Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Absolutely True Interview With Sherman Alexie, an Amazing Part-Time Indian

Written by Jesse Sposato
Native American writer, Sherman Alexie, really clarified this age-old myth for me about whether or not Native American people secretly roll their eyes at white people when they use the “I” word, “Indian,” rather than opting for the surely PC term, “Native American.” But you know what, no one really cares. No, that’s not true. “The only person,” according to Alexie, “who’s going to judge you for saying Indian is a non-Indian.”

When he’s not busy breaking down barriers, Alexie is probably writing—he’s one of those people who is every kind of writer: a poet, a fiction writer, a memoirist, a young adult novelist, and soon-to-be a murder mystery writer. Or maybe he’s off presenting a movie, working on a board for an at-risk youth organization, or helping out with a fundraiser of some sort…you know, the usual.

Alexie grew up on a reservation in Wellpinit, WA across from the tribal school, which he later swapped for Reardan High in order to break out of the pre-determined lifestyle set for him on the reservation. He takes you to this scene in the mostly autobiographical young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, like you’re going home with your new boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time to see the house, meet the pets, and of course, get to know the parents.

Sherman Alexie manages to single-handedly create an entire world for you, offering such sharp insight and detail into Native American Indian culture, that you start to feel like you should be keeping a diary as a part-time Indian yourself.

One book in, not to mention two or three, and you’re easily hooked…on fry bread, and ghost dances, and the rez. On tales of dreams and hopes and failures; the true emotions, self consciousness, beauty, and humanness of his characters; and the magical words Alexie uses to describe these things, words that dance off the pages and melt in your mouth like all the M&M's you ever wanted, but better, and more. In his books, Sherman Alexie welcomingly invites you to be a purveyor of his tell-all world; don’t miss your chance.

Jesse: Hey! Thanks for doing this, I’m really excited. I’ll just start asking you some questions.

Sherman: Okay, great!

Jesse: I have this theory that people generally have three talents, or three areas in which they excel. What do you think yours are?

Sherman (laughing): Wow, probably writing, basketball, [and] public speaking.

Jesse: Nice. You’ve written novels, young adult fiction, poetry, and even screenplays. Did you ever feel like it was hard to do all these different things at once; and even more so, do/did you feel like you could only really pursue one of them, (or that anyone can only pursue one thing) because of time, and the amount of dedication you need to really excel at any one thing in particular?

Sherman: Well, I’m sure a lot of it is just being a workaholic and obsessive compulsive. But one of the strange things about Native American writers—you know, who I was studying when I first started writing, it was them I was emulating—and all of them, (all of us) [work in several different mediums]. There is no Native writer who is what you would call a specialist.

Culturally speaking, I’m not sure why that is. You know, when I’m working at colleges, I keep suggesting to graduate students that somebody needs to do their Master’s or Ph.D. on the topic, but nobody has yet.

Jesse: Yeah, seriously! I wonder if there’s an actual connection there, or if it’s just a coincidence...

Sherman: You know, now that I’m thinking about it, there are more specialists. I’m thinking about the generation below me, the up-and-coming writers, [and] there are a lot of specialists. Oh, that’s interesting. See, now you’ve got me thinking about something else!

Jesse: That’s really interesting. Do you ever feel like it’s hard to juggle all of those things, or are they kind of intertwined, making it easier to do so?

Sherman: Well, I mean, it’s always tough. I always feel beleaguered and battered by my job. It’s a good feeling I guess…every book is competing for my [your] attention, and then you end up feeling like you’re neglecting one for the other. In other words, when it comes to my books, I feel like a terrible parent!

Jesse: That’s a really great analogy!

So, how “Native American” did you grow up, and how much of your knowledge comes from later research? Did you always feel really in touch with your Native American roots?

Sherman (laughing): I grew up on the reservation across from the tribal school. So, I mean, in terms of geography and actual placement, I am way rez! But, you know, I was a basketball player growing up so I wasn’t—I’m still not very religious—so I wasn’t a ceremonial guy.

Jesse: Did you find growing up, that you faced a lot of prejudice for being Native American?

Sherman: You know, that’s one of the things that’s definitely changed, certainly in Eastern Washington. There was a lot of random racial slurring growing up, and there’s far less of that now in Eastern Washington than there was when I was a kid.

