Sherman Alexie on Writing and Kurt Cobain

Sherman Alexie’s Seattle office is bordered by redwoods and has three pieces of art on the walls. Two of them are what you might expect: the original artwork from his second poetry and lyrical prose collection, First Indian on the Moon, and a signed and framed print of the poem “Thanksgiving at Snake Butte” by the Indian author James Welch, one of Alexie’s literary heroes.

Then there’s the black-and-white photograph of Kurt Cobain, the grunge-rock superhero who revitalized early-’90s pop music with his band Nirvana, only to kill himself in 1994 with a shotgun blast to the head. The photo is a surprise at first, but then you realize it fits: the sense of being an outsider, the anger, the motivation. Seattle.

“He saved us all,” says Alexie, who isn’t as famous as Cobain but wants to be. Starting as what he likes to call “a small literary writer from Seattle,” he was remarkably prolific and had an appetite for success. His college writing professor, Alex Kuo, once said that he probably had 10 students with more talent than Alexie. But Alexie, Kuo said, “had a dedication that other students with perhaps more talent didn’t have.”

That dedication has paid off. One year after he graduated from Washington State in 1991, two books of his poetry and short stories–I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancydancing–were published. As the legend goes, this taste of acceptance prompted him to kick five years of debilitating drinking in one night. He then published five more books of poetry and a short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. His first novel, Reservation Blues, appeared in 1995, and the next one, Indian Killer, published a year later, became a New York Times Notable Book. He devoted much of the next few years writing and producing the 1998 film Smoke Signals while working on new stories. In 1996 and 1999, both Granta and The New Yorker named him one of the best American fiction writers under 40. He is now adapting three novels for the screen, including his own Reservation Blues.

“I identify strongly with him,” Alexie says of Cobain. “Small-town guy, poor, makes himself into this huge rock star.”

Alexie was born just five months before Cobain, a couple of hundred scrub-brush miles away from Cobain’s tiny hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, on the 155,000-acre Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. Like Cobain, he was driven by his antipathy toward the oppressive forces of mainstream America. With Alexie’s success, though, he has begun moving beyond his early, anger-driven prose into a kind of mythopoetic style, which has come stridently into focus in his new short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, published in May.

Concurrently, Alexie–though he describes himself as an introvert–has crafted a fast-talking, highly entertaining onstage comic persona. At public appearances, he embarks on quick-witted monologues, taking aim at pretty much every race he can, but giving special attention to what he calls “crazy white people.” He gleefully targets New Age white women who “come floating onto the reservation healing everything in their path,” and he jokes about white people who expect him to read coyote stories, speak slowly, and “stare off into the distance as if constantly receiving visions.”

Alexie memorizes his stories and then acts them out at the lectern, making his readings a kind of free-form theatrical performance. He has developed this skill to further his career, he says, and because he’s often been turned off at readings by writers who deliver their work, no matter how brilliant, in a monotone. “I care about my writing so much, and I’m so involved in it and so emotionally connected to it, and I want that passion, that caring, that hatred of it, that incredible relationship I have with my own work, I want people to know about that,” he says. “I want them to feel it when I’m up in front of them talking about what I do.”

His central goal, he says, is to get his books read by 12-year-old reservation kids, who, like him, grow up either with heroes created by the white media or no heroes at all. “In order for the Indian kid to read me, pop culture is where I should be,” Alexie says. “I’d rather be accessible than win a MacArthur.” Few Indian writers have had Alexie’s mainstream ambitions, and he’s the first to admit that he has worked the Indian angle for all it’s worth. “It’s a crowded world out there, and everybody is clamoring for attention, and you use what you’ve got,” he says. “And what I’ve got that makes me original is that I’m a rez boy.”

Alexie’s father is Coeur d’Alene Indian, and his mother is Spokane Indian. One of six siblings, he was born October 7, 1966, in the tiny reservation town of Wellpinit. Soon after his birth, he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a condition in which expanding cranial fluid puts too much pressure on the brain. At six months, Alexie underwent drastic surgery. The doctors told his parents that if he survived at all, which was doubtful, he would most likely be mentally handicapped. As a result of the surgery, he dealt with seizures and uncontrollable bed-wetting late into childhood, eventually becoming what he describes as a math geek who played Dungeons and Dragons by himself in the basement. He was smart and tall, though, so he went to Reardan, a white high school, where he was the only real Indian on the Reardan Indians basketball team. He went on to Washington State University in Pullman and, after taking a writing class, gave up his plans to be a doctor.

Success kills some pop stars, but it’s bringing Alexie to life–and in some ways making him larger than life, as suggested by his crowded readings. The success of Smoke Signals certainly helped. Cobbled together from situations and characters first developed in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, it is a road-trip movie about Northwest Indians Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who drive to the Southwest to claim the ashes of Victor’s dead father. After winning the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, it became the first feature film written, directed, produced, and acted by Indians ever distributed in the United States. And as Alexie likes to point out, “the Indians weren’t played by Italians with long hair.”

