“If God really loved Indians, he would have made us white people.”
“War Dances” (p. 72)
"'I called the book Blasphemy primarily because I’ve been so regularly accused of being blasphemous by white folks and Indians. But they only speak of blasphemy in its most basic terms: disrespect toward religion, toward a philosophy. I think blasphemy is actually more directed toward other human beings, and most often expressed toward those who have lesser power in society. I think human beings are sacred and that all the evil shit each of us does is blasphemous…'"
While some of his characters still live on “the rez,” Alexie has primarily become the voice of the new “urban Indian” of the Pacific Northwest. His characters are caught between two worlds, “living with one foot off the reservation, and one foot perpetually in” as Huffington Post reviewer Gazelle Emami describes.
Even though they may be “assimilated,” Alexie’s characters are “conquered people living among the conquerers” who give you the distinct impression that they are and probably always will be “on the outside looking in,” writes reviewer Richard Marcus. “There’s something about their lives which makes you realize they’re always going to be separate and not equal no matter how much they try to blend.
As the Indian college student Corliss in “The Search Engine” points out: “We are people exiled by other exiles, by Puritans, Pilgrims, Protestants, and all of those other crazy white people thrown out of a crazier Europe. We who were once indigenous to this land must immigrate into its culture.” (p. 401)
Alexie’s characters suffer from loneliness, grief, depression, racism, identity issues, failed relationships, infidelity, estrangement, substance abuse and poverty as they “struggle to survive the constant battering of their minds, bodies, and spirits by white American society and their own self-hatred and sense of powerlessness.”
Sometimes suicide is the only escape:
When state troopers question the narrator and his friends about the apparent suicide of one of their tribe members in “Indian Education,” they all shrug their shoulders and look at the ground.
“‘Don’t know,’” we all said, but when we look in the mirror, see the history of our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tap water, and shake with old tears, we understand completely.” (p.292)
Liberated by Laughter
Alexie’s brand of humor is often dark and sometimes irreverent but always funny. His characters often “wobble between sanity and madness” writes Emami. The laughter keeps them sane, the loneliness drives them mad, and sometimes, you're not sure which is which.”
Alexie’s descriptions of Indians and their ways of being often poke fun at his own culture, lightening the heaviness of the issues. In “Cry Cry Cry” he explains that the person chosen as Head Man Dancer in a powwow is often the winner of a popularity contest. “Powwow is like high school,” he writes,” except with more feathers and beads.” (p. 2)
In “Do You Know Where I Am?” the story’s “half-breed” child-narrator is sent by his mother to live with his grandparents on the Spokane Reservation each summer to “keep in touch with my tribal heritage.” (p. 265) “But mostly,” he confesses, “I read spy novels to my grandfather and shopped garage sales and secondhand stores with my grandmother. I suppose, for many Indians, garage sales and trashy novels are highly traditional and sacred. We all make up our ceremonies as we go along, right?” (p. 265)
In “Scenes from a Life” a filmmaker making a short film about cranberry bogs gathers the Indian bog workers on the last day of filming for a group picture. As they begin to giggle, the director asks, “‘What’s so funny?’”
“One of the Indians, a woman, stopped giggling long enough to speak.
‘We’re laughing,’ she said, ‘because white people always want to take photos of Indians. But you’re taking a picture of us at work. It might be the first photo ever taken of Indians working.’”
Although Indians clearly resent White Americans’ propensity to romanticize them, it doesn’t keep Corliss in “The Search Engine” from taking full advantage of it.
