The Alexie-Treuer Skirmish Over Market Share
Ezra Whitman
Critical Paper and Program Bibliography
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in
Creative Writing, Pacific Lutheran University, August 2011
Throwing Books Instead of Spears: The Alexie-Treuer Skirmish Over Market Share
Following the 2006 publication of David Treuer’s Native American Fiction: A
User’s Manual, Minneapolis-based publication Secrets of the City interviewed
Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian writer Sherman Alexie. This gave Alexie an opportunity
to respond to the User’s Manual’s essay “Indian/Not-Indian Literature” in which the
Ojibwe writer points out the tired phrases and flawed prose of Alexie’s fiction.
“At one point,” Alexie said in his interview with John Lurie, “when [Treuer’s]
major publishing career wasn’t going well, I helped him contact my agent. I’m saying
this stuff because this is where he lives and I want the world to know this: He wrote a
book to show off for white folks, and we Indians are giggling at him.”
Alexie takes the debate out of the classroom into the schoolyard by summoning
issues that deal less with literature, and more with who has more successfully navigated
the Native American fiction market. Insecurities tucked well beneath this pretentious
“World’s Toughest Indian” exterior, Alexie interviews much the way he writes: on the
emotive level. He steers clear of the intellectual channels Treuer attempts to open, and at
the basis this little scuffle is just that—a mismatch of channels; one that calls upon
intellect, the other on emotion.
Treuer’s approach is a heady one concerned with what has gone awry in the genre
of Native American fiction. Alexie would rather stick with the wisecracks which have, in
essence, cracked the code for success for him in the same genre. What this skirmish
between Treuer and Alexie opens up is a much needed discussion on what has become of
the Native American fiction genre.
For Alexie, the genre is a comfort zone, a well-grooved rut in style that has
awarded him handsomely. For Treuer, Native American fiction is a genre experiencing
self-inflicted disservices, and its market has been less receptive to his work. The skirmish
comes down to who has managed to dig in and exploit the Native American fiction
market, and who has not. It is a question of selling the Indian.
Buried within each stance of the Treuer vs. Alexie skirmish is a cautious nonacknowledgment of the possible tactics used by best-selling authors to best-sell the
Native American experience. There is a deeper—and simpler—disservice to their arts: a
market that expects and responds to a certain, generic Native American story. This is at
the base of what undermines Native American fiction as literature.
In Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, David Treuer’s core argument is that a
sincere longing for cultural artifact by both writers and readers undermines the art of
Native American fiction. Native artisans whose medium is that other than the written
word specifically create objects to be sold as an authentic, and most importantly, tangible
pieces of Native America. The fallacy is that stories written in English using Western
literary devices belong to this category of Native American cultural art. The
misconception by both Native writers and critics is that written English has successfully
produced relics of Native cultures, when it has not.
Treuer is convinced that some of Native American fiction’s defining voices,
writers like James Welch, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie, are
undermined by both audience desire for and authorial willingness to provide relics or
extensions of Native American culture. Treuer suggests that Native American fiction be
examined and held accountable for stylistic and artistic use of the English language, not
as sacred testaments or cultural artifacts. The art is derailed by a boasted authorial
intention different from what actually exists on the page.
Alexie doesn’t seem to care whether or not the written word of the Native
American is presented as cultural artifact. His primary concerns seem to rest with issues
of his own Nativeness, socioeconomics, and just how far he’s come from “rez” to high
rise. Any interview or review spends word count running down the emotions evoked in
his work, or reaffirming how he tuned into the Native American experience he is,
followed by a congratulatory rundown of his accomplishments. For Alexie, if a reader
criticizes his work in this regard, it is simply an attack that denies the height of his art,
and overlooks how “books work in the world” as he states in an article by Dinitia Smith
for the New York Times.
James Welch’s Fools Crow, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, Winter in the Blood; Leslie
Marmon Silko’s Ceremony; Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine; most of Sherman Alexie’s
work; and David Treuer’s Little and The Hiawatha, all come furnished with similar
aspects of the Native American experience. These features include mention of or the
direct involvement of the U.S. government’s betrayal; the reservation; poverty; and the
wandering protagonist who, if not grief-stricken throughout the length of the story, is
burdened with the need to come to terms with the death or absence of a family member;
in short, varying doses of landscape, poverty, and victimhood.
