Sherman Alexie is one the most celebrated Native American voices in modern times. With his bestselling fiction, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, along with his work on films like Smoke Signals, the Northwest native continues to reach a growing audience. Alexie spoke with WW about his new book, Ten Little Indians.
Willamette Week: I was struck by the courage with which you wrote many of these stories. Some of your statements are so brash. For instance, your remarks about Leonard Peltier in the story "Estelle Walks Above" are the type that no doubt elicits quite a lot criticism from liberals. Your character says that Leonard Peltier's imprisonment is "the natural result of his having picked up a gun in the first place."
Sherman Alexie: Well, it's not courage. Using Estelle, I was able to tell the truth. Some Indians shot two FBI agents. Right or wrong, they shot them, right? That's a crime. That's never mentioned. They always say, "Free Leonard Peltier." I never hear them say, "Find the guys who did it." So it's not so much courageous as it is not letting one set of ideas determine how I look at the world.
What shocked me was the implication that Peltier deserves imprisonment for attempting to defend himself and his elders.
There were a lot of crimes committed during that era. The FBI was awful. The "goon squad" was awful, and AIM [the American Indian Movement] was awful. It was men shooting at men, and a lot of people died. I can't agree with any movement that involves guns.
Let's talk about the writing itself. I woke up this last Memorial Day having dreamt vividly about one of your characters. Only, upon reflection, I couldn't decide which of your characters it had been. They all seem to sort of blend together, after the fact--the result being a poetry-writing, basketball-playing, solitude-loving Indian, with some variations on sex, income level and alcohol intake. Would you say that this compilation is an adequate description of you yourself, or is it much more fictive than that?
It's so funny. You know there's purposely only one Indian in the whole book that drinks?
Yeah, but he drinks a lot.
Well, I think that fairly describes me. I've been sober 11 years, but that describes me.
In The New Yorker, you say the end of "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" reads like a film, in pictures. The image of a homeless drunk dancing reverently on a street corner in his grandmother's lost regalia is ghostly. Where did that come from?
I just wrote it, and then I said to myself, "Oh shit, I didn't
mean to do that!" I don't always know. I mean, it's not magic. Everybody's brain works faster than their ability to understand it. The only thing I can liken it to is on the basketball court. Sometimes you make a great pass and you don't even know the guy's going to be open. You've assimilated all the information so quickly that your hands make the decision before your brain does. A great scene in a story or a great image in a poem can happen just like a great pass in basketball. You know, you throw the ball and you say, "Shit, I just did that!" And then you jump up and down and celebrate.
by Sherman Alexie
(Grove Atlantic Press, 288 pages, $24)
Sherman Alexie will appear at Twenty- third Avenue Books, 1015 NW 23rd Ave., 224-6203. 7:30 pm Wednesday, June 4.