I remember once my mom and dad and my brothers and sisters and I were walking in Spokane and a truck pulled up and the guy inside leaned out and called us dirty Indians and spit on us.

Jesse: Wow…

Sherman: I can’t imagine that happening now.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s pretty crazy, especially being a kid.

Obviously growing up on the reservation, you were surrounded by other Native Americans, but did you feel like when you went to Reardan [High School], there was a change?; was there prejudice there?

Sherman: Oh, yeah, there were still segments of the town that didn’t necessarily like me, but, by and large, whatever stereotypes they held about us, I broke immediately because I didn’t fit any of them.

I think it’s still the case that, because they knew me and they knew how Indian I was, it changed their ideas about Indians in general. Just to give you some idea, my high school’s twentieth year class reunion was held at an Indian casino.

Jesse: That’s awesome!

Sherman: Yeah, so the whole [dynamic] between the two towns has changed dramatically. There’s about sixty or seventy Indian kids who go to that school now. I was the pioneer, but nobody remembers that now.

Jesse: That’s a good trend to start!

What do you think is one of the largest myths or misconceptions about Native American culture and the way people perceive it in today’s day and age, and also just in history?

Sherman: That we have magical, spiritual powers. That we are environmental superheroes…

Jesse: You do write a bit about things that seem sort of magical, like ghost dancing…but I guess that’s just kind of Native American myth?

Sherman: Yeah, it’s [they are] myths that feel real. Or I should say that, you know, our ceremonies are not any more or less metaphorical than anybody else’s. When I do communion, I don’t really believe I’m eating Jesus.

Jesse: You don’t?

Sherman: No. Some people do. I’m not one of them.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s interesting. Okay, more specifically, where did you get the idea for the main character in Flight, Zits, with all the journeys he takes and the different characters he becomes in each place?—I thought that was really interesting. I also wondered how you knew so much about the foster care system, and if you learned it for this book specifically, or if you knew about it already.

Sherman: Well, I’ve done a lot of work with fundraising and then being on boards for various homeless and at-risk youth organizations; and also, growing up, my family—my mother and father—were foster parents. …We ended up helping raise all sorts of cousins along the way.

Jesse: That’s awesome.

Sherman: Yeah, a lot of kids stayed with us over the years, so that was part of what I knew, I didn’t have to do much research. The idea for the kid [Zits] actually, I had reread Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse-Five, [and] his character traveling through time is very interesting to me, so I thought, I’m going to have an Indian do that...

Jesse: Yeah, that was cool. I really liked all the different places he went to. There was a lot of violence in that book too. Violence appears in a lot of your books—especially in this one I think—is this a hard subject for you to write about?

Sherman: Well, you hope it will be, but it’s not necessarily. Certainly I deal with violence because it’s real, but also, kids these days, they end up playing video games—and I have nothing against them—but they end up seeing and participating in a lot of violence that has no repercussions, whether it’s fake death everywhere, fake violence everywhere…

And so I thought, by writing a book about real violence and the real repercussions of violence, I think it plays an important role. I think play violence does too, but I want to make sure that people are also thinking about violence seriously.

Jesse: Right. Your characters definitely show remorse and real emotion. In fact, the main characters in your books, even as teenagers, are really smart and all-knowing, brave and sensitive, and just really self-aware. I’m thinking of Arnold Spirit in particular, and also Zits, I thought really had that quality as well. A lot of your characters have similar sensibilities. Is this reflective of what your personality is like, or just the type of character you’d like to portray?

Sherman: Well, I’d like to think I was as smart as those kids were. I don’t think I was.

Jesse: I don’t know if anybody was! They were pretty smart.

Sherman: But the idea of writing about smart Indians, I like doing that, period. Smart, intellectual Indians, that’s always interesting to me. And, you know, talking about my circle of friends in the Indian world, we’re all brainy geeks. There’s an unexplored genre of literature, the Native American geek genre.

Jesse:  I love that idea, Native American geek genre! Where do you get ideas for your characters; are they based on you and your friends?

Sherman: You know, the original influence is always this particular person, but by the time you end up writing ten or twelve drafts, they [the characters] change completely. But the original inspiration is usually a person.
Jesse: Yeah, it seems like a lot of writers do that. In particular, the friendship between Rowdy and Arnold in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a rich and interesting one filled with such pure love. Is this friendship based on one you know or one that you had?