As a fan of both writers (for different reasons, and in varying degrees), I know
that Treuer and Alexie could be doing ever-changing, evolving, and progressively more
meaningful work if they only didn’t feed into this market (which Alexie so far has done
more successfully than Treuer). Since they’ve felt compelled to do so, the market has
consequently undermined their literature more fundamentally than the culprits Treuer
Though Treuer overlooks that his own work has fed into marketed norms of the
Native American experience, his argument that Louise Erdrich undermines the art of her
debut novel Love Medicine by claiming it functions as a piece of Chippewa culture rings
blatantly true. However enthralling and eye-opening his essay “Smartberries” is, he still
overlooks the market motivations that might have prompted her frivolous claim.
Love Medicine is arguably one of the most recognizable and cornerstone works of
the genre, and Treuer establishes his admiration for the literary achievement it is, but
before long he veers a bit to focus on the claims Erdrich makes that the novel uses a
storytelling technique of multiple voices or “polyvocality” operating in a non-linear
fashion, and that this combination is something authentically “Chippewa.” What Treuer
uncovers is that this technique is not Chippewa or even Native in origin. Moreover, there
is no “polyvocality” at play, just first-person narratives that all contain the same authorial
consciousness or voice using identical rhythmic devices in structure and form to create
their own stories (Treuer 46). So what is boasted as being many voices is actually a
singular one through the course of the novel, and the structure has nothing to do with
Native techniques in storytelling but has its basis in Western literary device. What has
been lavishly labeled as a Chippewa sensibility is actually a more general ambiguity,
“intercutting” and a tandem of figurative and literal language (Treuer 34-48).
My concern is that Treuer stops short of suggesting market motives behind
Erdrich’s claims. After all, Love Medicine experienced its own fair share of rejections
before eventually being published in 1983. In notes from an interview included in a
revised edition of the novel, Erdrich is quoted as saying the novel was “a leap of
desperation” and that she “had to write something and get it published before [she] was
thirty” (Farry 31). Was “Chippewa polyvocality” a way to fine tune the literature or dress
up the query letter for acceptance into a market? This alters somewhat how I’ve viewed
Erdrich’s own artistic intentions, which now seem slightly fraudulent and more of a sales
pitch than art.
I still admire her craft, but I wonder why Erdrich felt the need to make these
claims. The craft alone should have been enough. Did Erdrich sincerely feel she was
summoning aspects of Chippewa culture? Whatever the case, using this extra push overmarkets—and thus undermines—what is otherwise astounding literature. This is what
Treuer does not directly voice. Perhaps as a reader, I am supposed to take my cue from
him, and make this connection on my own.
This example suggests that the author of Native American fiction is aware of something
that drives the market. It is part of the reason why for all his talent, the originality of his
voice and poetic prose—captivating at the sentence level—his flare for linguistics,
Treuer’s own fiction might also be a laborious read for a market that prefers more easyto-follow recipes for conjuring the Native American experience. His pace is both constant
and relentless, meandering through this recipe of what has worked in the Native fiction
market: poverty, crime, displacement, death, a haunting past, the longing for tribally
ancient values; in short—landscape, poverty and victimhood.
Selling The Experience: Landscape, Poverty And Victimhood As Sellable Features
Landscape. The Native experience in fiction is based on characters seeing and watching
the world in nostalgic and contemplative ways. Characters tend to have a strong tie to a
climate, a region, or the landscape or formations of a particular region. The Native
character always feels some unrelenting connection (positive or otherwise) to a welldefined area, and it is this connection that adds to the tension of the story. This is
understandable. After all, the words native and American imply first and foremost a bond
to land itself.
Whether meaning is extracted from the wandering of a protagonist on and off the
reservation as in James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, or the central tension is guided by a
protagonist’s estrangement from, and longing for, his homeland as in The Heartsong of
Charging Elk, the Native isn’t much for story if he isn’t devising or contemplating ways
to stay on, get back to, or flee from a homeland or reservation.
For Erdrich, the mysterious lure of homeland is what kills the central character
right at the beginning of Love Medicine, and the first-person narratives that follow are
like satellites orbiting this occurrence. For Alexie, the security of a protagonist’s Native
identity teeters on the decision of whether or not they must remain on a reservation. For
Treuer, the entrance point of his story is urban relocation.
Poverty. No native would be complete without his or her lack of funds. A poor Native is
an authentic Native. Lack of money commonly serves as the premise for the challenge of
how a character gets from point A to point B. If a protagonist must make a journey, literal
or figurative (i.e. spiritual) it is complicated by expense. Or, if a Native has money, that
part must be explained and becomes a way to add tension to the story.
For instance, poverty is ever-present but escapable with a dose of gumption,
followed by a meditation on guilt in the works of Alexie. For Erdrich, poverty becomes
the story’s beauty. For Treuer, the poverty is there probably because he’s seen that that’s
what other Natives are writing about.
