Crossroads: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie

John Purdy

 

This conversation took place on October 4, 1997, a rainy, early autumn morning in an east Seattle cafe near Sherman Alexie’s home. It is an interesting neighborhood, for it sits on a clearly demarked boundary: on one side, the intercity struggle for survival--economic and otherwise--and on the other the affluent mansions lining Lake Washington. The cafe sits directly on the line.

My colleague and former student, Fredrick Pope, went with me to talk with Alexie, who is in much demand; in fact, that evening he was scheduled to read at Left Bank Books, for a benefit to provide books for Native American inmates of this country’s prisons. As always, it was an interesting and dynamic discussion and, on our trip home, Fred and I agreed; it was open, wide ranging, profoundly playful.

We began with a discussion of his recently completed movie. As with his writing career, his film involvement seems to be progressing rapidly. Two weeks after our meeting, the film was screened at Sundance for the annual film competition, and later for the major film distributors of the country. There can be no doubt that Sherman Alexie is wonderfully full of ideas, and that those ideas will work their way into art that will be both imaginative and engaging. *

 

John Purdy: I understand the filming of the movie went well?

Sherman Alexie: We’re premiering, screening at Sundance October fifteenth. We’ll know shortly after that if we’re in [the final competition] or not.

JP: Fantastic . . .

SA: We developed it there, so . . . we’re in, but we need to get in the competition, and that’s only sixteen films. We need to be up for the awards.

JP: Lots of good stuff has come out of Sundance.

SA: Yeah, but ours is better.

JP: Tells us a bit about the movie.

SA: It’s a story; it’s from The Lone Ranger and Tonto, "This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona," that story. Victor and Thomas go to Phoenix to pick up Victor’s dad’s remains, so it’s a (?Red-shirt? garbled) buddy movie. It’s pretty funny. Thomas is Thomas. The actor who plays him is amazing. Kevin Adams. He’s had small roles in Canadian productions; he’s a First Nations guy from up there. He’s just amazing. He’s sort of taken Thomas. I can’t write about . . . I tried to write a short story with Thomas in it but I couldn’t. I kept seeing him . . .

JP: Seeing Adams?

SA: He’s taken him away from me. He’s so convincing, so real, so Thomasy. He’s an adjective now.

JP: So he’s type-cast . . . as Thomas?

SA: He’s so right for the role it’s scary to think that he’s always going to be playing some weird Indian.

JP: I don’t recognize the name.

SA: No. The movie has Gary Farmer in it, from Pow-Wow Highway, Tatoo Cardinal . . .

JP: North of Sixty . . .

SA: Yeah. Adam Beach who was Squanto. Harvey Bernard, Michael who was Crazy Horse. Michele St. John, Ella Miles, from Northern Exposure . . . am I missing anybody? Buddy Lightening, who was in Grand Avenue on HBO. (???) Baker, who’s on North of Sixty. (Hans??) Garret has a role, Cynthia Gary, who was on Northern Exposure . . .

JP: That’s a good cast. And what kind of role did you have in it? Did you have much control over it?

SA: Oh yeah. I wrote the screen play; I was the co-producer. Five songs of Jim Boyd’s and mine are in there. Two ‘49s in there I wrote. So . . .

JP: You can do it all . . . You’re doing ‘49s now?

SA: For good or bad, whatever, is in there.

JP: So, did you have fun making the movie?

SA: No (laughs). Yeah, yeah I did. The scary thing is it was so fun, and so intense, so immediate, that if I start doing really well at this, I might wind up being a good screen writer. I’m going to direct Indian Killer. I’m scared that if I make it I’ll give up writing books.

JP: Whoa. And move to Hollywood . . .

SA: No (emphatically). The thing I think about is that probably 5% of Indians in this country have read my books. Maybe that much. Probably more like 2%, or 1%. You take a thing like Pow-Wow Highway and 99% of Indians have seen it.