Sherman: Yeah, it’s based on two of my friendships growing up on the reservation with the[se] two guys. True Diary is really a love story between two boys, [it’s about] their friendship. It really interested me to write an emotional book about young males’ friendships. We always think about girls being devoted to each other that way, but boys are too.

Jesse: Yeah! I thought you did a really, really good job. It was such a great and realistic portrayal of friendship, and especially because the characters were sooo different—they showed their love in such different ways, but it was clearly equivalent.

Did you think of that book as an autobiography, like did you set out to write something like that, or did it just kind of happen?

Sherman: It was actually part of a larger family memoir that I [quit writing and then] pulled out. So, I think in the end, I wrote a giant family memoir in order for me to be able to write this little novel.

Jesse: Wow! Do you ever plan on coming back to the memoir?

Sherman: Oh god, I hope not.

Jesse: Obviously your books are mostly about Native American culture, and aside from the often heroic, smart main character we just discussed, for the most part, you portray Native Americans as poor, kind of sad sacks with not a lot of hope, or chances. Do you feel like by painting such a negative picture of Native Americans, you perpetuate that sentiment at all, or more like just the opposite?

Sherman: I think most literature is about sad people. I mean, look at that happy-go-lucky, War and Peace.

Jesse: Right…

Sherman: Literature is the study of human weakness. I just happened to write the Native American version of it.

Jesse: Interesting. I never thought of it like that before. Good answer!

What do you think of artists of any kind—like authors, painters, and media makers, etc.—making work about a race, gender, or nationality that’s not their own? Like, if non-Native American people were to write about Native Americans and vice versa?

Sherman: Well, artists can follow whatever path they want to, but they should also realize that they’re gonna be held to close scrutiny by the people they’re [making] work about. They have to expect it, but it also should be seen as what it is. You know, when non-Natives write about Natives, that’s colonial literature.

It can be great literature…it can be wonderful, amazing, but it’s still colonial literature. And I think the United States forgets it colonized the Native Americans, and you know, I should say, by and large, it’s white liberals that forget that. I think white conservatives are happy they colonized Native Americans, but white liberals forget that and don’t think of themselves as being colonial.

Jesse: That’s a good point.

Sherman: And that’s not to say it can’t be great, but let’s make sure we define it.

Jesse: Yeah. On that note, do you celebrate Thanksgiving?!

Sherman (laughing): Yes! My standard response to all that is yes. You know, white folks brought me Custer, but white folks also brought me Bruce Springsteen, so I’ll be giving thanks for Bruce Springsteen.

Jesse: Do you do all of the traditional things like make a turkey and stuff?

Sherman: Yup, [we] make a turkey, invite our lonely white friends over. We live up to the spirit of Thanksgiving ‘cuz we invite all of our most desperately lonely white [friends] to come eat with us. We always end up with the recently broken up, the recently divorced, the broken hearted. From the very beginning, Indians have been taking care of broken hearted white people…we just extend that tradition.

Jesse (laughing): You have created an entire world through all of your books—themes of place, people, names, attitude, and problems often intertwine. It’s really nice; I think the connectedness makes it feel like your collection of works could read like one long book or kind of like a family tree or a series of photo albums passed down from one generation to the next. Did you always set out to make these common themes like bridges from one story to the next, or do you think of them sort of separately?

Sherman: I love the whole idea of William Faulkner writing about the same place over and over. That whole thing appeals to me, so it’s a combination of being influenced by Western literature—by Faulkner and others like him—but it’s also very tribal to focus on just this small little piece of the world, so I think I’m influenced by both things equally.

Jesse: That’s interesting, and very “write what you know.” Aside from Faulkner, what other authors or filmmakers or any kind of artists influence you or your work?

Sherman: John Steinbeck, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, James Wright…I can go on and on.

Jesse: So, it seems like inspiration from other artists plays a big part in your own writing?

Sherman: Yeah, I was on a panel with Junot Díaz a few weeks ago in New York, and he said an interesting thing. He said that he really thinks his job is reading. He said he just writes so that he can read more.

Jesse: That’s interesting. It totally makes sense.

Sherman: Yeah, you know, being a freelance writer gives him a lot of time to read. I like that. I’m stealing that from him.

Jesse: You have a new collection of poetry coming out next year, and another young adult novel, Radioactive Love Song. Can you give us a sneak preview?