Victimhood. Whether the character is victimized by the imposing government taking over
lands, or the lingering weight of some past memory, or by some other form of oppression,
Native fiction always includes an individual wronged in some way, and the resulting
trauma stands in as a symbol for a mistreated people as a whole. One constant is the idea
of “them and us.” The “them” is almost always white people or the white world in
historical and modern contexts. The “them” seem to somehow have the upper hand, and
the victims are the “us” of the equation. And there is always grief in the victimhood.
Landscape, Poverty And Victimhood In The Works Of Sherman Alexie
Perhaps no other Native writer more blatantly operates off the premise of the down-andout ways of the Native experience than Sherman Alexie. Although his work is largely
concerned with issues of identity, his central tension seems always how tough it must be
to be an Indian, to constantly be in the throes of only one kind of exaggerated and
unfortunate reservation experience. In his latest acclaimed title, The Absolutely True
Diary of a Part-time Indian, the protagonist, Junior, is in limbo between his reservation
and off-reservation selves.
Alexie is stuck in one thematic rut that speaks loud and clear to a market that has
been kind to him. In order for Alexie’s fiction to work, he must maintain that the
reservation is a depressing place, a place where the only way the Indians can cope with
their shabby existence is to laugh about it, get drunk, and beat each other up.
In a story like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Alexie needs a
greater, non-Indian readership to believe that the reservation is a bad enough place for a
kid with brain injuries, misshapen glasses, the appearance of a “retard” to get beat up on a
regular basis (4). The protagonist’s defiance of his own self-pity pulls the story’s
narrative through the cumbersome rise and fall of its joy and tragedy, where Alexie
continues to insist on his version of the reservation—a bittersweet and sour brine of
forlorn pride, self-sabotage, hatred, and passive-aggressive humor.
Alexie might not intend for the events in The Absolutely True Diary to be taken
literally. He relies on exaggeration, his weapon of choice, and this over-the-top story
functions largely as metaphor. But take away the hyperbole, and the story is left with
these ingredients: a weak, poor and medically fragile kid is beaten up, ridiculed, pitiful,
and lonely. Hyperaware of his own Indianness, Junior is far too hung-up on explaining
the differences and disadvantages of an Indian world vs. a white world. His story relies
on the same tensions and recycled themes of landscape, poverty and victimhood in order
to achieve meaning.
Alexie sets the story in a time when reservation kids email each other, use
webcams and watch shows like The Sopranos. This isn’t an era with AIM on the mind,
yet somehow the kids and the grown-ups in the novel are overly sensitive to what is white
and what is Indian to the point that mere mention sparks a century-old animosity they
should hardly have any perspective on, being at least two generations removed from
gross civil injustices. Even such claims as the one that appears right away on page two,
“our white dentist believed that Indians only felt half as much pain as white people did,”
alludes to a time far before any of the other cultural references.
That isn’t to say the situation is post-racial. Racism is still a modern issue.
However, the modern medical community will not overlook pain based on ethnicity
alone. Perhaps at one time a provider might have (I accept that providers unethically
misunderstood pain during Alexie’s childhood, on which the novel is loosely based) but it
is hard to believe that this would occur during a time period referenced by The Sopranos,
which debuted on HBO in 1999, and the widespread use of webcams.
Furthermore, it’s a bit of a disservice to imply kids on the reservation are so
uncaring, so thoughtless as to beat up a seemingly retarded kid just because he’s an easy
target (unless of course he’s bratty and obnoxious, but this is never implied). If anything,
I remember reservation schools to consist of mostly compassionate kids who looked out
for the meek and even those destined for other places, and this was at a time before the
widespread use of email, webcams, and certain television shows. So, again, Alexie must
maintain that even in modern times his version of the reservation persists. This has no
more to do with exploring art than it has to do with addressing a market hungry for
lessons from an oppressed individual acting as a stand-in for an oppressed culture as a
I’m hopeful, so I don’t necessarily include myself, but there are some of “us
Indians” who have long ago abandoned Alexie’s work. Even allowing for poetic
exaggeration he’s not writing for Indians, but to a market demanding more symbolic
This brings me back to his response to the Secrets of the City interview. Alexie
states “All us Indians are giggling at him.” While I’m unsure to which “us” Alexie is
referring (Us Indians of the Pacific Northwest? Us Indians who’ve grown up on
reservations? Or, in-line with his questions of identity, all other outcast Indians who’ve
never really secured a place on the reservation?), with such a response Alexie is trying to
attain some credibility with an allusion to his abundance of commercial success. I’ll give
it to him. This part is true. His success overshadows that of any modern Native fiction
writer; not because he’s marching forward adjusting and conquering conventional
paradigms, but because he speaks loudly and comically, shoddy prose included, to a
market hungry for what he’s got to say.