The response to Smoke Signals also showed Alexie the cultural power of film, something he never experienced with his books. “Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the character, has become a huge cultural character in the Indian world,” Alexie says. “Our heroes have always been guys with guns. And now, to have this androgynous little storytelling bookworm geek–I think that’s wonderful.”

His fiction has since become bigger, more daring, more surreal. He now traffics in huge metaphors and characters who engage in strange, archetypal, and at times desperate bids for intimacy or a sense of personal context. In The Toughest Indian in the World, there is a road-trip story, “South by Southwest,” similar in ways to Smoke Signals, but Victor and Thomas have been replaced by a nutty white guy named Seymour and a fat Indian whom Seymour nicknames Salmon Boy. They kiss in the front seat of a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu on their way to a McDonald’s in Tucson, Arizona. Seymour and Salmon Boy meet when Seymour attempts to rob a pancake house, Pulp Fiction style. He takes $42 in change from the customers and then says he needs someone to go with him to Arizona, someone who will fall in love with him along the way. Salmon Boy is the only volunteer.

“Are you gay?” Seymour asks. “I’m not gay.”

“No sir, I am not a homosexual,” Salmon Boy says. “I am not a homosexual, but I do believe in the power of love.”

Throughout the collection, Alexie calls on his own brand of magic realism, as if these weren’t modern short stories at all, but indigenous folk tales that have been passed down through the ages. He mixes mythic references to salmon and constellations with the tragedies, foibles, and occasional victories of real Indian life. He weaves in and out of Indian stereotypes, setting them up, teasing the reader with them, destroying them, and then referring back to them, as if to say that, somewhere between what is thought to be true of precolonial Indians and what is seen of today’s Indians, lies the ultimate truth. It’s a trickster’s sleight of hand that messes with reality and allows Alexie to get away with fiction that feels purposefully timeless.

Homosexuality informs many of the stories in The Toughest Indian in the World. The title story is about an Indian journalist who picks up an Indian boxer who is hitchhiking. The tired, conflicted writer is in awe of what he perceives as the fighter’s mythic purity. “You’d have been a warrior in the old days, enit?” the journalist says. “You would’ve been a killer. You would’ve stole everybody’s horses.” The story explodes when they share a hotel room and, late at night, the fighter–who, it turns out, is gay–climbs into the writer’s bed and coaxes the journalist into a new experience.

“I’m becoming more urban and also spending more and more time in the art world, which, you know, is heavily populated by homosexuals,” Alexie says. “So, simply, my experiences have grown, so the characters represented in my fiction will grow accordingly. And one of the hatreds that bothers me the most is homophobia. In some sense I wanted to use my fiction as a way of addressing that directly, by celebrating [homosexuality] in all of its forms and including it as just another aspect of love.”

Alexie does a lot of his writing at 3 a.m. at the International House of Pancakes in Seattle’s university district, close to his office and not too far from the home he shares with his wife, Diane, a college counselor and Hidatsa Indian, and their 3-year-old son. When he’s not traveling, his life is quiet. He spends time with his family in the evenings and meets up with his buddies for basketball every Tuesday.

Alexie has been dogged throughout his career by accusations from those still living at the Spokane reservation, that he is misrepresenting their lives for his own gain, embarrassing them. “The word that keeps coming back is responsibility,” Alexie says. “They ask me to represent them, to the point where I’m not an artist. I’m a politician, or not even that, a propagandist. I’m supposed to be making public service announcements rather than creating art. I hate that. That kind of pressure is terrible.” 

On his book jackets in the past, Alexie has worn the same stoic too-cool-for-school Indian mask that he himself makes fun of. He calls it “the ethnic stare.” On his new book, though, we see a photo of a man without the mask, taken by Rex Tystedt, the Seattle photographer who took the Cobain portrait that hangs on Alexie’s wall.

In the photo, Alexie wears a look of concern, gentleness, vulnerability–and pride. Is this the introvert? Or the guy who becomes the Indian Richard Pryor on stage? The insomniac scratching out verse at 3 a.m. in a Seattle pancake house? Or the screenwriter who takes lunch at Sunset Strip cafés? The poor rez boy who enjoys the power and privilege he once railed against? The guy who started as an outsider poet? Or the one who wants to be a mainstream pop-culture icon? A man who may not be telling the whole truth about the modern American Indian but is at least telling his own?

Sherman Alexie defied expectations from his first breath. Now he does it for the American literary world and, increasingly, the American public as well.

Russ Spencer is a freelance writer.From Book magazine. Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from 18 Bank St., Summit, NJ 07901.

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