JP: Well. it’s powerful, the movie. So you didn’t make Gary Farmer wear a wig did you?

SA: For the first scene. Then he doesn’t have it. Then we let him be Gary. But he gets to be young in the movie. Twenty years difference.

JP: It’s just that the one he wore in Highway was so much a wig. So you’re directing Indian Killer? Are you dealing with the same [film] people? I hadn’t heard about that.

SA: It’s not official yet, we haven’t signed the contracts, but it’s happening.

JP: Where will you shoot it?

SA: Seattle. Right here.

JP: This all sounds time consuming. Do you get to write, other than what you’re working on [for the movies], or is the schedule so intense that it takes you away from writing.

SA: I’m working on a new novel.

JP: Want to talk about it?

SA: Yeah, but I don’t know if it’s going to be the next one published. I’ve sold it, but I don’t know if it’s going to be the next one. Essentially what it’s about is . . . it’s set in the future, although it’s set in the 1950s, an alternate 1950s, and I don’t want to give too much of it away, basically scientists have discovered the cure for cancer involves the bone marrow of Indians.

JP: Carrying the cure for the world, huh?

SA: Yeah, essentially we start getting harvested.

JP: You and the yew tree.

SA: It’s called The Sin Eaters. Pretty intense. And I’m working on one about the Mafia in the ‘20s and ‘30s and Indians, but I don’t want to give away more than that, though..

JP: I think that’s what they call the tease . . .

SA: And it’s based on a true story about the Mafia and the Spokane Indians in the 1920s.

JP: Oh no. Well, we have our research cut out for us now. Interesting.

SA: Well, actually, it’s based on a true sentence. There’s only sentence that mentions this Mafia connection in one book. I came across it and I can’t find anything else about it. I’m taking that one sentence to create a whole story.

JP: So it’s the greatest cover-up in the world. One sentence and all the other information’s yours.

SA: Exactly.

JP: I love the life of a novelist, right?

SA: I’m going to use that one sentence as the first sentence in the book.

JP: The one set in the alternate ‘50s, you say you’ve already contracted that. When do you think that will come out?

SA: Next year. Same press: Atlantic.

JP: And now into movies and writing ‘49 songs.

SA: I’ve been doing that forever, did that long before I wrote a book.

JP: Did you play around with songs, then, when you were young?

SA: Yeah. I quit for a long time, sort of getting back into it again lately and realizing I forgot how to sing. Maybe it’s a mental or emotional block.

JP: You were playing with the language, then? Is that attractive to you? My son and I do that all the time. We take a song and rewrite it, play with the language, it’s fun.

SA: Exactly. ‘49s are just fun that way.

JP: Well, I didn’t know you were doing a movie of Indian Killer. You did the script and you’ll direct?

SA: I’m doing the screenplay right now. Just about done.

JP: One of the questions I wanted to ask you is what you have envisioned for your future. It sounds like you don’t have time to envision a future.

SA: Yeah, well, movies, definitely. I mean, I feel the only concept for me, is poetry. I kind of get bored with other things. Novels take so much energy; it’s so hard. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of writing. They’re hard. I think I’m just a decent fiction writer. I tell good stories, but sentence to sentence, verb to verb, noun to noun, I don’t think I’m all that, you know . . . Everybody else seems to think more highly of my work than I do. Suppose that’s a good thing, eh? But I like the poetry; I think I’m good at that.

JP: So you still work at it?

SA: Oh yeah.

JP: What have you done with it?

SA: Publish it. I just had a new book out last year, which makes seven books of poems now.

JP: I remember when Fancydancing came out, I was on a flight, one of those small commuter flights, practically falling out of my chair. I had a colleague sitting in front of me who said "What are you laughing at?" and I said, "Here, read this." Spoon feeding her bits and pieces of the book to him. Comes pretty quickly though doesn’t it? A lot’s happened to you since then.

SA: That was published in January of ‘92. Yeah, I mean five and a half years later I’m an 800 pound gorilla. (Laughter, of course.)