It’s interesting how Alexie resorts to the “us against whites” mentality that
plagues his protagonists as a means to address Treuer’s work by calling him out for
showing off for white people when, frankly, showing off for white people is what Alexie
does best.
Alexie is liked among Natives. He could possibly fill reservation community
centers to standing room only at a moment’s notice. Natives are very supportive of
success among other Natives. But his work means more to white people than it does to
“us Indians.” Native Americans comprise roughly one percent of the U.S. population. In
the unlikely scenario that the entirety of that one percent supported Alexie and bought
every one of his books, that still wouldn’t account for his success. Alexie must know this.
The reasons non-Indians respond, as Treuer puts it, is the illusion that the literature is a
looking glass into a culture a non-Indian reader would otherwise have little access to.
What the non-Indian reader sees is precisely what they expect to see as the supposed
modern condition and stance of Native America. Catering to these expectations plays into
the propensity of a non-Native audience for empathy, and consequently sends readers
into a cheer worthy of purchase.
Alexie banks on the “poor me” attitude plaguing Native American charity pitches.
There is a certain empathetic, willing and maybe even a little guilt-stricken market
searching for some confirmation that the historic anti-Indian policy of America’s past
hasn’t fully extinguished the Indian voice. Celebrating an artist like Alexie is a quick and
easy mode, a paint-by-numbers approach, to developing an awareness of Native art.
Landscape, Poverty And Victimhood In The Works Of David Treuer
While Alexie frolics within these features, Treuer’s first two novels, Little (1995) and
The Hiawatha (1999), published to some acclaim, never quite attained the status of books
by already established Native writers. Part of the reason may be that what he has written
about looks unbearably like things that have been written about before. The difference is
his prose attempts to elevate stylistically what is treated more often in simpler terms. The
urge for Treuer to play into the recipe of what has worked in the past for other Native
writers has restricted his art and the quality of his literature.
Treuer might have stuck to the fiction mantra of Write What You Know, but I get
the sense that perhaps there was something he might have known better that he has
chosen not to write about, something more up-to-date and compelling than the forlorn rez
life scenarios he creates in both novels. Perhaps he recognized that there was a market, an
audience already reading a certain type of Native story, and unfortunately, sticking to
these market parameters is probably why Treuer, for all his savvy wordage and research
and education, hasn’t added anything new to the genre with respect to subject matter.
Treuer has tried to contribute to a market by tossing stories into a pile oversaturated with
similar looking scenarios.
In The Hiawatha things are allowed to take shape at a Nabokovian pace which
gives Treuer way too much time to wander through what makes a contemporary story a
Native one. The story takes place in Minneapolis during the urbanization of tribal people
from around the area. A deer, wild, untamed and out of place, something supposedly
beyond the reaches of the city makes its way into the city. When the deer becomes
spooked by the protagonist, who is watching it with the homeless and haggard men
nearby, it bounds away towards the freeway only to be killed by oncoming traffic. This
image pans out to introduce Simon, who is recently released from prison, as he finds his
way back into an urban landscape that is all too dreary to bear, where, in “1981 death is
not interesting to the Southside of Minneapolis” (Treuer 3).
I wonder why, if death is not interesting, Treuer chooses to explore the
significance of various deaths throughout the story—an odd contradiction. At the outset,
Treuer’s language is precise and measured, but before long it becomes a dissonant march
of powerhouse prose portraying already seen and not-so-powerhouse subject matter:
“I saw what you did. I saw you touch him and he died.”
“Goddamn it, Lincoln!”
Betty rises and slaps him across the cheek.
“Leave him alone,” Simon whispers. “It’s okay. Really.”
He looks over and sees the boy’s lower lip trembling. Lincoln is trying not
to cry. The three of them look in opposite directions. Their gazes jut out
from their gathered bodies like spokes on a wheel, turning slowly around
the kitchen.
Betty sighs.
“You’d better get to school.”
Lincoln bolts across the room, swoops up his jacket and slams out of the
house. (Treuer 11)
This is the opening interaction between family members who haven’t seen each
other in ten years, and it’s when Simon meets his nephew, Lincoln, for the first time. It’s
effective in the sense that the tension pulses with the rise and fall of words and body
language; a story develops among the nervous laughter, ambiguous statements (Lincoln is
most likely referring to the dead deer and not his murdered father), and violence. The
prose moves much like Erdrich’s, in a way that lulls the reader with its sway-like rhythm.