Sherman: Fate, how to describe it—that’s the first time anybody’s asked me about a book of poems! It’s far rowdier. I think because I was working in the young adult world, poetry became an outlet for my very adult thoughts, so I think you would call it a very political, very…it’s an NC-17 book. It’s about sex and Mount Rushmore.

And then the young adult novel is about a kid dealing with the death of his mother by going on a road trip…with his mother’s iPod, so it’s a road trip novel.

Jesse: Cool. Do you plan on sticking with young adult novels for a while, or just continuing to do kind of whatever you feel like?

Sherman: I just added another genre! (laughing) Yeah, it’s been so fun to be in the young adult world. I’m gonna stay there definitely, and I’ll keep writing my other stuff too.

Jesse: How did you make the transition in the first place?; what was the motivation behind starting to enter the young adult world?

Sherman: They just kept asking! Well, that was part of it, and also, young people are so excited about books and so anxious and eager. I just looked back to myself as a sixteen-year-old and how much I loved reading and how a book could completely change my life…so I just like the idea of trying to write for all those versions of me out there, wherever they are.

Jesse: Right, totally. That’s sort of the way I explain starting Sadie, like the idea is trying to speak to sixteen-year-old me.

Sherman: There you go, exactly! And that was just confirmed when I went on a book tour and I visited all these high schools. [There are] just all these amazing kids out there, so it’s fun! And it’s fun in a way that…I certainly love my adult audiences, but, I don’t know, I just end up feeling like I matter more to the teenagers.

Jesse: You probably do in a way! Because teenagers are so malleable... Is there anything else you’re working on, or do you know what you’re going to work on next?

Sherman: I also have a book of short stories coming out next year, that’s called, I Just Can’t Get You Out of My Head. And then a new adult novel called Fire with Fire.

Jesse: Wow. You’re very prolific! What’s that about?

Sherman: It’s a murder mystery.

Jesse: Another new genre, huh! You know, speaking of a different genre, the movie you wrote, Smoke Signals is so different than The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I realize now that it was only kind of based on the one short story, which makes sense, but it seems to sort of encompass other things throughout the book. Was it hard to turn that book/story into a movie?

Sherman: It wasn’t that tough really. I just ignored the book in a way, and started all over. It’s never been hard for me to write a screenplay, it’s just that nobody wants to make the movies!

So, I’m either really a terrible screenwriter, or I’m a great one because nobody wants to make a great movie, I don’t know. I could, in fact, finish a screenplay today. They’re only 120 pages, and everybody’d love to read it and nobody would make it.

Jesse: Do you think there are any (aside from your own obviously) movies, books, or examples of Native American culture in the media that seem to show an accurate portrayal of (Native American) culture as you know and understand it?

Sherman: Yeah, but novels and fiction and poetry and short stories, it’s still just one person’s idea of what “Indian” is. I think Frozen River, an independent movie out there right now that deals with the Mohawk reservation, is an amazing movie.

Jesse: Oh, cool. And I was reading about The Exiles , the movie you have been presenting with Charles Burnett, and that seems like it would be pretty close to your heart.

Sherman: Yeah, the exiles, the first generation of people who left the reservation for urban areas. My mom was relocated for about twelve hours: got off the bus from Sacramento, had a bowl of soup, got on the bus, and went back home.

Jesse: Nice. What does it entail for you to co-present a movie, and what has that experience been like so far?

Sherman: At a lot of film festivals in my region here, I’ve introduced it and then done Q&A about the film. And then I’ve done a lot of media—interviews on NPR, [in] magazines. And also having my name on the box for the DVD when it comes out—Charles Burnett and I—so it’s just been a lot of media, which I think just makes people pay more attention. Also, they really wanted to have a Native American person sort of give it the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, so that was part of it.

Jesse: Okay so, I have to ask…what about the Native American vs. Indian thing, like is it really uncouth for people who are non-Indian to use the word Indian?

Sherman (laughing): Just think of Native American as the formal version and Indian as the casual one.

Jesse: So, you’re not going to be judged if you’re not a Native American or Indian person and you say “Indian”?

Sherman: The only person who’s going to judge you for saying “Indian” in a non-Indian.

Jesse: That’s such a good point. Okay, great, that’s good to know! Is there anything else I didn’t ask you or didn’t touch on that you’d like to share?

Sherman: I like your magazine.

Jesse: Thank you! I’m glad you checked it out. Thanks so much for doing this!

Sherman: Thank you!

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