JP: One of the things that came to mind as we e-mailed back and forth about this interview is the memory of hearing you read, at places like Village Books. It’s fun. But when you read at Bellingham High a few years ago, with Dian Million, Tiffany Midge, Ed Edmo, it was a different thing. Do you see your audiences as different in some sense?

SA: Oh yeah. When you’re inside a bookstore it’s much more static; there’s many more expectations of what’s going to happen. I like to play with them. I’ve come out and done my characters, or come out and been Angry Indian Guy, or Funny Indian Guy, took on a persona and messed with the crowd.

JP: And you do it well, by the way. I want you to know. When you read with Linda Hogan that one time, you could hear the hackles on the back of their necks going up. And you just looking back at them with a smile on your face.

SA: Oh yeah, I had a good time with that reading. Part of that was good time, part of it was just in a bad mood. It depends on the environment. At Village Books, everybody’s right there in such a little space, you have so little room to work with up in front, it’s really much more of a reading reading, but if I have a stage, I’ll get nuts.

JP: It was fun that night at the high school. Jim Boyd was there, too. You were working on Reservation Blues, then. You were running some things by us, and there were a couple of times when you’d stop and say, "Yeah, that works. Hey, all right. The audience bought that. Let’s try something else over here."

SA: That’s a way of doing it. I mean, you always get tired of the question, y’know, of "How does your work apply to the oral tradition?" It doesn’t. I type it! (Laughter.) And I’m really, really quiet when I’m doing it. The only time when I’m essentially a storyteller is when I’m up in front of a crowd. Growing up with traditional and non-traditional storytellers, and they’re always rippin’ and improvin’ . . .

JP: That’s the fun of it.

SA: Sure. You can just imagine! The reason, I tell people, that Indians . . . that whites beat Indians in wars was not because they were tougher, I mean, we’d beat them, in any one given day. But then the whites would want to fight the next day again, and we just didn’t want to do that. We’d want to go home and talk about it. You can hear the stories; the next day the warriors going "Man, remember when you dodged that bullet?" and the day after that it was "Hey, remember when that guy shot you nine times and you survived?" After the next day "Remember when you jumped over that cactus, got shot nine times, grabbed that horse, crawled inside of it, hid for nine hours while they stampeded around you, jumped back out, grabbed the general by the throat, slapped him twice and ran away?" Yeah . . .

JP: Yeah, tell it again.

SA: I come from a long line of exaggerators.

JP: One of the problems with editing a journal is we have people who get interested, get caught by the stories and then read a lot, and all of a sudden someone comes through with a novel that does something else, something that comes around for the first time, and we’re right back to where we were in the ‘60s and there’s a raging debate about "Is this Indian?"

SA: Actually S.A.I.L. is just fine. I’ve been subscribing for the past four years. Some essays are great; I’ve never seen a wider difference between good or bad in any academic journal. The bad ones are even more interesting because they embrace, hang on to old ideas. I mean they’re not bad scholarship, they’re not badly written. What I mean is that no one has figured out a new way to look at Indian literatures. Above all else, Indians aren’t looking at Indian literature. There are very few Indian scholars, very few Indian literature critics examining it. Those who do, like Gloria Bird, or Robert Warrior, or Liz Cook Lynn, are still using the same old lit. crit. tools, the same framework. I think we have been far too nice to each other for too long now. I think Indian writers have grown enough, that we’re not going to get any better unless we really start hammering on each other.

JP: I think that’s true in the scholarship, too. One of the things we try to do in the journal is that, rather than get everyone to follow in lock-step, to take articles with widely varying points of view so sometimes we have two essays in one issue that give opposing arguments. It is tough, too, not only the people who submit, but the people who read the submissions, because those people cover the spectrum, too. We often have two readers, one who will say publish, this is great stuff, the other saying throw it out. O.K. What do you do now?

