Over the past two decades, Sherman Alexie has established himself as a major literary voice through his poetry, novels and short stories, and movies. This week, Alexie begins a new book tour to launch Flight (Black Cat / Grove Atlantic, $13), his first novel since 1996’s Indian Killer. Flight’s anti-hero is a 16-year-old foster kid named Zits, who, like Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, has come unmoored in time and space.
Alexie dropped in on us at Real Change to discuss his new book, class and race in America, and the trouble with white liberals.
Died today! I woke up this morning and walked downstairs, and my wife looked at me and had this look on her face, and I was scared ’cuz I’m a reservation Native American and your wife gets that face and you’re like, “Oh shit, my brother, my sister, my mother, who? My cousin died?” And she says Kurt Vonnegut died, which was just devastating.
Yeah, well, he was a big influence on all writers of our generation, and clearly an influence for you…
Yeah, the direct influence on this book in particular. But, also on my whole career. The notion of being funny in the most extreme of circumstances. Being funny about Nazis, being funny about the bombing, being funny about genocide. The notion that you could be hilarious and at the same time approach the books with a clear moral vision.
You’ve talked a lot about how in a post-9/11 world, you are making a point of not having a tribe. How’s that been going for you?
(Laughing) You know who it really offends more than anybody is liberals. The notion of advancing forward and advocating for the multiplicity of tribes inside any person is scary for people.
My major focus is about class. I’ve been screaming about that for five years now. That we brown folks especially have to stop talking about race. We have to stop. That is not to say racism isn’t and will not be a problem, but the fact is that our rhetoric alienates the people whose minds we need to change. We make it about class, we automatically bring in this huge group of people who we’ve alienated: poor and working class white folks. And we need them, and they need us.
I’m curious about your own journey and negotiation of class. Is that something you feel like you’ve figured out, or is that a moving target?
Who knows if you figure it out? My survivor’s guilt is pretty much gone. The notion of “How did I make it?” The guilt about that. No, that’s all gone. When you rise through classes, the natural reflex, I think, is to stay in your new class rather than continue to be a person who was a part of all those classes. I’m working on a family memoir, and this kind of stuff is a big part of the discussion of how different I am than my father and my grandfather. How different my children are from me. I was playing with my oldest son, and he wanted to play “room service.” (Laughs)
They know they’re Indian. They are not assimilated to that degree, but it’s so less important to them. I can’t see us as an oppressed group anymore, I can’t. Not when we have this hard fought, and hard won, special status. We are sovereign nations, and we want to be treated as such, and we have to start acting as such.
You’re one of those exceptions to the rule that people point to. It’s “Look at Sherman. He was on the reservation, and now he’s a successful professional and therefore anybody can do it.”
You have to talk about it in a number of ways. One of the greatnesses of the United States is that in reality, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people have broken through class barriers, so it is possible.
But then you look at the actual data, and class mobility has gone down.
Yeah. The United States is a meritocracy for the wildly talented. But the thing is, once you start moving out of that group, that’s when it becomes a huge issue, because that’s where money and class really plays a part. I teach college classes. Trust me. There are all sorts of upper class and middle class mediocrities doing really well in college. Who get in there only because of their privileges. So, the issue is, how do we help? For me it comes down again to class-based affirmative action, not race-based. You know who believes in class-based affirmative action?
Bill O’Reilly. So I agree with Bill O’Reilly! Omigod! What’s wrong with me? For me the argument becomes autobiographical. We are in the top 5 to 10 percent of income in the United States. I’m in the upper tax bracket in the United States. If there is anybody out there who thinks my children will have more problems getting into college than the children of a Boeing swing-shift worker, they’re idiots and they’re racists. A white farm town kid, a white kid from the Selkirk or Republic, a white kid from Blaine, a white kid from Anacortes or Aberdeen…
Yeah, in terms of opportunity, class trumps race.
Yeah, you know, and class-based [affirmative action] would cover all those victims of race as well. And then we eliminate the discussion of race as the primary tactic. I mean, I paraphrase MLK Jr. “I measure people’s chances not by the contents of their characters but by the contents of their refrigerators.” How much food is in the fucking house? That determines it.
I found the whole foster kid narrative in Flight very moving, and I’m wondering where your experience in this is. How is this an issue that you are close to?
My parents were a foster family on the rez. During my first 18 years on the planet we had seven or eight different kids living with us. And because our house was pretty much the safest, sanest one around, we had plenty of kids around all the time no matter what.
Were the foster kids’ shoes as good as yours?
(Laughs) We all had shit shoes. We all had K-Mart shit shoes with the sizes on the toes. My nickname, I think, in third grade was 6 1/2, because my ssize was right on my shoes (Laughs).
You have this character in the book who gets insight into his own issues by seeing it though different eyes. I sort of read into that the Buddhist idea of individuality being an illusion.
Wow…Buddhism. I mean, it’s not exclusively a Buddhist concept, but yeah, the notion of there being multiple sides of a story. It always bothered me, for instance, with the American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier case. I reflexively supported Leonard Peltier until very recently. I am fully aware of what the FBI is capable of in this country, and has always been capable of in this country. But then I actually looked at what happened that day on the Pine Ridge Rez. Whatever happened, there was a gunfight. The FBI agents were mortally wounded, defenseless, and one, two or three — depending on the stories — people walked down the hill 100 yards, went around the cars, stood over the FBI agents, and shot them in the face. By any definition of the term, that is a crime.
It’s an execution.
Because certain more violent members of AIM and I share the same ethnicity, I automatically, reflexively, assumed that we shared the same moral system. And we don’t. I have an entirely different moral system than Leonard Peltier. Russell Means. Dennis Banks. I would say almost all of the white liberals who support the Free Leonard Peltier thing, if they really examined it, would realize how different their moral system, about violence and guns, is from the people they are trying to support. And I get in trouble for it.
I’ll bet you do.
I’ve had people yell out, “Fuck you, Sherman!” at readings and performances, which is fun.
Is there anything in particular that you’ve been either inspired or appalled by lately?
The big thing I’ve been appalled by is the pessimism of white liberals, and I constantly remind them that they are the most privileged, educated, powerful group of human beings that have ever existed.
Pessimism really is a luxury we can’t afford.
Their privilege makes them stupid. So I guess I’m always appalled by the stupidity of the privileged.
There is a kind of fundamental optimism that often comes through in your work. Why do you think it is that you are built that way?
Part of it has to do with the combination of Christian and native faith. Jesus and my grandma. So, it’s that partnership. Everyday I see dozens of amazing moments. Dozens of amazing interactions. Last night, I was shopping. I’m an insomniac, so I went grocery shopping late. I was in a 24-hour store. There was this old Black guy. I didn’t see him and he didn’t see me, and we both reached for the same loaf of French bread. We laughed. And he has this raspy voice (imitates), “I love this French bread, ’cuz even when I make just a baloney sandwich it makes me feel special.” So, first, just the luxury of being in a grocery store at 2 in the morning, I never discount that, and the beautiful interaction with a stranger over a loaf of French bread, how could you not have hope for humanity?
Interview by TIMOTHY HARRIS, Staff Writer