But just like certain songs with a sweet melody, what lies beneath the lyrics are not
anything new. Bad parenting, child abuse (victimhood), poverty—all of this is an attempt
to convey an authentic Native American experience on no new terms.
Piece by piece the circumstances surrounding Simon’s incarceration are revealed,
and this acts as one of the pulleys lugging this thick and heavy story forward. The
abandoned and romantically named train, the Hiawatha, isn’t introduced until late in the
story. I’m unsure of the symbolism in its connection to the title, but it’s the place where
Simon’s murdered brother, Lester, had spent intimate time with Lincoln’s mother. As the
somber and muted story meanders, truths are revealed at the same pace Lincoln pieces
everything together.
This is a story of displacement, one of inescapable sadness and regret, a life of
hardship that is hardly remedied by moving away from the reservation. Instead, what
takes place is the festering of their situation as the family moves back and forth between
city and rez.
From someone with as much academic preparation, as much vitality and promise
as Treuer I would have hoped for a different Native experience. What compels Treuer to
portray yet another dire situation? It is a story told time and time again. In his debut
novel, Little, similar emotions are conjured while a family experiences hardships on the
reservation and the disappearance of a little boy. I’m having a difficult time trying to
understand Treuer’s intentions with these portrayals of the dreary life when the writing
itself is more enthralling than what actually happens in either of these novels.
Why is the Native American experience always limited to a repeated set of the
same dismal elements? That’s what concerns me about the literature. Why can’t the
Native American experience move on, develop into not what a Native American has to
experience, but how a Native American experiences an ever-changing world in a way that
isn’t always so forlorn?
As much as Alexie and Treuer differ they still remain on the same page in some respects.
Their works suggest the Native can be sold as a product by using a certain recipe.
“Acceptable” themes are limited, and what is perceived and recognized as authentically
Native American is more apt to sell.
Market demand for a particular type of Native fiction has kept the genre stagnant
and somewhat formulaic. Treuer admits that there is a conjoining of certain elements that
comprise a Native story in his essay “The Myth of Myth.” He knows there’s a tendency
to revisit certain rules and features when creating a Native story “such as dislocation,
search for self, the importance of landscape, the use of traditional materials, [and]
‘nonlinear’ structure” (115).
To be fair, I know that many non-Native stories may also involve these elements,
and these aren’t specific to any sort of Native plight. Meditations on family, grief,
oppression, displacement, identity are universal. Nevertheless, these aren’t conjured as
quickly or expectedly as they are in the Native American setting.
The sense of conflict in Native American fiction arises from outside forces just as
any age old story where a protagonist is on a certain trajectory at the beginning of the
story, meets conflict and as he comes to grips with this conflict, emerges as a changed or
educated person in some intangible way. However, the list of “appropriate” Native
American fiction conflicts for a consuming readership is like the list of standard features
on an American-made truck—seatbelts, temperature control, a spare tire beneath the bed,
In his essay, “The Spirit Lives On” Treuer acknowledges the salability of what is tangibly
Native American. He writes about an exhibit of contemporary Native American artists
where, instead of the visitor being allowed to experience the exhibit as a cohesive unit of
individual pieces operating on their own merit, placards captioned each area to indicate
the intent of each turn. The text suggested the reader observe on emotional, spiritual, or
visceral levels, and overlooked what Treuer felt was supposed to be a stimulating
intellectual experience. This brings him to the questions, “Why were we encouraged to
interpret the paintings with everything except our intellects? Why is there such a strain
and stain of anti-intellectualism in Native American art, not to mention Native literary
criticism?” (156).
Clearly, the intent of each artist involved played second to how someone else
wanted the art to perform. What Treuer describes next is the closest he comes to the idea
of market and how markets rely on emotion for any given product to sell.
A visit to the gift shop on the way out made everything clearer. Along
with a paltry few titles taken from the enormous body of work on the
history and tradition of Indian art, there were books on Native American
wisdom and spirituality for sale. If that weren’t bad enough, and it was,
there were special displays advertising maize, sweetgrass, and sage. On
the very top perched a bouquet of turkey feathers, also for sale. (157)
Treuer continues that he’s never observed symbolic objects of sanctity or art following
other exhibits such as “crucifixes and wine and wafers for sale at an exhibition of
Renaissance Italian art” (157).
The notion of plight is sellable when it comes to Native American subject matter.