SA: The thing that gets me with that is the Vizenor thing. I mean he’s the god of the Indian lit/crit people.

JP: Why do you think so?

SA: It’s obtuse prose, a lot of word play and word masturbation, essentially, that results in, nothing.

JP: Did you ever read his Narrative Chance?

SA: Yeah. I mean, I can get into it, it’s fine, whatever. I’ve just sort of been struggling with it, what does Indian literature mean? If Indian literature can’t be read by the average 12 year old kid living on the reservation, what the hell good is it? You couldn’t take any of his books and take them to a rez. and teach them, without extreme protestation. What is any kid going to do with the first paragraph of any of those books? You know, I’ve been struggling with this myself, with finding a way to be much more accessible to Indian people.

JP: I was at a workshop once in Santa Fe and Vizenor was there, Owens, Anna Lee Walters was there, and some other people from the Navajo reservation. Someone asked her, "So who are you writing for, Anna?" She said "Young Indian kids on the rez."

One thing I like about my classes is that sooner or later these kids are going to be asking that same question: "What is this Indian literature?" And then they wrestle through all those questions of audience, and definitions, by biology or whatever, and just when they start to feel comfortable, then we complicate it. Take the book for the book.

SA: But see, that doesn’t work.

JP: What?

SA: Taking the book for a book.

JP: In what way?

SA: In an Indian definition, you can’t separate the message from the messenger.

JP: That’s not the same. I think "the book" can carry that. You work carries it.

SA: Yeah. But I think you’re referring to identity questions and such.

JP: Oh. That’s how the issue shakes out, because that’s what the students are interested in, but the question is how to take them back to the book, to the story itself.

SA: Most of our Indian literature is written by people whose lives are nothing like the Indians they’re writing about. There’s a lot of people pretending to be "traditional," all these academic professors living in university towns, who rarely spend any time on a reservation, writing all these "traditional" books. Momaday--he’s not a traditional man. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not either, but this adherence to the expected idea, the bear and all this imagery. I think it is dangerous, and detrimental.

JP: It’s the nineties, and now it’s time to move on. So, we get back to the discussion of what "it" is.

SA: Well, I want to take it away. I want to take Indian lit. away from that, and away from the people who own it now.

JP: I think you do, in your writing.

SA: That’s what I mean. I’m starting to see it. A lot of younger writers are starting to write like me writing like I do, in a way, not copying me, but writing about what happens to them, not about what they wish was happening. They aren’t writing wish fulfillment books, they’re writing books about reality. How they live, and who they are, and what they think about. Not about who they wish they were. The kind of Indian they wish they were. They are writing about the kind of Indian they are.

JP: Sure, and it makes sense. Whenever you have any group of individuals in any literature, who start to define the center, then everybody has to ask whether or not that’s sufficient over time.

SA: We’ve been stuck in place since House Made of Dawn.

JP: But there’s some interesting work coming out. Have you read Carr’s Eye Killers?

SA: I hate it.

JP: Well, that’s right, it does have that traditional thing going on, but to move into the genre of the vampire novel I thought was interesting.

SA: That’s fun, but I thought that book was blasphemous as hell to Navajo culture, the way he used ceremonies and such. I have a real problem with that. I don’t use any at all. And a white woman saved everybody.

JP: But she was a teacher. (Laughter.)

SA: But it read like a movie turned into a novel. I was supposed to review it, and I wouldn’t.

JP: Tell me this. What do you see coming out right now that is doing what needs to be done?

SA: Irvin Morris. I like his book. I think Tiffany Midge has a good future, once she stops copying me

JP: She did a great reading that night in Bellingham High.

SA: The thing is she was so into my work then, she’s not so much now. That night, ask the people who saw me read before that night, she read exactly like me. So even that night I had to change the way I read. I’d never heard her read in public before, and she got up and read and I thought "O my god, that’s me, that’s my shtick." So I, literally, had to figure out a different way to read.

JP: Do you see anybody coming up through Wordcraft Circle?

