Thursday, 27 May 2010

‘Indianness’ and Identity in the Novels and Short Stories of Sherman Alexie

This essay was presented at the 'Framing the Self: Anxieties of Identity in Literature' conference, sponsored by the Centre of Studies in Literature at the University of Portsmouth, 21st May.  Some of the material included has been adapted from earlier postings.

The Quest for Identity
The quest for identity is the overriding theme in the work of almost all Native writers. Four centuries of colonisation, during which children, mixed and full-blood, were taken from their homes and ‘civilised’ have scoured away nearly all remnants of traditional Indian identity. Sent to boarding schools such as that in Carlisle, Pennsylvania whose motto was ‘Kill the Indian, Save the man’, these children were no longer permitted to speak their own languages, wear their own clothes, or pray to their own gods. Imperfectly assimilated, they lost their voices and their histories, and found themselves balanced between two opposing worlds: the old world where they no longer fully belonged, and the new world in which they would be no more than immigrants, always foreign, always trying to fit in.

Questions of ‘Indianness’ dominate Alexie’s stories, and race is a concern shared by nearly all of his characters. In the early books, in particular, the reader is never allowed to ignore the issue of race nor to identify with his characters simply as people. When I first came to Alexie’s books, I found references to race and ethnicity to be so frequent that I carried out a brief survey, a practice I have continued. Selecting forty pages at random, I count all direct references, including tribal affiliation, blood quantum, and slang. Using this method, I found an average of 2.2 direct references to race per page in The Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven (1993), 3.5 in Reservation Blues (1995), 4.3 in The Toughest Indian in the World (2001), 3.9 in Ten Little Indians (2004), 2.6 in Flight (2007), and 1.6 in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). Over the course of his career, Alexie’s representation of Indian identity has changed dramatically, moving from the fervent and angry tribalism of his reservation stories, to a sense of otherness in an urban environment, and on to a more pan-Indian and polycultural stance1. This paper will explore the trajectory of racial identity in Alexie’s work and show how his early focus on ethnicity has given way to more universal themes since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Review of Sherman Alexie's War Dances

My review of War Dances, Sherman Alexie's latest collection of poetry and short stories, has just been published in Western American Literature, Vol 45, No 1, Spring 2010.  The article is available on Project Muse.

Voices of the American West: Striving for Authenticity


As part of my research project, I am writing a novel set in the American West, with historical and contemporary narratives. From the outset, I have had two major concerns: how to access an accurate and authentic historical voice; and how to represent a Native American character in a culturally authentic manner. This paper will provide a context for those questions and look at the ways in which I have addressed them in my research.

The Importance of Authenticity in Western American Literature

No other region-based literature, and certainly no other genre is as concerned with the issue of authenticity as is literature of the American West. Even historical fiction, the form most closely associated with representations of actual people and factual events is at ease with supposition and probability. Western fiction, however, is often seen to regard its subject as if it were a holy relic, to be revered and scrutinized, but not to be tampered with in any way. Since Owen Wister published The Virginian, considered to be the first Western novel, in 1902, writers of the American West have been at pains to adhere to the known facts, reluctant to fabricate or experiment with alternative histories. Authenticity, not creativity, is viewed as the primary criteria for evaluating this literature. And so we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to be ‘authentic’?