But not exclusively. Another reason Alexie writes so fluently about cultural identity is because he is frequently cited--and typecast--as the leading Indian writer of his generation. "There are Montana writers, Southern white trash writers, all kinds of writers. I'm a Native American writer, a school that isn't any more or less valid than any other. But literary critics assign a negative value to Native American literature and place it in some sort of literary reservation. It's not an insult to me, but other people use it as such," Alexie says. "The fortunate thing for me is that I am rising out of that ghettoization of my work. I am a Native American writer who is becoming part of American literature. It is valid to compare me to other Native American writers, but I consider myself equally influenced by John Steinbeck and by growing up on a reservation. I'm influenced by the Brady Bunch as much as Steinbeck, for that matter."
And such influences are alienating: "Because I am first and foremost a Spokane/Coeur D'Alene Indian, that means I am a colonized person living in a colonial country--that's my relationship with the United States. The analogy I give to white people is, imagine being dropped into the middle of Compton, California at midnight on a Friday; that's exactly how I feel living in the United States when I'm not on my reservation. You deal with it every minute. We're bombarded with images like Crazy Horse Malt Liquor; F-Troop is still on television, black and white westerns, and now this New Age crap. But the image that is you isn't included anywhere; you're either totally misrepresented or not represented at all.
"On the other hand, I'm a citizen of the US and I do take responsibility for the idiocy of our leaders. So being an Indian is a real strange thing. Generally speaking, Indians are highly patriotic. I am not, but Indians by and large are extremely proud of their country. I think it's the land: Somewhere along the line, we have confused the land with the government. And another part of it is that Indians still have this fascination and love affair with war. And the US is good at war. A lot of Indians are supporting the bombing of Iraq, putting up yellow ribbons or whatever the hell for the sons and daughters who might be going over there."
In Indian Killer, there are characters who regard the murders as a jubilant sign of Native resurrection and rebellion. "Almost every Native tribe has a prophecy that said [whites] would come--and that they would leave," Alexie notes. "I don't necessarily think it means leaving as much as it means being totally consumed--Europeans being swallowed up by all the brown people, genetically."
Meanwhile, Alexie's relentless work ethic continues. He says his new book of poems "plays around with some formal verse. And the poems are getting longer and longer." In November, he will return to the Twin Cities to read from Indian Killer. "In my other readings, I usually performed a character, and relied a lot on the humor. There's not a lot of humor in this book. I might end up doing John Smith," he says, referring to the character whose cultural dislocation literally drives him crazy, "if I can get inside his head." And he's already begun thinking about his next novel, which will likely be historical. "I liked working within a genre with the mystery, so I might try history. One idea is about a 1930s Spokane Indian reservation and 1930s Chicago. The other is about an 1880s Spokane Indian reservation and a 1980s Spokane Indian reservation. But I don't want to say too much."
Earlier, he had said, "I try to think of my writing as a career, as a long series of artistic leaps--maybe not leaps, but tip-toes. Every book is part of a longer series of work. I'm just trying to get better, putting more tools in my box. Writer's block is just about the fear of writing badly. I'm not afraid of writing badly. I just put it in my 'shit no one would ever want' pile and start over." CP
Arts intern Ryan Peck contributed to this story.
See the A-List, p.37, for more information on the Honor the Earth tour.