Surely the quickest way to connect with this plight is the emotive response. Non-Natives
can’t understand what it’s like to be a Native American in modern America. The same is
true for the non-member of other ethnic minorities. Literature allows someone in, lets that
person explore and cultivates in the reader, if not sympathy, than at least a vague
understanding. The shortcut to this is packaging the Indian in an easy-to-open container,
which is where Alexie garners his following. Reading Treuer is more akin to reading the
actual book than the Cliffs Notes for the Native American experience, but even so, the
premises of the two authors are the same: outdated and seeking charitable attention to an
American wound that should have healed long ago.
New Directions
As much as their art has been limited by market demands, it pleases me that the most
recent works by these very same authors are also trying for new directions in Native
American subject matter.
Almost as if there is no going back, these writers are representatives entrusted
with a power to shape both outside and inside perceptions of the Native experience.
These authors have a Native readership as well—something that always feels like a bit of
an oversight—and if I’m any representative, it’s a readership that wants to see the Native
coexist with the modern world. As readers are beckoned towards the words of Native
talent, will the talent speak of updated truths? Will the writers’ own preparation and hard
work allow them to create a world they’d like to see as opposed to what is instigated by a
market? Is there room for art in a happier, well-adjusted Native America?
I am a part of modern America, a person comfortable with multiple homelands,
yet I still crave seeing the Native American in fiction; someone who experiences the
world in our own unique way, through our own unique humor and values. As tribes
continue to change and emerge with their own economies, their own enterprises, and as
individual tribal members move towards greater satisfaction and cultural awareness, I
want to explore a story where this is allowed to culminate, that for all our struggles and
sacrifices our own stories will eventually lead us somewhere. I cringe every time I write
something about the reservation. As much as it is a part of who I am and a place I know
quite well, I feel as if I’m setting myself up for writing just another story about the rez.
A cold truth: for literature to be known, to be deemed successful, maybe even to
ever really mean anything, it must sell. The Native experience has a wide range of
possibilities, yet the most marketable literature keeps relying on renditions of similar
stories. If the market could so much as release its grip on the word press, writers as artists
may burst open with new ideas, new insight and new inspiration. And thankfully, these
same two writers are exploring ventures to that effect.
Sherman Alexie’s New Work
In the collection of poetry and short stories War Dances, Sherman Alexie attempts to
write in different voices and points-of-view. Culturally he doesn’t quite pull it off but he
takes time to break away from the stock of characters (and their situations) cluttering his
earlier works. He’s trying something out, trying to see if he can approach a cultural
dialogue from a newer angle. Perhaps he does this to prove he can step away from Indian
territory to grasp and execute a conversation that doesn’t always have to secure his
Native identity.
I get this sense that Alexie is attempting to play with voice while juggling the
narrative to show a diverse mélange of characters existing in one social heap. This new
work also shows a new direction in his style. Not only is he stepping away from the
characters and premises he’s used before but he seems to be taking a new interest in his
The first sentence of “Breaking and Entering” starts like this: “Back in college,
when I was first learning how to edit film—how to construct a scene—my professor, Mr.
Baron, said to me” (5). The interjection of “—how to construct a scene—” provides an
aside that is supposed to emphasize and narrow down what is first and generally referred
to as “how to edit film.” However, in this example there is almost nothing poignant or
urgent gained that would require such an interjection. Instead, the sentence creates a
sense that the protagonist or author is aware of the writing itself. The sentence comes
across a bit clunky, the punctuation unnecessary and out of place, but I sit back and
watch, wondering if Alexie is trying to catch up on the popular use of this punctuation
(especially in student writing or first drafts), or if he’s mimicking the way in which the
narrator might ham up his own writing.
The rest of the paragraph pokes along in much the same fashion: “The audience
understands that a door has been used—the eyes and mind will make the connection—so
you can just skip the door” (5). A few more pages in, and a rhythm becomes apparent.
“Now please forgive me if my tenses—my past, present, and future—blend, but one must
understand that I happen to be one editor who is not afraid of jump cuts—of rapid
flashbacks and flash-forwards” (8). I start to wonder if Alexie is building up a jab at this
particular writing style, or if it’s inherently how he wants this protagonist to come across.
As I read past the first story to all the others (poems included), it becomes clear
that Alexie is making a distinct effort to write this way. These awkward interjections
aren’t the habits of his characters—in all their bleeding self-importance—for setting up
their stories. A narrator from another story sounds just like the story before it: “I walked
down the hallway—the recovery hallway—to the nurses’ station” (32). Or, even the
poem before that story: “To list all of the oppressors—past, present, and future—who
have killed…O, he names the standard suspects—Rich, white, and unjust—And I, a red
man, think he’s correct” (21).