SA: I’m in Wordcraft Circle; I’m a board member and all that. But I get worried. I think it’s focusing too much on the idea of publication. The idea of writing as a career. It’s becoming very careerist.

JP: So you either make it . . . if you don’t publish and not doing it for your whole life then you shouldn’t be doing it? Is that the danger you see?

SA: Well, it’s becoming less and less about art. The whole thing is full of publication opportunities, money to win, scholarships, news about Indian writers publishing,

JP: "Done good."

SA: Done good, yeah. Which is all fine. We’re having a meeting soon and I just want to share my concerns with them that I’m worried that the focus has gone wrong.

JP: That the joy of it is not there?

SA: Exactly. One percent of one percent of the people in Wordcraft are going to have a book published. I think it’s setting up unrealistic expectations.

JP: There’s a group that Liz Cook Lynn is involved with, a storytellers’ circle, and they publish what they come up with, themselves. The focus isn’t on selling it, but on doing it.

SA: Yeah. The act is the thing. I know people who would rather be where I’m at now, but I’m jaded as hell. About publication, about the art of it. I sound like I’m complaining. I’m glad to be where I’m at; I worked hard to get where I am. But there’s also a lot that’s shady about it. Being a successful Indian writer, and being an Indian, a "good" Indian (in quotes) are often mutually exclusive things, and there’s a lot of pressure. I spend a lot of time alone, working. Selfish. My friendships, suffer, my relationships with my family suffer, my health suffers. To be where I’m at to do what I do, you’d have to be an obsessive compulsive nut (much laughter) and I don’t think we should be encouraging our children in that direction. (More laughter.) Or at least letting them know. I mean, Word Craft should be talking about the ugliness, too. This is what happens. Hard truths about publishing.

JP: The reality rather than the ideal image of the author dashing about the world, vacationing on sunny beaches.

SA: Exactly.

JP: But there are other rewards, right? The joy?

SA: Money and attention.

JP: Besides that.

SA: Don’t let any writer fool you.

JP: Now, a little bit ago you said the poetry was still there, that that’s . . .

SA: Yeah, but nobody buys that.

JP: Yeah, true. I almost said that. But they buy movies and they buy novels.

SA: First and foremost, writers like to get attention. Don’t let any writer tell you different.

JP: Yeah, well, in my world it’s tenure and promotion, so . . .

SA: Which is attention. We want to be heard. We’re standing on street corners shouting. If that’s not a cry for attention, I don’t know what is. And Indian writers, all writers in general, but Indian writers, too, were the weird kids, the bizarre kids. The ones who questioned institutions, the one who were not all that popular. The ones who people looked at weird. There are big burdens involved in all of this, you know.

................... Tape shut down...........

JP: You were on the state governor’s book award board, and one winner was Carolyn Kizer. She has a great poem, "Afternoon Happiness." It says the poet’s job is to write about pain and suffering, all that is "grist for me," but all she wants to do is write a poem about being content, and this poem does it.

SA: Actually, I’m doing it, too. My next book is all happy rez. poems.

JP: That ought to start a buzz.

SA: Yeah. All the joy I remember from growing up.

JP: Good. Think it will sell well in Europe?

SA: It’s not corn pollen, eagle feathers, Mother Earth, Father Sky. It’s everyday life. Remembering taking our bikes and setting up ramps to jump over the sewer pit. That kind of stuff.

JP: And making it!

SA: Yeah, yeah. Or not. (Laugher.) And some of it a little sad. I’m working on this poem; it’s not very good right now, I just wrote it last night, but I remember, I remember, I dreamed it a couple of nights ago, but during the winter we would, in winter, we’d take our gloves and put them on the radiator in the old school whenever they’d get wet. But, I remembered some kids didn’t have gloves, because they couldn’t afford it, they were too poor. And I didn’t have gloves this one winter, and I remembered that. And so I had this dream and where I was sitting in the classroom and there were 12 pair of gloves on the radiator and 13 kids in the classroom, and so everybody’s looking around trying to figure out who’s the one who doesn’t have gloves, so everybody’s hiding their hands. So, I’m working on that poem, and that image of everyone hiding their hands so nobody will know who didn’t have gloves. Kind of sad, kind of nostalgic . . .