“Corliss didn’t want to live with a white roommate, either, no matter how interesting he or she might become. Hell, even if Emily Dickinson were resurrected and her reclusive-hermit-unrequited love addict gene removed from her DNA, Corliss wouldn’t have wanted to room with her. White people, no matter how smart, were too romantic about Indians. White people looked at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the full moon, newborn babies, and Indians with the same goofy sentimentalism. Being a smart Indian, Corliss had always taken advantage of this romanticism, but that didn’t mean she wanted to share the refrigerator with it. If white folks assumed she was serene and spiritual and wise simply because she was an Indian, and thought she was special based on those mistaken assumptions, then Corliss saw no reason to contradict them. The world is a competitive place, and a poor Indian girl needs all the advantages she can get. So if George W. Bush, a man who possessed no remarkable distinctions other than being the son of a former U. S. president, could also become president, then Corliss figured she could certainly benefit from positive ethnic stereotypes and not feel any guilt about it. For five centuries, Indians were slaughtered because they were Indians, so it Corliss received a free coffee now and again from the local free-range lesbian Indiophile, who could possibly find the wrong in that?” (p. 369)
Custer is Alive and Well
“‘My father never taught me about hope,’” confesses the narrator of “The Toughest Indian in the World.” “‘Instead, he continually told me that our salmon—our hope—would never come back, and though such lessons may seem cruel, I know enough to cover my heart in any crowd of white people.’” (p. 27)
The student whose educational experiences are chronicled in “Indian Education” (perhaps partly autobiographical?) gets an early taste of White American expectations in second grade when his teacher writes a note home to his parents demanding that they cut his braids or keep him at home (they refuse). In third grade his “traditional Native American art career” ends with his first portrait entitled “Stick Indian Taking a Piss in My Backyard.” After Mrs. Schluter confiscates his artwork, he “stood alone in the corner, faced the wall, and waited for the punishment to end. I’m still waiting,” he writes. (p. 287)
In “The Toughest Indian in the World” two American Indians renting a room at the Pony Soldier Motel notice a painting hanging over their bed in which the U. S. Cavalry is “kicking the crap out of a band of renegade Indians.”
“What tribe do you think they are?” I asked the fighter.
“All of them,” he said. (p. 38)
Custer is still alive and well in the 21st Century, declares Corliss in “The Search Engine.” Instead of bludgeoning Indian skulls, the U. S. government now “kills Indians by dumping huge piles of paperwork on their skulls. But Indians made themselves easy targets for bureaucratic skull-crushing, didn’t they? Indians took numbers and lined up for skull-crushing. They’d rather die standing together in long lines than wandering alone in the wilderness.” (p. 368)
"Your Father Will Rise Like a Salmon"
In “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Thomas Builds-the-Fire accepts half of the ashes of his boyhood friend’s father, promising to toss them into the waters at Spokane Falls. He shares a vision with Victor:
“And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home. It will be beautiful. His teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow. He will rise, Victor, he will rise.” (p. 90)
In the powerful ending of “Cry Cry Cry,” the narrator performs a war dance in honor of his dead cousin. But soon the dance becomes symbolic of more than that. “I was dancing for all the dead,” he said. “And all of the living. But I wasn’t dancing for war. I was dancing for my soul and for the soul of my tribe. I was dancing for what we Indians used to be and who we might become again.” (p. 15)
The Spokane Indian in the tender and romantic “The Vow” woos his future wife with a hand drum and honor song to deer, which he promises he will remember and sing to her in old age, even if he eventually gets Alzheimers.
Cultural differences that distinguish the way White Americans and Indians view the world are a continual theme in Alexie’s works, but nowhere this more evident than in the story “Green World.” Indians have been duped once again by the U. S. government that hired them to build windmills to conserve energy. Unbeknownst to the Indians, the turbines are environmentally destructive, mutilating thousands of birds. For the white narrator of the story, who was hired to dispose of the birds, the ravage is a sad reality but the job pays his bills. “We humans have to kill in order to live,” he rationalizes. (p. 20).
But the Indians carry a heavy burden of shame and grief for the deaths they have caused. As the narrator watches, an old Indian toting a shotgun and singing a death song picks up the carcass of a dead bird and caresses it. He then aims his gun at the windmills and begins shooting in a futile attempt to stop the carnage. The windmills continue to move, “ready to kill birds” as the Indian does what Indians are good at doing. He walks away.
The story has a contemporary Washington reservation setting and offers a glance into the poverty and despair that prevails there. It is really a collection of short short stories within a story that bounce back and forth in time. When all the pieces of the story puzzle come together, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” is ultimately a story about healing, identity, and relationships. It focuses on two young Indian men, once childhood friends, who parted ways as they grew older and took different paths, Victor shedding his identity and adopting a shallow view of the world while the more philosophical and visionary Thomas Builds-the-Fire (one of my favorite Alexie characters) clings to Indian traditions, “thinks too much” according to Victor, and tries to preserve the art of storytelling, even though most people stopped listening long ago.