As I get more and more annoyed by these otherwise useful corners of the English
language, I have to remind myself that Alexie is still a student of prose. He has garnered
crazed acclaim for his stories, but the acclaim has more to do with what he says and not
how he says it. He’s less vested in the writing process itself and more caught up in
subject matter. This is the reason he can’t seem to grasp why his work is continually
listed under young adult literature. He even goes so far as to argue in a podcast from the
Secret of the City interview that the subject matter of one of his latest titles is unfit for the
young adult market. He hasn’t grasped that there is deeper linguistic sophistication in
much fiction that he has yet to tap into. I do get the sense that Alexie is cognizant of this
issue so he seeks to challenge it a bit by making these stylistic choices. By attempting
this, Alexie is taking steps towards more mature and innovative writing.
In addition to new stylistic choices, in some of the subject matter of War Dances,
Alexie implies an understanding of what is culturally non-Indian and of a different
socioeconomic class. This is another way his fiction moves away from what informed it
in earlier years.
For instance, in “The Senator’s Son,” Alexie tries for the first-person depiction of
a privileged Caucasian male. The story opens with a scene of gay-bashing. Then in what
is a palpably Alexie voice, the privileged Caucasian describes himself in a convenient list
so the reader can get an idea of who this person is. “What was I, a straight Republican
boy, doing on Capitol Hill?” and “my new junior partnership in the law firm…I was
cash-heavy, lived in a three-bedroom condo overlooking Elliott Bay, and drove a hybrid
Lexus SUV” (78).
Even if it doesn’t operate as a convincing portrait, a new dialogue is there and it is
clear that Alexie is shifting from the poor Indian perspective, into an Indian perspective
aware of the cultural nuances of something less Indian. He is showcasing knowledge of
and comfort with a greater, outer, whiter world while still stealing moments to prove in
rowdy ways some notion that he still experiences the world in what he refers to in the
introduction to War Dances as his own “Indian idiom” (35).
David Treuer’s New Work
Finally, there is David Treuer himself. For all his talent and academic preparation, I
wonder if his collection of essays would have ever came about if his first two novels took
off the way the Alexie’s work has. Clearly, the essays come from a personal arena of
dissatisfaction. For Treuer, Native American fiction requires a user’s manual because
somehow authorial intent and critical interpretation got away from what the literature
actually is, but Treuer attempts to drive this point home with an accompanying novel
entitled The Translation of Dr. Apelles.
The book follows Dr. Apelles, a Native American professor and linguist, as he
translates archived texts recorded in an ancient language that only he can read. The story
shifts between these whimsical texts as they relay a Native American love story, then
reverts to the somewhat drab and damp urban routine of Dr. Apelles’ daily life.
What I respect the most about this book is the way in which the protagonist and
the story itself step away from the formula of forlornness that has touched most of Native
American fiction up until this point. Though Dr. Apelles does have moments of cultural
muck, of sad memories of the past, none of these are situations that plague his adult life. I
like this idea. A Native man can exist in a modern world respectfully and dutifully aware
of his heritage and thankful for how it has shaped him as a citizen of the world, but move
onward with strong sense of his own identity.
However, the fact that The Translation of Dr. Apelles had to be released in
tandem with a Native American fiction manual deadens the literature of the novel. I’ve
since learned in a review of the novel by Donna Seaman for the LATimes that Treuer tried
to follow in the footsteps of mentor Toni Morrison who released Jazz at the same time
she released a critical work exploring African Americans in modern literature. Morrison’s
piece, entitled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, examines
social subjugation mimicked by the placement or use of African-Americans in the
literature of European-Americans. Like Morrison, Treuer wrote and released two books
that inform and interact with each other on the levels of activism and art.
There are two distinct differences between Morrison’s and Treuer’s efforts. The
first is that while Morrison writes of the effect of works by European-Americans on the
African-American presence in literature, Treuer’s critique examines the effect Native
American writers have on European-American readers and critics. What I believe, and
taking it a little further, is that Native works by Native writers by virtue of their effect on
European-Americans are still subjugated to the whim of what the market craves in a
Native American story.
The second difference between Morrison and Treuer is that while Jazz stands on
its own merit—accompanying literary criticisms or not—The Translation of Dr. Apelles
does not.
As fiction, Treuer’s novel is much too self-aware, the intent driven too strongly.