JP: But positive in ways . . .

SA: And that is also funny, I mean. Another one’s about . . . there’s this series of lullaby poems, actually, that I’ve written, they’re really rhymey lullaby poems. Pow-wow lullaby poems, I call ‘em, ‘cause where we live on the Spokane rez. the pow-wow ground is a couple of miles away, and at night you can hear the drums and the stick game players playing all night long, and that would put me to sleep at night during pow-wows. I’m writing poems about that feeling, or walking in the dark back to the pow-wow grounds, hearing the drums or walking to the grounds at night, or falling asleep in teepees, or in Winnebagos, or when we were real little, at a pow-wow in Arlie or wherever, and you’d end up sleeping in cousins’ teepees in just a big pile of Indian kids. Those are the kinds of poems I’ve been writing.

Like the last book, The Summer of Black Widows, I thought was technically good. My last book of poems, technically good. I thought is was probably my best book. But very few of the poems Indian people would relate to. Whereas a book like Fancydancing I think is incredibly Indian. I want to go back to writing the kind of poems I wrote in Fancydancing. I’m more happy now. I’m a happier person. When I wrote these books . . . I’m getting happier and getting healthier. Some people say I always write about drunks. Well, no I don’t, but if you look at the books you can see a progression, actually. The alcohol, is dropping out of the books, because the alcohol is dropping farther and farther out of my life, as I’ve been sober for more and more years.

JP: And I can see a bunch of kid poems coming out in the near future, then?

SA: No. No, I’ll won’t write about him, I mean I write about him but I won’t publish them unless he’s old enough to let me know it’s O.K.

[Interruption]

JP: What’s needed, then, is a press.

SA: I’m going to do it. Actually, next year I’m going to start up a literary journal that’s called Skins: The Poetry Journal for Indians and People We Wish Were Indians. I figure to start publishing books out of that.

JP: Fantastic. Great. It’s been done. Lot’s of people have started that way.

SA: I’ve the money and the influence. I can print 1000 copies of a poetry book, I’ll be able to do that kind of thing, and I can get distribution. Poetry books will still only sell three hundred copies, but I can get them out there.

JP: Well, even one, two or three.

SA: One a year, two a year maybe.

JP: How long have you been thinking about this?

SA: Since the beginning. I just had to get to a place where I had the finances to do it. I didn’t want a little mimeograph, I wanted a very, very professional journal, ah, very beautiful. The very best paper and the very best design. I wanted to wait until I had the finances there to have the best looking journal possible. I just said SKINS and I can see it.

JP: People have talked about it over the years and presses have come and gone, presses have had interest in and other times none, and I bring that up because we get back to that model "if it’s not this . . ." we don’t buy it. The reason some young writers get caught in trying to write like that the convention is that they might get published.

SA: That’s all they know. That’s all they’ve read or been shown to. I don’t know about you, but growing up all I got exposed to was Mother Earth Father Sky stuff, or direction stuff. That’s how I thought Indians wrote. I didn’t know I could write actually about my life. (Laughter.)

JP: The first revelation, right?

SA: Yeah, I could write about fry bread and fried bologna. And the great thing is I didn’t know you could combine, the traditional imagery and fried bread and fried bologna. The way I lived my live, and the way inside me, and the way I thought, which is a mix of traditionalism and contemporary culture.

JP: Right, which is reality.

SA: Which is reality. I didn’t realize you could do that, something you can. I can write about, you know, Raybans and Pow-Wows.

JP: How soon do you think you will do that, SKINS?

