Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sherman Alexie, the Magician

In all the world, of all the books, of all the book-makers... There is one I love best.

His name is Sherman Alexie.

You might have heard of 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,' the young adult novel he wrote about growing up as a member of the Spokane tribe in Washington state, largely based on his own experiences.  There's been some controversy over the darker tone of the books--many people die, there is a lot of really rough bullying, poverty, systemic isolation... Lots of sad things.  Like, so many tragedies that people objected to sad things, you see what I mean?

But the off-set is, of course, that these are also true things.  The events are all part of the actual trajectory of Sherman Alexie's actual life.  Arnold Spirit Jr. is his reflection on the death of his sister, his grandmother, the change in his friends and his community, and the development of his identity as a story-teller.

Which leads me to my own personal point of fascination with Mr. Alexie.

There are many writers who reflect on their own experiences and lives in their writing--that's kinda what writers do.  Audre Lorde coined the term biomythography to describe the meta-process of examining the true events of one's life while knowing they can never be exactly 'true.'  Our memories don't allow it.  Reality is subjective.  But the object of a lot of writing--particularly, I think, literary fiction and poetry--is to look back on one's real life, trying to parse what is true and focusing on that.

Alexie's writing takes this experience and reverses it.  He has never written an autobiography, or even attempted it.  Instead, he consistently fictionalizes true events from his life, and he does so deliberately and openly.  Instead of dancing with the truth of his memory, he embraces the opposite--the obscured, the wash of his own vision over the events as they happened, the veil of himself--and creates stories.  Its a subtle difference.  For many writers, the goal is to uncover the meaning of what actually happened.  Alexie seems less concerned, over all, with what actually happened.  He seems to be saying: we all know what happened, and we know why.  Let's not dwell.  Instead, he focuses on the personal mythology he grew around the event.

This is important.  

In fiction, Native Americans are often presented as magical in some way.  It might be that they're oddly psychic, or supernaturally bent towards turning into animals, or almost impossible to kill.  For mash-ups of all these themes, please see:
They fare a bit better--or more even-handed--in the world of books, Twilight excepting,** but many times, even in instances that don't have open-ended supernatural circumstances, Native Americans are shown as exceptionally sensitive to nature (oddly psychic) or almost impossible to kill (hello, Tonto).  Which is not great, when you look at the expanse of roles provided to whites in fiction, and also leads me to my next point.

Invariably, these characters are the supernatural force that shapes the primary character, who is always white.  Even in adverse instances, like Wolfen, they force the protagonist to recognize something fundamental about the world they live in and the person they are.  Usually, they're a bit more blatant; Nobody, my favorite portrait of the Magical Indian because of his surrealist, self-referential bent, literally exists in the film to guide Johnny Depp, much to Nobody's chagrin (and to the viewer's delight, especially once aware of this trope).  Jacob Black is part of Bella's tragically self-defining love triangle.  Longshadow brings Sookie and the vampire world closer in an abrupt, blood-soaked burst.  I'm sure, if you're reading this, imaginary friend, you can think of several thousand variants on the theme; I cobbled the above list off the top of my head in less than five minutes, and my memory is terrible.

The Magic Indian, through opposition or just a single well-placed tear, guides the white protagonist toward their destiny.

Sherman Alexie's work looks at this trope and strait up says Fuck That.  He has a particular dislike for Tonto's image, the Lone Ranger's accessory, if it weren't obvious from the title of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven.  But really, I think its just the idea of the accessory Magical Indian that pisses him off.

There is a lot of magic in Sherman Alexie's stories; the trick is, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.  Sometimes an ordinary instance turns out to have far-reaching, somewhat magical repercussions (the reunion in The Business of Fancy-Dancing), or a ritual psuedo-magical practice yields nothing (the hair-eating in Ten Little Indians).  The real magic in Sherman Alexie's stories is always linked to vision--the ability to see the actual selves of the people involved in the event being examined.  The Magical Indian in Sherman Alexie's story is always the person who knows himself: Zits, Arnold Spirit, Jr. and Thomas Builds-The-Fire, in particular.  Awkward, socially disparate, and bursting with vision, they always look at the event in question and see themselves--the obscured, the wash of their own vision over the events as they happened, the veil of themselves--and then create stories.

This moves the Magical Indian into the role of Magician, a semantic dance meant to imply they are now the Protagonist.  They are no longer accessories to someone else's journey.  They are Native American--definitely, inescapably--with a life and a purpose of their own.  The true magic these characters possess, each of them, is borne of their own vision and self-examination, and its fruit is simple: hope.  The most magical of Sherman Alexie's characters have the ability to see themselves, truly, and have hope.

Which completely differentiates them from virtually all other depictions of Native Americans in popular media.

Something to think about during our annual greed-and-ambivalence festival.

*Generic Indogenes is the satirical title my partner gives the anonymous hordes of magical indigenous people that occasionally appear in movies.  To do this right, you have to use the worst whisper you've got, lean over to whomever you're watching the movie with, raise your eyebrows, and exclaim it at the right moment.  Think of that bizarre scene in Apocalypto when the little girl starts hissing psychic drivel, or maybe the marauding murder-happy dude-squad that corner Gus McCrae for good, or perhaps like 90% of the cast in The Piano.  Go ahead, get creative with your sarcasm.

**I believe the main reason Native Americans--and other First Nations people--are better represented (and by better I really just mean they get to be normal humans, doing normal human things) in literature rather than film is because they are able to represent themselves.  There are many (I mean, we could always do with more, but) brilliant and well-respected Native American authors.  But how many Native American directors can you name off the top of your head?

Hint: for me, the answer is one.