A journey to Arizona (primarily financed by Thomas Builds-the-Fire because Victor is broke) to pick up the cremated remains of Victor’s estranged father reunites the two as they begin to realize they need one another, despite their differences. And their differences are dramatically evidenced near the end of the story in the way that each views the spreading of the ashes of Victor’s father at Spokane Falls. Thomas has a beautiful vision of Victor’s father rising liking a salmon, finding his way home. But the more literal Victor can’t imagine his father “looking anything like a salmon.” He tells Thomas, “I thought it’d be like cleaning the attic or something. Like letting things go after they’ve stopped having any use.” (p. 90). But Thomas disagrees, insisting that “nothing stops.”
Sherman Alexie's Writing Style
Alexie is often experimental in the stories collected here. Some are only two pages long. Some include poems. Nontraditional titles such as “Because My Father Always Said We Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” and “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” certainly catch attention in the Table of Contents.
“War Dances” is a mixture of lists, quizzes, poetry and an “exit interview,” loosely woven into a story about the death of the narrator’s father. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is narrated in segments denoted by the hour of the day that events are happening. Alexie is not afraid to take bold risks in content or form.
Alexie’s “no-holds barred” approach to writing, described by Publishers Weekly as spiced with plenty of “bawdiness” and “wicked humor,” has caused him to become a controversial figure among both Indians and White Americans. Alexie responds: “‘I've come to the realization that many people have been reading literary fiction for the same reason they read mainstream fiction, for entertainment and a form of escape. I don't want to write books that provide people with that. I want books that challenge, anger, and possibly offend.’”
Alexie’s characterizations are fascinatingly diverse. In Blasphemy we meet “all species of warriors in America today," including obsessive basketball players (one of whom idolizes President Obama’s playing “style”), meth addicts, long-winded storytellers, homeless heroes, nomadic boxers, sex-crazed insomniacs, generous pawn brokers, deadbeat dads, responsible dads, faithful lovers, unfaithful lovers, gay Indians, and straight Indians—all struggling to find their way.
About Sherman Alexie
Alexie grew up “miserable” in an environment of poverty and alcoholism on a Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.
Born hydrocephalic and not expected to live, Alexie underwent brain surgery at the age of six months. Although he survived, Alexie had seizures all through childhood and was teased by other kids as “the Globe” because of his enlarged skull. Reading became a way to ease his loneliness. He had read every book in the town’s public library by the time he was 12.
An honors student and star basketball team player and debater in high school, Alexie won a scholarship to Gonzaga University but dropped out because he didn’t fit in socially. Later he enrolled at Washington State University, uncertain of what career to pursue. On a whim he enrolled in a poetry workshop and read a poem that, for the first time, spoke to him as an Indian. He explains:
“‘I’d never seen myself in a work of literature. I loved books, always, but I didn’t know Indians wrote books or poems. And then to see myself so fully understood in one line of a poem, as though that one line of a poem written by someone else was my autobiography ... It was like understanding human language for the first time. It was like hearing the first words ever spoken by a human being, and understanding for the first time the immense communicative power of language.
I had never intellectualized this feeling that I’d had my entire life. And then, to hear the thing aloud. To see it in print. These are the kind of emotions that nobody puts words to, at least not where I’m from. So an intellectual and emotional awakening were fused in this one line. They came together and slapped me upside the head.
I’d written stuff before, but it was always modeled after greeting cards or the standard suspects: Joyce Kilmer, a Keats poem. The classics that every high school kid reads. But as soon as I saw that poem, I knew I could write about myself—my emotional state, the narrative of my emotional life. When I wrote before, I was always wearing a mask—I always adopted a pose. I was always putting on a white guy mask. And all of a sudden, I could actually use my real face.’”
Although he graduated from college with no job, ending back on the reservation with “no job, no money no hope,” Alexie kept banging out poems and short stories on a manual typewriter until he eventually made it to the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Since then Alexie has been a prolific writer. He has published award-winning novels, short stories, and poetry. He is also a stand-up comedian, a songwriter, a screenwriter, and director. Alexie now lives in Seattle as an “urban Indian” with his wife and two children.
Selected Blasphemy Reviews
‘Blasphemy’ by Sherman Alexie
Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie: Review
Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories
Book review: Blasphemy: New and Collected Stories by Sherman Alexie
Lonely and Laughing
Review: Sherman Alexie in dark, comic mode with 'Blasphemy'
Atlanta Unbound Interviews
Confessions of a Blasphemer: Sherman Alexie Talks New Book, Indian Humor and More
On Sherman Alexie
The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to 'Drop Everything and Be a Poet