SA: Next year some time. We haven’t figured out submission policies, yet. For a while I think we’ll just recruit, get it established and then open it up to submissions. But with editorial guidelines--no lyric poetry. We want narrative.

JP: No lines that end with the word, blue.

SA: Right.

JP: Well, The Bellingham Review been around for 17 years or so, started by a colleague of mine, who has retired.

SA: Yeah--a guy named Knute.

JP: Yeah Knute.

SA: He rejected me like 10 times while I was in college. I bet eventually he probably rejected like half the Fancydancing manuscript.

JP: Oh, wow. "Click!" That’s interesting. He wasn’t the colleague on the plane with me who I showed the book to, but he did, though, what you’re talking about. He set up a press with just that idea, that out of the journal submissions he took some poets and made them books. And it worked.

SA: Do you know Jim Hepworth? Confluence Press? He rejected Fancydancing, the book.

JP: Good. I mean, oh, that’s too bad.

SA: No. I harass him constantly. He goes, "Oh I didn’t read it, I couldn’t have read it, one of my readers must have. I would have remembered it." And I started laughing. I said, "Jim, you sent me the letter." I still have the letter. You said, "This is encouraging, this shows lots of potential. But not ready for publication yet."

JP: Yeah. I know. So do you send him reviews of the book on the back of royalty reports?

SA: Well, he knows what happened.

JP: Wish you the best of luck on that project. It’s good.

SA: It’s going to . . . the reception we get at literary journals is terrible. The standard literary journal rarely publishes us. And when we do it’s always part of a "special issue," or a special section. "The Literary Reservation." I’m looking for new young writers, the undiscovered voices, who are telling us things. I want read poems where I recognize the characters, and I recognize the words. Where, ah, I’d also like to publish poems that people will not get, at all.

JP: Insider jokes.

SA: Yeah, I load my books with stuff, just load ‘em up. I call them "Indian trapdoors." You know, Indians fall in, white people just walk right over them.

JP: I thought it was supposed to be the other way around. Hmm.

SA: Ah. So that’s the kind of thing I’m imagining. Poems that work in all sorts of ways, but I really want the subtext for Indians.

JP: This is exactly how, as we were talking earlier, it will be done, how it will move on. Others have been at work doing it. Now that things are established, it’s time for the next phase. SKINS

SA: And just stay with poetry, because fiction costs too much.

JP: Yeah, yeah. Takes up a lot of space: more short stories, you have fewer poems.

SA: And I’m sorry, but I think generally speaking, Indians just don’t write good fiction: it’s not in us.

JP: I take it then, that you’re not going to do a serial of Almanac of the Dead?

SA: No. I just don’t think . . . it’s just not natural for us. I think we’re meant to write poems. All of our traditional communication, it’s about poetry. So I think in some sense, genetically, we’re poets. Culturally speaking, we can become fiction writers. We can sort of . . . but it’s one of the problems with some of the criticism, some of the criticisms directed Liz Cook Lynn, and Gloria Bird, and Robert Warrior talking about how there needs to be more tradition in Indian writing. I thought . . .

JP: What’s more tradition?

SA: But also, I mean, we’re writing in English, 99% of our audience is going to be non-Indian, so how the hell do we do that?

JP: And, if you take that a step further, then should you?

SA: Exactly. We shouldn’t be writing about our traditions, we shouldn’t be writing about our spiritual practices. Not in the ways in which some people are doing it. Certainly, if you’re writing a poem or story about a spiritual experience you had, you can do it. But you also have to be aware that it’s going to be taken and used in ways, that you never intended for it to be. I think it’s dangerous, and that’s really why I write about day-to-day life.

The responsibilities of being an Indian writer are enormous. Even more so than any other group of people because we have so much more to protect,

JP: (An aside to Fred: "You ever heard this before?")

