“At least half the country thinks the mascot issue is insignificant. But I think it’s indicative of the ways in which Indians have no cultural power,” he said. “We’re still placed in the past. So we’re either in the past or we’re only viewed through casinos.”
To be shown this weekend on Moyers and Company.
The most disheartening aspect of this collection is the fact that, over 20 years, the jokes themselves haven’t changed. Alexie’s narrators and protagonists still see themselves as solitary outcasts on the margins of reservation life, and it shows: we hear a great deal about vodka, meth, commodity canned beef and horn-rimmed government glasses, but nothing about the intricacies of tribal politics, struggles over natural resources or efforts to preserve indigenous cultural life. Of course, a fiction writer follows the dictates of his own imagination, not any political or cultural agenda, but that’s precisely the point: Alexie’s world is a starkly limited one, and his characters’ vision of Native America, despite their sometimes crippling nostalgia, is as self-consciously impoverished as it has ever been. What began as blasphemy could now just as easily be described as a kind of arrested development. Perhaps, willingly or not, that is the lesson he’s trying to teach us.
From the NYTs review:
My favorite is Sherman Alexie’s “Strange Day in July,” in which demonically clever twins expand their ranks by declaring a certain dress to be their triplet sister, and then bully everyone in sight into playing along with them. It’s a cheeky, oddball premise, and Alexie carries it off with breezy aplomb. Of course, just when the twins appear on the verge of having their every desire fulfilled, their plan boomerangs with a vengeance. In life, it seems, as in this beguiling book, no one ever really gets the last word.
Salon’s recent debasement of American literature as represented by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth is hilarious reading for Americans who are people of color, especially in my view American Indians. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the giants of American literature aren’t worthy of such an honor, I am in agreement with Salon that these American giants are “insular and self-involved.”
They are, but what’s worse — they are fearful, fearful of writing about and engaging in race. Europeans, Asians, Africans, American people of color, and virtually everyone else sees how truly pathetic American discourse on race has become. Derrick Bell’s passing reminds us how far Americans have to go before they can confront the undeniably racialized origins of the United States. Derrick Bell, who would have fit in well in the pantheon of Nobel winners (in either literature or peace), talked about race in a way most white Americans simply will not do. Americans was colorblindness, they want neutrality, and they certainly don’t want comeuppance.
American literature, or what Salon views as a canon or sorts (exclusively white authors), is weak on race. Probably the best novel on race by Salon’s stable of worthy-ish writers is Roth’s The Human Stain. It’s good, but it’s not really a direct engagement on race. First, it’s set on campus at a liberal arts college, maybe the whitest place around, and a frequent safe ground for American writers. Second, it’s not really about race. It’s about a white guy who finds out he’s black. And he suffers horribly for it. That’s the best Americans can do?
Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich have been writing about race for decades. They confront the question of race head on. They’re honest about it, especially Alexie. Americans are racists. So are American Indians, and blacks, and Latino/as, and Asians. We all are, and American literature runs from that reality, trying to avoid it, or cover it up. Derrick Bell didn’t run from it. He dealt with it. Alexie writes about Indians in white communities, Indians who sold out to join white America and how they can’t go back home, and Indians who hate whites so much they kill them. Erdrich writes about mixed race people of every stripe you can find in the northern plains. She adds the element of gender that’s beautiful and powerful and nasty.
America’s “canon,” the people Salon deems worthy of discussion, just don’t do any of these things. Maybe they wouldn’t know how. The Nobel committee will award the Prize to someone like Alexie or Erdrich, just as they did Toni Morrison in 1993. And the American literary establishment will spend the next two decades wondering why no American has won. Really.
Sherman Alexie writes a truly excellent response to recent hand wringing about the darkness of current YA novels. From the WSJ Speakeasy blog:
Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students–teens and pre-teens–who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.
And, often, kids have told me that my YA novel is the only book they’ve ever read in its entirety.
So when I read Meghan Cox Gurdon’s complaints about the “depravity” and “hideously distorted portrayals” of contemporary young adult literature, I laughed at her condescension.
Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.
H/T, our friend and local librarian, S.D.
From the Guardian:
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Sherman Alexie takes the $15,000 PEN/Faulkner prize for fiction, beating Lorrie Moore and Barbara Kingsolver with War Dances, a short story collection described by judge Al Young as a ‘rollicking, bittersweet gem’
Sherman Alexie’s War Dances: about ‘all the hearbreaking ways we don’t live now’ Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images Europe
Native American poet and author Sherman Alexie has beaten writers including Lorrie Moore and Barbara Kingsolver to win the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction.
Alexie won the $15,000 award for War Dances, a collection of short stories about ordinary people on the brink of change, interspersed with poems. From the story of a famous author whose father is dying a “natural Indian death” from alcohol and diabetes, to the tale of a young boy writing for his local newspaper’s obituaries pages, judge Al Young — California’s poet laureate — called it a “rollicking, bittersweet gem of a book”.
“War Dances taps every vein and nerve, every tissue, every issue that quickens the current blood-pulse: parenthood, divorce, broken links, sex, gender and racial conflict, substance abuse, medical neglect, 9/11, Official Narrative vs What Really Happened, settler religion vs native spirituality; marketing, shopping, and war, war, war,” said Young. “All the heartbreaking ways we don’t live now — this is the caring, eye-opening beauty of [War Dances].”
Almost 350 novels and short story collections were considered for this year’s PEN/Faulkner award, America’s largest peer-juried prize. Established with money donated by William Faulkner from his Nobel prize winnings, former winners include EL Doctorow, John Updike, Philip Roth and Ann Patchett. The four finalists — Kingsolver, Moore, Lorraine M López and Colson Whitehead — all receive $5,000.
Alexie, author of four novels, three previous short story collections and many books of poetry, has previously won a National Book Award for young people’s literature and the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas lifetime achievement award.
Tuesday, November 10th, 2009
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Special Guest: Dennis Banks
Movie: We Shall Remain: Episode V – Wounded Knee followed by a firsthand discussion with Dennis Banks.
Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) is one of the co-founders of the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM began in Minneapolis in 1968 to prevent police brutality against urban Indians. It grew rapidly during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Banks took a leading role in the decisions leading to the takeovers of Alcatraz Island and Bureau of Indian Affairs Office in Washington D.C., to bring attention to the poor living conditions American Indians endured throughout the United States. In 2004, he authored Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement.
Thursday, November 12th, 2009
L.V. Eberhard Center, 2nd Floor, Auditorium
7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Movie: The Business of Fancydancing (Written & directed by Sherman Alexie)
Special Guests: Paul Collins, Jennifer Gauthier, Shannon Martin
Friday, November 13th, 2009
L.V. Eberhard Center, 2nd Floor
5:15 p.m.: Traditional Native American Ceremony
5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.: Journey to Forgiveness: Implications for Social Change
Special Guests: Hunter Genia, George Martin, Shannon Martin
7 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Seating is first come/first serve – overflow seating in the Eberhard Auditorium and DeVos Center)
Special Guest: Sherman Alexie
Indigenous Peoples of the Globe:
Colonization and Adaptation
Call for Papers: Great Lakes History Conference
November 13 & 14, 2009
The 34th annual Great Lakes History Conference, sponsored by Grand Valley State University’s History Department, will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan on November 13 & 14, 2009. The theme is “Indigenous Peoples of the Globe: Colonization and Adaptation.” Along with exchanging ideas and research, we also desire panels on innovative ways of teaching this year?s topic to students at every level.
We are pleased to welcome Sherman Alexie and Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk) as our keynote speakers.