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For the week of June 21 through June 27, 2000

‘The Toughest Indian in the World’

An interview with poet, novelist, filmmaker Sherman Alexie

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, "It’s a great day to be indigenous." If you’re Sherman Alexie.

"I’m a traveling salesman," he hollered in a telephone interview from Sante Fe, N.M., on the night before the slam. "I’m Willy Loman."

Actually, he’s 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 d’Alene’ 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!"

It’s a telling line, because all of the characters in "The Toughest Indian in the World" are complicated and eccentric.

In "Assimilation," the Coeur d’Alene 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 Ford’s "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 they’re eccentric and complex, they’re also like most people in that they pay their bills, hold down jobs and fall in and out of love. In other words, Alexie’s Indians are never dancing, noble savage-like, around a fire on the reservation.

"Stereotypes are always about simplification," he said. "We’re 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. It’s good. But it’s not going to challenge anybody’s expectations of what everything is, of what’s Indian. That’s the job of the writer—to challenge. We’re not out to be class president."

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.

Alexie’s 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 studies.

After graduating, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992.

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 Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and won him the Before Columbus Foundation’s 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 audience."

Alexie’s 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.

"I’m 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.

"We’re 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. I’d take a few Aimee Mann songs over the five best novels of last year."

And what have been Alexie’s cultural influences, besides Aimee Mann?

"John Steinbeck, ‘All in the Family,’ Stephen King, Tim O’Brien, 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. It’s foolish not to take advantage. It’s an all-you-can-eat cultural buffet."

Most recently, Alexie said he’s been getting into the children’s 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?"


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