The Toughest Indian in the World
An interview with poet, novelist, filmmaker Sherman Alexie
By HANS IBOLD
Express Staff Writer
Sherman Alexie is having a big week. On Saturday, he successfully defended
his title as World Heavyweight Championship Poet, winning the 19th annual
poetry slam in Taos, N.M., for the third straight year.
After dazzling the judges there, he was whisked off to Toronto and then to
New York for the last leg of his national book tour. Alexie is promoting his fourth book,
the widely praised short story collection, "The Toughest Indian in the World."
Indeed, as the reservation DJ in "Smoke Signals," the film he
wrote and produced, says, "Its a great day to be indigenous." If
youre Sherman Alexie.
"Im a traveling salesman," he hollered in a telephone
interview from Sante Fe, N.M., on the night before the slam. "Im Willy
Actually, hes doing a little better than Willy Loman. He could
probably publish his grocery list if he wanted to.
But what he really wants might be something similar to the longing of Mary
Lynn, a character in "Assimilation," the first story in "The Toughest
Indian in the World."
"She wished she could be called Coeur dAlene as a
description, rather than as an excuse, reasons, prescription, placebo, prediction, or
diminutive," Alexie writes near the beginning of the story. "She only wanted to
be understood as complicated and eccentric!"
Its a telling line, because all of the characters in "The
Toughest Indian in the World" are complicated and eccentric.
In "Assimilation," the Coeur dAlene woman impulsively
sleeps with an Indian man just before meeting her white husband for dinner. In "South
by Southwest," a white drifter holds up an international House of Pancakes restaurant
and demands one dollar from each of the customers and somebody to love. He leaves with $42
and an overweight Indian he nicknames Salmon Boy. In "Dear John Wayne," a young
Navajo woman shares a brief but romantic affair with the Duke on the film set of director
John Fords "The Searchers." In the title story, an Indian journalist from
the city picks up a hitchhiker, a scarred Indian boxer who is looking to fight the
toughest Indian in the world. The two ultimately end up in a hotel and in bed together.
While theyre eccentric and complex, theyre also like most
people in that they pay their bills, hold down jobs and fall in and out of love. In other
words, Alexies Indians are never dancing, noble savage-like, around a fire on the
"Stereotypes are always about simplification," he said.
"Were not aliens. If you want to know about Indians, go to dinner with a couple
of Indians. Talk to Indians."
It obviously bothers Alexie that so many non-Indians, such as novelist
Barbara Kingsolver ("Pigs in Heaven"), become recognized as Indian storytellers.
"All too often when non-Indians write about Indians they get
authority," he said. "Their work becomes substitute for work by Indians. Barbara
Kingsolver writes utterly safe literature. Its good. But its not going to
challenge anybodys expectations of what everything is, of whats Indian.
Thats the job of the writerto challenge. Were not out to be class
Alexie, who now lives in Seattle with his wife and their 2-year-old son,
was born in 1966 and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash.
Alexies father held various jobs, including truck driver and logger,
and his mother was a social worker. Alexie was born a hydrocephalic and underwent a brain
operation at the age of 6 months. Consequently, he suffered seizures through his
childhood. Preferring to stay inside, Alexie developed a love of books and reading by the
age of 5.
He attended an all-white high school in Reardon, Wash., just outside the
reservation. He was the only Indian there, he said, "except for the school
mascot." He graduated from Washington State University with a degree in American
After graduating, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission
Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in
Soon after receiving the second fellowship, Alexie cranked out several
books of poetry, including, "The Business of Fancydancing" and "The Lone
Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."
His critically acclaimed first novel, "Reservation Blues," got
him named Grantas Best of Young American Novelists and won him the Before Columbus
Foundations American Book Award.
A short story from "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in
Heaven" was adapted for the film "Smoke Signals."
Alexie is currently writing and producing his second film, "Indian
Killer," based on his 1996 novel of the same name.
"The movie business is horrible," Alexie said. "Most people
in the movie business think the audience is stupid. I refuse to condescend to an
Alexies priority is books, but he said Hollywood is appealing
because it has potential to reach more people.
"The movie business is much more populist and egalitarian than the
literary world, and my politics are populist.
"Im very much in the corner of middle class and lower class
interests. I have a lot more in common, with my interests and approach to life, with the
lower classes than I do with a university professor."
Reaching and moving an audience is vital to Alexie, who thrives on
performance events like the slam in Taos.
"Contact with the audience is the original purpose of
storytelling," he said. "Books have gotten away from that. Literary fiction has
gotten away from its audience. I get criticized by esoteric, academic, elitist, literary
factions for that, for being a good performer."
Contemporary fiction writers might do well to pay attention to pop
culture, Alexie said.
"Were in direct competition with arts that are a lot more
exciting, more immediately accessible and, I would argue, more nakedly passionate than
ours," he said. "The average well done pop song is a lot more passionate than
the average novel. Id take a few Aimee Mann songs over the five best novels of last
And what have been Alexies cultural influences, besides Aimee Mann?
"John Steinbeck, All in the Family, Stephen King, Tim
OBrien, stand-up comics like Bill Hicks, Chris Rock and Richard Pryor, my
grandmother," he said. "We live, unlike any other time, with so much diversity
in artistic expression. Its foolish not to take advantage. Its an
all-you-can-eat cultural buffet."
Most recently, Alexie said hes been getting into the childrens
television program, "Bear in the Big Blue House," which he watches with his son.
"Every artist looks at the world around him," Alexie said.
"Look at the whole world. Examine everything. Why dismiss anything?"