There is no room for art during its mission to establish everything that it is not supposed
to be. One hundred and thirty-three pages into The Translation of Dr. Apelles, the
omniscient narrator sums up through its description of Dr. Apelles what Treuer felt
compelled to hash over in his manifesto Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual. “He
was not one of these professional Indians who were willing to dispense platitudes
disguised as cultural treasure. He was not one of those for whom the past, because of how
exotic it seemed to most people, could be used as social credit among the credulous or
liberal” (133).
So intently is the point driven through the course of the novel, the fiction has
nowhere to live. Eventually the fiction becomes a bit of a trick by Dr. Apelles much in
the same spirit of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. As he attests on his website, Treuer
himself is an admirer of the Russian-American novelist, so I can understand Treuer’s use
of the same trickery to prove certain artistic points. The only issue I have is that the intent
overshadows what talents Treuer has for prose, and replaces it with an academic zeal that,
for all its heart, reads as dry as it is ambitious.
It is important for Dr. Apelles not only to be acculturated, but also well-versed in
modern academia. This is a great stance to take for a Native American protagonist. Yet
the intent to make him as such comes across so elevated that he becomes sterile.
Consider, for example, this stilted statement by Dr. Apelles: “I do not come here for the
air. But, my dear Ms. Fabian, knowledge is not to be found here. It can’t be. Knowledge
is never found, of course, it is created” (53).
Treuer writes against a certain notion of habits that have plagued Native
American fiction as a means to solidify concepts in his accompanying manual. What
happens, though, is this notion of what is not contaminates how the reader becomes
acquainted with Dr. Apelles. We get a stronger idea of who he is not instead of who he is.
This is how a lady friend, Campaspe, ponders on Dr. Apelles:
Apelles was not buff or lanky, or even average. He had no physical analog
in the types that always seemed to recreate themselves in men: the barrelly
men who could have been power lifters and who tuck their DKNY T-shirts
into their jeans, the emo boys in bowling shirts, the college kids who dress
like gay dockboys in Abercrombie & Fitch, of the rockers who all try to
resemble Iggy Pop. (144)
It would appear that Treuer, like Alexie, is headed in a direction that represents newer
Native sensibilities, Natives acquainted with certain mainstream nuances in order to write
in defiance of them. This same approach is used to describe Campaspe herself. “Nor did
she ‘hook up’ with boys and had no patience for the promise of premature ejaculation
written out in the Braille of facial acne. Nor did she decoy herself in coffee shops, sitting
in the sun waiting for some emo boy to approach her” (141).
I’m sure Dr. Apelles is supposed to be something of a new, truer Native man, but
he is a lonely one. The cultured and academically versed arena is a big empty sandbox if
this is how he lives. Both Apelles and Campaspe, who eventually becomes the love
interest, come across as blatant puppets. They are inner workings forced into place by a
heavy hand, and this sense remains the solemn undercurrent through the novel.
All said, it’s still an altogether new direction for Native American fiction. At
some point Treuer will create a story complete with characters not driven so hard by their
author, who aren’t driven by the need to express a certain competence or point that
consequently overlooks deeper truths. Therein lays a whole world of promise. It is an
exciting prospect.
Surely, on some level all of these authors realize that a change is in order. The intentions
are in place. Non-Indian and Indians alike have been affected by the literature already out
there; whether it defines who Natives are—or who they are not—we Native Americans
can’t be marketable in just one certain way, forced to expect nothing more. If real life is
ever to take its cue from the written word, now, more than ever it is needed. If there have
been cultures that have nurtured the initiative for change and progress first through their
stories, as I suspect there have been, then I look forward to this happening from within
our Native communities in today’s newest writers.
Works cited
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 2007. New York,
NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.
---. War Dances. New York, NY : Grove Press, 2009. Print.
---. “The World’s Toughest Indian.” Secrets of the City. Interview with Jon Lurie. Secrets
of the City Magazine, 27 May 2007. Web. 10 November 2010.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. 1984. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.
Farry, Eithne. “Profile.” Love Medicine. By Louise Erdrich. New York, NY: Harper
Perennial, 2009. Print
Seaman, Donna. “No reservations.” Los Angeles Times Article
Collections, 27 August 27 2006. Web. 15 October 2010.
Smith, Dinitia. “American Indian Writing, Seen Through a New Lens.”
New York Times, 19 August 19, 2006. Web. October 15, 2010.
Treuer, David. The Hiawatha. New York, NY: Picador, 1999. Print.
---. Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual. Saint Paul, MN: Grey Wolf
Press, 2006. Print.
---. The Translation of Dr. Apelles. Saint Paul, MN: Grey Wolf Press, 2006.