The World’s Toughest Indian

When Sherman Alexie came to town last month to promote
Flight
, a novel in which a teenager nicknamed Zits is driven to the verge of committing mass murder, one of his intentions was to continue his fight with author and University of Minnesota English professor David Treuer. Alexie’s smile was ever-present throughout our interview in the lobby of the Millenium Hotel, even (perhaps especially) as the subject of Treuer’s criticism was broached. I had feared—needlessly—that Alexie would be sensitive about responding to the disparagement that appeared in Treuer’s recent book, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual. Treuer, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, compared Alexie’s Reservation Blues to one of the most despised books ever written about Indians, Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, and argues that the popularity of Alexie, Erdrich, and other Native American writers rests not on their skills, but on readers’ assumptions that their tales are accurate depictions of Indian life. Alexie clearly relished the opportunity to respond to the charges on Treuer’s home turf.

How do you see the Twin Cities area in terms of its status in Native America?
It is the capital of Indian USA. It’s the center of Native American indigenous urban life.

What makes it so?
Sheer population, the number of tribes that are represented in the city, and the rowdiness. I feel more Indian in Minneapolis than I do on my own damn reservation. I feel more appreciated here. And as rowdy as I can be, and as competitive, it’s still nice to be appreciated.

One criticism I often hear about your work is that it’s not political.
Isn’t political? Everything is political.

Right, I know, but you’re not Dennis Banks.
Fuck Dennis Banks. Thank god. I wake up every morning thanking god I’m not Dennis Banks; I say that because of his willingness to pick up the gun. No FBI agents are going to die as a result of my books. No Indians are going to die as a result of my books.

In what way is Flight political?
It’s political when the character Zits says, “How do you tell the difference between the good and the bad guys when they say the same things?”

You clearly understand the psychology of someone who could perpetrate mass murder. How did you come to that?
I’ve felt that rage. I’ve been that mad, growing up on the rez, being bullied, being frustrated, having all sorts of fantasies about killing people. If I’d had a more fragile mental state or less supportive parents, who knows?

Can you extend that understanding to those who commit terrorist acts like 9/11?
Oh yeah. It’s narcissistic adolescent male rage. It gets me so mad when liberals say the terrorists were “freedom fighters. They were reacting to oppressive conditions.” Bullshit. They were upper-class, college-educated, cosmopolitan world travelers. How do you think they blended into Europe and the United States? They were spoiled-brat rich kids who were frustrated for various penis-related reasons; they were flying dicks is what they were. I understand their narcissism. I am afflicted with a minor league version of it myself.

Native people have been living a subsistence lifestyle for centuries. Now that you don’t need to live that way, how does that history play out in your life?
Was it Dolly Parton—no, it was Mae West who said, “I’ve been rich. I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” I do not romanticize poverty whatsoever. Not even remotely. I was there and it’s a miserable, terrifying existence. I am tattooed by my poverty, and so even now that I’m upper-class it is a part of who I am.

Is there an aspect of the poverty you grew up with that you’re now thankful for?
Thankful for? Oh god, no. If I had a time machine I’d go back to 1972 with thirty-thousand dollars and invest it wisely.

What about people you’ve met along the way who’ve never been poor? There must be things that you know that they’ll never understand.
I’ll take their problems. That’s going to be my sons. You know, they’re brand-new Indians. They have never seen an Indian take so much as a sip of alcohol.

Are you bringing them up in any sense in a traditional way?
No.

Do you plan to teach them their Native language?
No.

Why not?
Nostalgia is terminal. Whatever language they decide to learn and use, that’s their decision. I’m teaching them mine, English.

When you go around you must talk to a lot of people like me who ask stupid questions. What are some of the stupidest questions people ask you?
You haven’t yet, but oh god! This fog of privilege that surrounds me has blinded people to the fact that I’m still Indian, so they ask these theoretical questions that have to do with Indians as if it’s two non-Indians in the discussion, as if I don’t deal with these issues every day. My brother works at the casino; my sister works for Indian Health Service. They all live in that same HUD house that I grew up in.

That’s like me saying—and I grew up Jewish— I’m poor now so I’m no longer Jewish.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, so that’s been sort of the tone. But this book in particular has caused stupid questions.

Can you share any of them?
It might be the way we promoted the book; the cover says Flight is my first novel in ten years, which is true. But I was in a bookstore in Iowa, and the owner, who I’ve known for years, said “Well, you dropped off the map.” And I said, “You mean the three books of poems, two books of short stories, and two movies I’ve made since Indian Killer is dropping off the map? You mean, being named one of the New Yorker’s Writers for the Twenty-First Century doesn’t count? You mean the three stories in The New Yorker, the essays in Time magazine, Men’s Journal, The New York Times, the
LA Times
, the hundreds of appearances I’ve given. What the fuck are you talking about?”

Do you have any guilty literary pleasures?
Why would I feel guilty about enjoying something? That’s the kind of question you ask John Updike. And John Updike’s more than happy to answer it. But, I mean, I’m a kid from the rez. I still eat potted meat product.

Gross.
You know. I still like Funyuns. I pour Tabasco sauce on my French fries. I feel highly sacred and traditional when I’m reading westerns and murder mysteries, because that was my dad. Oh, you know what I get a guilty pleasure from? I love bad reviews—of me.

Really?
David Treuer’s book that just hammers on me, reading that really feels like reading porn. We’ve been having an email exchange since he trashed me.

What’s been the tone of your exchange with Treuer?
Oh, I just give him shit.

Does he respond?
He quit responding.

Was he surprised to hear from you?
No, because we were friendly over the years. I, in fact, wrote him letters of recommendation when his first book got sent out; publishers called me to ask me if he was real. At one point, when his major publishing career wasn’t going well, I helped him contact my agent. I’m saying this stuff because this is where he lives and I want the world to know this: He wrote a book to show off for white folks, and we Indians were giggling at him.

What’s his problem with you?
He’s insecure about his Indian identity because he’s blond and short. But, as I told him, “David, no matter what you write, it’s autobiography. And you’ve said so much about yourself, more than you realize.” When David and other Native scholars criticize me, it’s like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and David and his ilk are like the Neanderthals with bone clubs and I’m the monolith [laughs].

You just like mixing it up.
I’m competitive and I love it. I told him, “David, you can intellectualize, you can go sentence by sentence, you can pull my bad sentences out of my books—there are plenty of them—you can say this fails or that fails, you can point out bad reviews or whatever. But in the end, when I get up in front of people, when people read my books, they connect in an inexplicable way. They always have. And I don’t know what it is, you don’t know what it is, but there’s something."

 

Alexie discusses Zits, the teenage narrator of his new novel.