After Thoughts on Forked-Tongues: a review of Sherman Alexie

by Professor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

This commentary is in response to the publication of a NPR article in early March concerning the charge by women poets and writers of sexual harassment against Seattle based writer Sherman Alexie. Ten women were interviewed for the NPR article, and three went on the record as having been abused/ harassed by the well known American Indian writer. Alexie issued an apology. His name has been removed from an IAIA Scholarship in Native American Literatures, Santa Fe, N.M.

     Blogs, Internet interviewing, NPR, the Colbert Report, Facebook, Oprah and a hundred other venues have taken over the Study of Native American Literatures (NAL) in the last decade. These days the major doctrine of the discipline of new Native American Literatures is being eagerly played out by the spellbinder author from the Spokane Indian Reservation (via Seattle, Wa.), Sherman Alexie.

     His book most able to move the masses of his fans toward an antiIndian undercurrent in modern American literary studies has been The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. There are countless others. Alexie is an Indian writer who gets to have it both ways; on the one hand he is a Native American (NA) writer and on the other a self-described joiner of the “highly successful white collar” writers like Jonathan Franzen. This is called “diversity,” and “multi-culturalism," and is thought to be a good thing for America, as well as a goal for Alexie. He has not yet traveled to distant places on the planet as has his colleague Franzen, an eco tourist, writing such essentials as “the radical awareness of birds,” but that may be in the offing for this ambitious, self-proclaimed star.

     Having it both ways, Alexie tells us in a “dare to think” blog out of New York that he is still writing about “Spokane Indian males stumbling through life…still the same stuff. I am not an academic, just an Indian writer even though my initial influences are people like Silko, Welch, Ian Frazier and Adrian Louis. I am probably the last uneducated Indian writer around.” Having it both ways, Alexie sells books and says about his performances, “when I walk into a room, start talking, people listen…more than they would listen to a bore reading his work. They like to see how my crazy mind works." His public readings, which attract hundreds of middle class white women, are described this way: “There is always an Indian guy at the back of the room staring daggers at me and he often comes up to me and says: .. ‘You are a genius…you figured out what white people want to hear and you write it!’” Alexie says this Indian guy is a ‘stalker’, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

Certainly, Alexie has left behind the traditional doctrine of Native Literary Voice that identifies real theoretical understanding of tribal cultures, mythologies, languages, ritual and ceremony. He has become the model for thousands of young Indian readers and potential writers who find his desire to trash it or leave it all behind a good thing because he tells them: “there is just too much pain…. ...I’ve spent very little time on my reservation in the last twenty or thirty years because reservations are a white man’s creation and are filled with people who want to valorize them. The ‘spiritual thing’,” he goes on, "victimizes people who live there…and if a spiritual person comes up an asks you for money RUN.”

A moral obtuseness seems to underlie almost all of the Alexie work as well as the work of many of the 21st century American Indian writers, most of whom claim “tragedy” and “loss” as their personal story taking on the stereotype of native enclaves as places with “just too much pain.” It is Tragedy. But, most astute readers know that Tragedy in the classical sense tells us that the true protagonists of tragedy in all literatures throughout the world, (not just the Greeks) SUFFER AND THEN LEARN.

In looking at the work of someone many critics call “the only one literary giant” in Contemporary American Indian Literatures, Sherman Alexie, major readers and critics are beginning to realize that he has learned little or nothing. He finds in his life only a shameful, bitter (or comic?) tribal past. The events he experiences can hardly tell him, realistically, that he is no longer a tribal person, but it does allow him to tell over and over the crass story of being just a “part-time Indian,” which turns out to be a disguise for self-congratulation. His excessive admiration of himself is an indication of an infantile stage of development.

Even in his recent “outing” as an abuser of women poets for which he has issued an apology in Seattle, Wa., his home town, it seems that neither he nor his frenetic fan base can hardly conceive that his literary works are capable of coming face to face with his participation in a pulp fiction oeuvre that not only condemns Indian-ness in America, but excuses him in perpetuating a sad and negative image of an entire people. Describing the deficit model of Indian life is his thing. It is occurring to most readers of these contemporary works that they have ended up helping a huge white audience accept an atmosphere of failure for the First Nations people who lived successfully on this continent for thousands of years without destroying it, continue to try to do so, and might deserve some credit.