SA: I mean and it’s so funny, people, like some of these writers, will think of me as being this very contemporary, very non-traditional guy, and I am, but I’m a lot more conservative, in my take on Indian literature than any of those people are. I think . . . like some of the Navajo stuff and some of the traditional chants, or like some of Momaday’s stuff, when rendered into English, means nothing. Means nothing. Our traditions are all about being, about taking place in a specific time and a specific geography. But when in a book that goes everywhere to anybody, it’s like a traveling roadshow of Indian spirituality.

JP: Think of it this way, too, one of the elements behind that is the impetus for putting it in English and putting it in a book.

SA: To sell it. There’s no Indian who would stand on a roadside singing traditional songs to make money. Yet they will put it in a book and sell the book. To make money. I think the passage of money invalidates any sort of sacredness of any of the ceremonies that are placed within a book.

JP: Someone asked, I think it was Vine Deloria, Jr., how to tell a plastic shaman, and he said to just ask how much they charge. Pretty well says it.

Well, I’m glad you’re going to do that; it’s a really good idea, the journal and the press, and to put out the poets who come through who have promise. That’s good.

SA: Yeah, I’d like to nurture careers. And to have a space for Indian writers to develop. I mean like this idea of featuring a poet per issue, a young, unknown person, featuring them, and also charting the growth, of these young poets, over a few years, and then into a book. I’ve seen a number of first books by Indian poets recently that really needed editing help.

JP: I’ve noticed that, too, lately. Even fairly established presses are putting out things maybe too quickly, not carefully enough.

SA: And then the books, because they’re bought, disappear, and it does a disservice to the writers. That’s one of my problems with Wordcraft, it’s rushing people into print before they’re ready. And when you get a bad poem published, or a flat poem published, you don’t learn anything. They’ve published bad poems of mine, and I’ve suffered for it. There are bad poems of mine in books.

JP: It become embarrassing later as well. (Laughter.)

SA: "Oh my god, I wrote that? No, somebody slipped that in there when I wasn’t looking."

JP: It’s a strange business, isn’t it? I’m glad that you’re keeping at the poetry, balance. So when’s the movie coming out?

SA: We’re doing distributor screenings over the next couple of weeks, for Miramax, Sony, and all of that. All the big ones. If there’s been an independent movie over the last five years, whoever’s released it, they’re coming. It’s a good movie, comparable in level and quality to The Full Monty, the performances are amazing. These actors finally got a chance to play human beings, rather than wind-o-bots. I think it’s really going to go. I thing we’ll get an awakening here, and we’ll get about a three year window to make Indian films.

JP: The doors will open quickly . . .

SA: What’s going to happen is there will be a flood of Indian movies, most of them will be bad, they won’t make money, and then the door will close again. We’ll have the chance for a couple years here I think.

JP: Just like we were talking about a while ago, things get rushed into production instead of . . .

SA: What I’m hoping to get from this movie is so, . . . we told the story but at the same time it is also very subversive, to take on "Indian cinema" and the images in the movies: about the Warrior, about storytelling, there’s all sorts of little jokes along the way about the ways Indians get viewed in the movies, and in culture, as we’re telling the road movie stories. I’m hoping it will kill, make it impossible for anybody to make this type of movie again. Like the way Blazing Saddles killed the western for twenty years.

JP: If it accomplishes just ten years, it’d be wonderful.

SA: Six months, three days, two hours. For dinner after they see the movie, if they can see Indians as nothing else but human beings, it’ll be a success.

JP: We could boycott the whole thing, Hollywood. One day.

SA: One day. One day of no anti-Indian thoughts. Not going to happen. I can dream.

JP So you have a thing going on tonight?

SA: It’s called for Books for Prisoners. It’s affiliated with Left Bank Books.

JP: Have fun.

* Aaron Gorseth did the initial transcription of the audio tape of this conversation. It has been edited, somewhat, from the audio, mostly to remove slight repetition, and the usual, inconsequential utterances, like "oh," and "ah," which unfortunately includes most of the laughter. Even more sadly, there is no way to convey the inflections, grins and body language, which animated most of the conversation with a playful edge.

 

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