Photos courtesy of Royce Carlton Inc.
His grandmother’s babysitter was Chief Joseph. He has appeared on “The Colbert Report.” He laughs with you but he also talks about genocide. When you speak to Sherman Alexie – this year’s Summer Read author – you cover a lot of ground. Just don’t ask him to be a spokesman for anyone.
By Daniel F. Le Ray
Each chapter begins with a song lyric. Sherman Alexie wrote the words while Jim Boyd, a Colville Indian and a musician, wrote the music.
It is music which is the key to “Reservation Blues,” a 1995 novel which charts the course of Coyote Springs, an all-Indian rock ’n’ roll band that forms on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington. In Alexie’s novel, music is a means to tell stories – stories filled with humor and sadness.
The first character we meet in the book is the long-dead Robert Johnson, who walks onto the reservation, guitar in hand and on the run from the devil. Benny Goodman, Janis Joplin, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix all receive honorary mentions. (Jim Morrison a few less-than-honorary ones.)
Alexie and Boyd have not performed the fictional band’s real songs together for more than a decade. After listening to them last year, Alexie says: “I think there are two good ones, one okay one and the rest are crap.”
For Alexie, novel writing is part wish fulfillment. “I wrote about rock musicians because I wanted to be one, at least in my mind,” he says. But for Thomas, Victor and Junior – the three characters who form Coyote Springs – music is “the way out.”
Perhaps it’s also a kind of secular prayer? “If it is prayer, it’s really desperate prayer,” Alexie says. “It’s the puritanical version of really dirty blues music. It’s that combination of the devil of rock music and the god of Catholicism being the same person.”
Poverty and Pat Benatar
Alexie speaks as he writes: in contradictory truths.
While “the book is 18 years old and the questions are still the same,” when asked if he thinks it’s still representative of the young Indian experience on the Spokane reservation, he says: “No. I mean, maybe on a general level, but with the Internet, you have to actively focus on being culturally disconnected.”
And today’s poverty has a whole different shape. Young Indians all have “some hotshot cellphone. And I know some of them are very poor – I know their parents.”
When he was growing up, music, pop culture and art were the ways he connected culturally with the world. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it this way, but you know, Pat Benatar was my iPhone.”
Alexie’s mother, siblings and cousins still live on the reservation. Only he and one uncle live in Seattle. His connection to the place hasn’t changed, but it is a complex one.
“My reservation is gorgeous. It’s essentially one giant pine forest nestled between the Columbia and Spokane rivers. So its physical beauty, in a way, is a trap, and its physical beauty can mask its spiritual poverty. For me,” he says, “a pine tree equals poverty. Unlike most other Indians, I actually have an antagonistic relationship with nature.”"I don't think I've ever thought of it this way, but you know, Pat Benatar was my iPhone."
The physical and spiritual limits of the reservation are what whites use to define Indians, yet the reservation is an entirely white invention.
“It’s not just a white invention. It’s a white act of war. We are defined by what was done to us. We are defined by the crimes committed against us.”
But there is humor even in the darkest parts of “Reservation Blues.” Is that innate to Alexie’s writing style?
“I always assumed I was funny growing up, but I wasn’t. My siblings think I’m the least funny. To them, I was the depressed guy in the basement playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
He feels that, counterintuitively, he became more culturally connected to his tribe by writing books in English, read primarily by white people. Did moving away from the traditions of his people bring him closer to them?
With a polite subtext of pshaw, Alexie says: “I removed myself from many of the dysfunctional traditions and further embraced more of the functional ones. That’s not to say I’m not also a screwed-up, post-traumatic stress syndrome, bipolar res Indian kid. But I’m a slightly healthier version of that.”
Growing up on a reservation in Welpinit, Wash., Alexie’s father was “always there, but was also always absent. My father was half human, half void.” Then as now, “the ways of being an Indian man have been completely removed.”
Old man of letters
For its Summer Read program, Whitman College selects a noted book which incoming first-years read before arriving on campus. During their first week at Whitman, they discuss the book with faculty and fellow students.
The 2014 Summer Read Program pick is Sherman Alexie’s 1995 novel “Reservation Blues.” We asked Alexie how it felt to come to Whitman to discuss a book that is older than most of the first-year students reading it.
“Having ‘Reservation Blues’ selected makes me proud of my two-decade career. It makes me feel like an old man of letters,” he said. “I’m not happy to be an old man of basketball, but I’m delighted to be an old man of letters.”
Alexie will visit campus to deliver a lecture and share personal anecdotes on Oct. 1.
In “Reservation Blues,” fatherhood appears in its many guises. (One of the two songs that Alexie still likes is “Father and Farther.”) Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s father Samuel is a reservation drunk; Chess Warm Water seeks love and solace in Father Arnold, the Catholic priest in Welpinit; and Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin dream of their unhappy childhoods.
“I have an intense relationship with sleep and dreams,” Alexie explains, “because I’m a lifelong insomniac and a lifelong [sufferer of] night terrors.” Though he has recently been diagnosed as bipolar and his medication has helped with the insomnia, he recognizes that his “unmedicated work” is obsessed with sleep and dreaming.
On a recent “Colbert Report” appearance, Alexie made the case against digital books. At that time, his works were unavailable digitally. Now they are. What changed?
“At the time I was sort of holistically angry, but as time went on, I realized it is really about the business practices of Amazon,” he explains. “It’s a monopoly that Amazon has over e-book sales, and that’s what I’m fighting against: a monopoly over books, which is a monopoly over the imagination.”
The power structure of the Internet – and, in particular, of Silicon Valley and companies like Amazon and Google – is libertarian, according to Alexie.
“For me, the struggle about e-books is about the white guy libertarians of the Internet versus the white female liberals of the independent book world.”
And he knows whose side he’s on. “I’ll take the white women over the white guys in anything. Whenever there’s been a conflict between white men and white women, white women were right.”
We end by talking about Alexie’s grandmother, whose babysitter was Chief Joseph.
“The acceptable level of genocide denial is insane,” he says. “I am actually only two degrees removed from genocide.”
It’s clear that Alexie has a lot to say. Does he worry that students attending the Summer Read lecture might expect him to be a spokesperson for a whole group of people? He laughs and says: “I’ll be mocking them five minutes in.”