Alexie represents not merely himself in the rise of New Voices, but has been enormously successfully in stifling any occasional alternative view. He has labeled most of his rare antagonists as falsely romantic, untalented and wrong, people who will just have to “move over,” as he once described the classicist M. Scott Momaday. An aura of fear from younger writers surrounds him even though there is little in his public career that would lead anyone to suggest a sinister attitude. Most of what we know of his work is that it is clearly banal and even accidental; work shepherded into the New York Review of Books and Poets and classic Journals by clever agents and editors and the mostly white college professors in English Departments. Anyone who dislikes his glibness and famed assurance knows that there is little they can do to tell his fan base that he is an anti-Indianist who does not write for a very sophisticated audience, and might be a third rate novelist at best.

Nonetheless, Alexie has never had a bad review even though every writer knows that some reviews appear out of nowhere and some are so awful they are hard to read. On my first novella review I was told that I had a great idea for a story but didn’t know how to write. This reality makes reviews unforgettable.

A “new sentences” review, which was published in the New York Times Magazine recently on Sherman Alexie’s just published memoir “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (Little, Brown and Company, 2017), might turn out to be the kind of assessment that brings on a new sense of a long needed end to innocence in the NA Literary Voice commentary. It might even put an end to exaggerations and disillusions about the question: what it is that literatures (even modern ones) are supposed to do...or not.

Reprinted below, this review takes an early introduction by the author, then dares to write a brief literary assessment. Some readers, including this one, have found it hilarious:

My name is Sherman Alexie
and I was born from loss
and loss and loss and loss
and loss and loss and loss
and loss and loss and loss

The reviewer, Sam Anderson, asks the following in New Sentences: From "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" by Sherman Alexie, The New York Times, July 14, 2017 

How do we, as readers, handle repetition? In my experience, we mostly skip it. The human brain is notoriously frugal with its energy. It likes to identify patterns, file them away and move on to more exciting things. Sherman Alexie’s sentence repeats the word ‘‘loss’’ 13 times, and my mind tolerates about three of them before it wants to skip ahead, bundling the rest as simply ‘‘a whole lot of loss.’’ (Alexie’s memoir makes clear that he is, indeed, the product of quite a lot of loss: the decimation and displacement of his tribe, the diversion of his people’s sacred salmon by a dam, the early deaths of his grandparents, the loss of his own childhood to abuse and on and on and on.)

Sometimes, however, repetition transcends mere accumulation. It can be a kind of statement in itself, and the only way to appreciate its full meaning is to force your brain to plow right through it, slowly, word by word.

When you force yourself to move all the way through Alexie’s sentence, loss by loss by loss by loss — like fingering prayer beads or counting breaths in meditation — a strange thing occurs. Everyone knows the childhood game of saying a familiar word so many times that it becomes alien, and that’s what happens here: By the 13th iteration, ‘‘loss’’ feels less like a word than like a sort of mouth-stone, strange and round, burbling out of your open face over and over and over again, like eggs out of a relentless chicken. In speaking this sentence, you turn, involuntarily, into a magical hen of loss. By the end of reading it aloud, you will have lost your breath, temporarily lost your mind and lost, for about 15 seconds, the ability to recognize ‘‘loss’’ as a word in the English language. And so a sentence on loss becomes self-fulfilling: a chance to experience loss.

Ignoring the bad history of the Spokane Tribe of Indians in Washington State that this whining Indian writer reiterates about loss, and that this critic accepts unknowingly, it is, perhaps, true that “loss” should become one of our stock themes today in Native American Literatures. That theme is useful to Indian writers of all stripes and even to white writers who want to write about Indians for the purpose of exaggeration. Admittedly, loss and its expected grief has become a primary concern of indigenous history and literature to the extent that it often compromises the stubborn joy of everyday Indian life on the homelands called “reservations” that most Indians know. Yet, this critic’s hilarious metaphors of comparing the writer to a “relentless” chicken and his words to “burbling” eggs and the reader to a magical hen that seem just too comic to end allow us to share or “experience ” the grief that is in the last sentence of the review. No. Upon reading these sentences, you do not experience grief. Instead, you want to fall on the floor doubled up with laughter.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, born and raised at Fort Thompson, SD. Her latest book is A Separate Country: Postcoloniality and American Indian Nations. 2012. Texas Tech U Press. The University of Nebraska Press will publish her memoir In Defense of Loose Translations, available late this summer. She is a founder and co-mentor of the Oak Lake Writers' Society.