Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez: Sherman Alexie on Indian Literature

Reflecting oral storytelling traditions, in which repetition exists not for memorization but to deepen meaning with each iteration, Alexie’s writing returns to certain themes, such as the fire that killed his sister and brother-in-law. In his most recent collection of poetry, The Summer of Black Widows (Hanging Loose Press, 1996), one section is entitles "Sister Fire, Brother Smoke." . . .

When asked why he made the switch from poetry to prose, from short stories to novels, from writing to film, Alexie immediately responds with two answers: sales and access. Novels and film pay the bills better than poetry, and with the broader sales he can get his work out to more people, particularly Indian youth. . . . "As I have been working with the film," Alexie says, "I’ve come to realize sitting in a movie theater is the contemporary equivalent of sitting around the fire listening to a storyteller. . . . And because of this, Indian peoples, all peoples, will respond more powerfully to movies than to books." . . .

Another of Alexie’s concerns is that Indian literatures are erroneously assumed by non-Indian readers to represent social and historical realities in ways that other readers do not. When readers’ expectations take an anthropological turn, writers are put in the awkward position of being expected to represent their tribes, communities, and Native America. "Most of us [Indian writers] are outcasts," Alexie says. "We don’t really fit within the Indian community, so we write to try to fit in and sound Indian. So it’s ironic that we become spokespeople for Indian country, that we are supposed to be representative of our tribes." . . .

What does Alexie want to see within the ranks of Indian writers? "I want us to write about the way we live." He wants Indian writers to write from their own lived experiences, not some nostalgic and romanticized notion of what it means to be Indian. "When I see words like the Creator, Father Sky, Mother Earth, Four Legends, I almost feel like we’re colonizing ourselves. These words, this is how we’re supposed to talk—what it means to be Indian in white America. But it’s not who we really are; it’s not what it means to be Navajo or Spokane or Cour d’Alene." 

From Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez, "Fancy Dancer: A Profile of Sherman Alexie." Poets and Writers January/February 1999: 54-59. 


Title Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez: Sherman Alexie on Indian Literature Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez Criticism Target Sherman Alexie
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Fancy Dancer: A Profile of Sherman Alexie
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