: Is there a lot of nervous standing up and feeling like, OK, I gotta fill my mouth with taco chips?
SA: Oh, god. I’m horrible!
NC: It’s like how some people smoke. That’s how I drink iced tea, so I totally know what you’re saying.
SA: You can always tell when I’m writing, because I’m gaining weight. I mean, I go up and down like crazy. If I didn’t work out, I’d be three hundred pounds.
IV. WHERE IS THE FATHER?
NC: One of the main things I really latch onto in your work, aside from your language and the way you talk about things and the way your characters talk, is the mystery of fathers. Since you have two boys of your own now, do you feel any closer to unraveling the mystery of fathers? I mean, do you understand it better? Do you feel more comfortable with it?
SA: It’s a pretty basic formula. You’ve gotta get on the floor.
NC: You write a lot about your own father, and some of the things you’ve written have been so cathartic for me to read, and just so beautiful. The end of that book where you say something like “If you didn’t hate your father what would you have to do?” Then, in your new book, the deer-story poem broke my heart—in the best way. I was totally bawling. But that line where you say, “Your dead daddy is a dangerous man, he is the engine you can’t understand.” That was heavy. [Laughs] I guess even after people die, they don’t really go away.
SA: Oh, no.
NC: Does having your own children make you feel more comfortable with that person who’s still with you, even though he’s not physically alive?
SA: In some ways it’s weird. As much as he was a nice guy and I love him, he caused me so much pain, nagging me and all that stuff. But in a way, I use him. I keep thinking, Well, in this situation, I’m going to do the opposite of what my dad did. So, those lessons, those ideas… I mean, I didn’t get told “I love you” enough. I certainly didn’t get hugged enough. Promises were constantly broken, you know?
NC: Basic things that kids really need to form a great feeling of identity—
SA: Self-esteem. So I’m hyperaware of that stuff.
SA: Conversely, when I do feel like I’m failing my kids, it just sends me into agony. Even the slightest disappointment—I agonize on it. So in a lot of ways I’m still the same kind of extreme parent my father was. And then I travel, which kills me.
NC: Yeah. I feel guilty being away from my dogs. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to be away from your kids.
SA: You walk around all day and think about them. I think, Why am I here? I should be there. So the guilt… I mean, my fears of being a bad father are often crippling.
NC: It’s pretty brave that you have kids, I think.
SA: No! [Laughs] That just made me think of Bill Hicks’s line “Are you proud to be American? It just means my mother and father fucked here.” You know, I’m not proud to be an American, I was just conceived here. So is being a father something incredible? All I did was fuck my wife! The difficult part came later.
NC: Right! Does your sense of humor end up intervening and kind of saving you at the—
SA: Oh, yeah. My kids are really funny. And my wife is funny.
NC: So it can pull you out of that “I’m failing them, I’m a terrible dad!”
SA: Out of the depression? Yeah. And I ask them, you know? I respect their emotions. So if they’re feeling something, they tell me or they tell their mom. I don’t punish them for being emotional or for missing me. I punish myself! [Laughs] So it’s just talk-talk-talk-talk-talk.
NC: That’s good.
SA: Silence is the deadliest thing.
V. STRIKE IT FROM YOUR DICTIONARY
NC: In your new poetry book, Face, I noticed that you’re rhyming a lot more, which I found really exciting because I love it when you’re kind of free-form and then the last two lines rhyme. That’s a real punch to the—
NC: It’s awesome.
SA: I think singing lyrics, and performance and rhyme, can give a thing more subtext.
NC: Isn’t it weird how that works? I found that if you use a major-chord melody for something really sad, and you sing it like you’re happy, it’s so much sadder than if you sing it like you’re sad. Why is that?
SA: I don’t know. A counterpoint? I don’t know.
NC: It’s like it’s wearing a disguise that sneaks around people’s defenses or something. It’s like it’s wearing an Inspector Clouseau mustache, sneaking past: “Doo de doo! Now I gotcha!”
SA: Yeah, that’s part of it. [Laughs]
NC: What advice would you give to your enemy, or your perceived enemy?
SA: One of the things I’ve done in my life is—people on the far right who are supposed to be my enemies? I’ve started emailing them. I’ve found their addresses or their emails, or I’ve emailed their websites—some very public right-wingers—and I’ve befriended them. So part of me is trying not to have enemies.
NC: Just trying to dissolve that word?
SA: Yeah. Because I know that there are people who want to hurt me. I know there are people who would love to kill me.
SA: Yeah. For various reasons. Because I’m an American, I know there’s all sorts of international folks who would gladly kidnap and behead me. On TV. I know there are white supremacists in the United States who would happily hunt me down in the woods. But that’s so minuscule—the number of people who are like that. The chances are so small. I think the bigger problem is that, on both sides, we fight people whose politics are different than ours with the worst of that. Like their efforts to equate Obama with Ayers, or to equate McCain with Timothy McVeigh. Or, you know, to call Bush “Hitler.” The need to make someone who disagrees with you into something extreme—to turn him into a monster.
NC: So the advice you would give your enemy is: try to make it more gray than black and white?
SA: Just strike that word from your dictionary.
NC: This is something I’ve been asking a lot of people since I met this Australian guy, I think it was in 1993. He told me, “I don’t read female writers,” and I thought, What? Then I realized I knew a great deal of men who didn’t read female writers. And, so, well… I’m sure you probably do read women. Are there any particular female writers that have really made you go, “Yeah”?
SA: Well, there’s Joy Harjo’s poetry, Leslie Marmon Silko’s books, Lorrie Moore in a big way. Some of Marianne Moore’s stuff. Rita Dove—I like some of her early stuff. Lucille Clifton is amazing, she’s really a big influence on me. Gwendolyn Brooks. Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street was a big influence early on. There’re some young poets I’m really into. There’s Chelsea Rathburn, who’s had one book out. There’s Elizabeth Hadaway, who I really love. She’s poor and white, from Appalachia. I love her stuff. I could keep going.
NC: That’s great. And which Aboriginal writers do you find to be the most inspiring? For example, I always think about that story in Ten Little Indians about Corliss Joseph trying to find that poet. Did that ever happen to you?
SA: With Adrian C. Louis, a Paiute Indian poet.
NC: So did you actually go and hunt him down like Corliss Joseph?
SA: [Laughs] Uh, I wrote him letters! This is before email, so I wrote him fan letters. We became pen pals.
NC: Really? That’s so awesome!
SA: Yeah. The Indian world is great, because my poetry teacher at Wash U, Alex Kuo, was in those circles with a lot of other writers. So as soon as they heard about me, as soon as he started talking, they started calling and writing me early on. So, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, James Welch—they were mentoring me when I was just a kid writer, you know? Adrian was amazing.
NC: Was he at all like the character in the book, who didn’t really write anymore?
SA: No, no, no. He’s prolific. One of the amazing things he did—I mean, I’ll never forget this—I graduated college, couldn’t get a job. So I ended up living back on the res. All that stuff about getting off, about going to college, about getting a new life, and there I was. I was twenty-three years old, living with my mom and dad on the res, with no job, poor again. And I couldn’t even… I mean, I wrote this long, crazy poem-letter to Adrian, feeling sad and desperate. And I didn’t mean it for anything other than to express what I was feeling and, uh… he sent back a fifty-dollar bill and he said, “Whatever else is going on, make sure that you keep buying typewriter ribbon.”