Saturday, May 03, 2008

Sherman Alexie Interviewed

The Guardian UK posted an interview with Sherman Alexie, one of my favorite contemporary authors. OK, it's less an interview than a story about the man and his work. Still, quite interesting.

All rage and heart

Maya Jaggi
Saturday May 3, 2008
The Guardian

Sherman Alexie combines his successful writing career with stand-up comedy. His siblings, with whom he grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in the east of Washington state, are surprised people find him funny, he says. "I was always the depressed guy in the basement. But I've borrowed their sense of humour and made it darker and more deadly - a weapon of self-defence. Being funny you win hearts quicker; people laughing are more apt to listen."
He is speaking in a bistro in his "adoptive hometown" of Seattle, the Pacific city named after a 19th-century Suquamish chief now revered as a guardian of nature. Alexie, in some 10 volumes of poetry plus novels, short stories, screenplays and songs, has been at pains to deflate just such romantic myths, whether steward of the earth, stoical warrior, shaman or savage, still projected on to the country's roughly two million Indians - a term he prefers to what he sees as the guilt-ridden liberal coinage, Native American. In his comic and touching screenplay Smoke Signals (1998), the visionary storyteller in plaits and government-issue specs, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, says Spokane Indians were fisherfolk not warriors, unable to fit the heroic image of Hollywood's Dances with Wolves: "It's not Dances with Salmon," he points out.

Smoke Signals, adapted from stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and directed by Chris Eyre, won the Sundance festival audience award and is still, Alexie insists, the only feature film "by and about Indians" to have had a major distribution deal. While it takes place on a dirt-poor "rez" on the Idaho border, Alexie's later fiction is largely set in urban Seattle, where he lives in a gentrifying black neighbourhood. "I like being the pale one," he jokes.

Now 41, Alexie was one of Granta's 20 best American novelists under 40 in 1996, and was among the New Yorker's 20 best writers of the 21st century. Some critics have suspected that his literary territory (his titles are often flagged with "Indian" or "reservation") may have inflated critical sympathy. While James Buchan in these pages described his latest novel, Flight, as a "short-winded epic", it was praised in the New York Times as a "narrative stripped to its core, all rage and heart".

Flight is set on the underside of "sanitised and computerised" Seattle, amid destitute drunks, child-abusing foster carers and "kid jail". The teenage narrator Zits, an Irish-Indian "half-breed" with bad skin and no parents, meets a terrorist named Justice. Zits plans a shoot-out at a bank, but is hit by a guard's bullet and time-travels into other lives, including a child at Little Bighorn in 1876, a flight instructor betrayed by a would-be suicide pilot, and an Indian wino who turns out to be his father. Alexie has worked with charities for the homeless, yet the novel, although trenchant, seems less confrontational than earlier work. September 11 changed him, Alexie says, by revealing the lethal "end game of tribalism - when you become so identified with only one thing, one tribe, that other people are just metaphors to you".

That insight informs his first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published here next month. It was a US bestseller and won the 2007 National Book award for young people's literature. With illustrations by Ellen Forney, it is his first book to explore his own childhood condition of hydrocephalus (about which he has narrated a documentary, Learning to Drown, also out next month). The autobiographical teenager, Arnold Spirit, is a budding cartoonist born with water on the brain, or "too much grease inside my skull - like my brain was a giant French fry". He survives an operation at six months (as did Alexie) with persistent physical problems for which he is bullied at school. But his talents help him realise that, though a Spokane Indian, he also belongs to other tribes, including basketball players and bookworms.

Read the rest.

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