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On "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel"


Beth Anne Palatnik

Sherman Alexie has been published in the New Yorker. Alexie’s poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" is linked with those New Yorker publications, and with Alexie’s well-documented, unprecedented (at least for an American Indian writer) rise to fame, and with his second (or third, or fourth, after poet, novelist, and short story writer) career as Hollywood filmmaker. In other words, Alexie’s work has pop-culture capital, and "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" in part responds to that perception of his work and is in part constructed by it.

This poem, already problematized for aesthete critics because of its long, unwieldy lines, its sarcasm, and its subject, is a poem-that-is-not-really-a-poem about how to write a novel. But it is also a poem about the different ways to write like an American Indian. "The Great American Novel," of course, is more a pop culture catch phrase than an actual literary aspiration. After reading Philip Roth’s novel of that name, it’s impossible to take it seriously. But "the Great American Indian Novel"! One reading that thinks, "Ah! A new, emerging, cutting edge ethnic voice in American Literature! Why, it would be impossible, given the melting pot-salad bowl-grand mosaic that is America to write the Great American novel, but the Great American Indian novel could be done. And in fact, it should be done; America needs such a thing."

Like other American Indian writers, Alexie points out the impossibility of making one writer or book "representative" of American Indian cultures. The mainstreaming of African-American literature, with Richard Wright’s Book-of-the-Month-Club Native Son, faced the same problem earlier in the century, and to some extent continues to face it today. But more than that, the poem’s injunctions are informed not by Literature, but by dime-store novels and spaghetti westerns. The images are Hollywood images – "half-breed," "horse culture." Alexie even plays with that most contemporary and fashionable of Hollywood images – "An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman./An Indian woman can be hidden inside a white man." The Great American Indian novel, by Danielle Steele – why not? This poem bodice-rips right along with her. A recent profile of Alexie in Utne Reader (Sept./Oct. 2000) quotes him as saying, "In order for the Indian kid to read me, pop culture is where I should be…I’d rather be accessible than win a MacArthur." He imagines his ideal audience as "rez" kids, like himself. Alexie comes across as flippantly cynical about his success, and the way his Indian heritage has played into that success – "It’s a crowded world out there, and everybody is clamoring for attention, and you use what you’ve got…And what I’ve got that makes me original is that I’m a rez boy" (72). Those imagined "rez boys" seem genuine, but also, to some extent, Alexie’s evocation of them is deliberate spin. He displays the requisite shame at being part of pop culture – so vulgar! So common! – and offers the requisite justification: it’s for the children. A few lines from "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" undercut this bit of masking: "There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven./For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender/not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way." The poem hollows out this form of redemption; in the interview, Alexie uses it to misdirect. The Utne Reader article describes two photographs of Alexie, one with what he calls "the ethnic stare," and one "without the mask." Alexie not only uses pop culture – he abuses it. Letting the audience of his latest book see him "without the mask" spins even more subtly the image of the American Indian of letters; if they believe they glimpse something personal, if they think that they know him, his persona is cemented – as it is for the author of this article – by a perceived appeal to the universality of man.

Pop culture not only reaches more people than so-called high culture, it does different things than high culture. The construction of pop culture includes "general," widespread appeal – bestseller lists, Oprah’s choices, for example – and a predisposition towards enjoyment. A Danielle Steele novel is, according to this paradigm, more "fun" than Moby Dick. By associating himself with these expectations, Alexie can do more than reach a wider audience. He can open up the definition of pop culture to include American Indian works – thereby bringing bestseller readers’ attention to the people that a collective American unconscious have chosen to shunt off and forget. Alexie reads and re-forms pop culture so adeptly, in fact, that marvel has been directed almost exclusively at his persona, and to a lesser extent on how much fun his work is. Meanwhile, he subtly redirects markers of difference so that the political implications of his work hit on that pop-culture-forming American unconscious. Changing pop culture reaches not only rez boys – though that would be nice – but people who watch movies and read bestsellers and subscribe to the New Yorker. In Alexie’s hands, pop culture is a tool, a means to accessibility, a way to get read – but his use of pop culture represents not just a call to and a chance to influence a larger audience, but an area of contention within itself, engaging like nothing else with the concept of the "native." Along with the collective American unconscious, the concept of pop culture contains the image of a wellspring of visceral, internal truth – the same thing that the unsatisfactory permutations of "the Great American Indian novel" attribute to the American Indian. The poem critiques this conception of popular culture as much as it critiques the representations of American Indians within it – and for the same reasons.

The poem addresses itself as much to American Indian writers seeking to "tell their story!" as it does to stereotypes held by white people. Even if Alexie were to write it, he implies, he would fall into those traps. He’d like to write it, though; in each line of the poem, as he inveighs against Hollywood stereotypes of American Indians, we know he would do it differently. "Smoke Signals," Alexie’s first film – screened at the Sundance Film Festival – could be read as The Great American Indian Road Movie. Its two main characters steep themselves in pop culture, both embodying stereotypes – one the stoic, the other the visionary – and showing witty awareness of them. The ethnic face is a mask, and a tool, but it is also, for Alexie, inescapable. Despite the creation of a persona who has "traded" on his Indian heritage to attract media attention, the accessibility of Alexie’s work depends on his embrace of that situation. For him, it is a matter of representing rather than being represented; the people in the Great American Indian Novel may not reflect his authorship any further than that. But "when it is finally written,/all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts." So this novel will be written – not the Great American Indian novel that Alexie might like to write, but novel after novel of earthy Indian healers, men who smell like horses and awake uncontrollable other-lust in white women. But if this representation is not the "right" one – and it’s clear from Alexie’s sarcasm that it isn’t – can there be proper representations of American Indians in literature? It may depend on by whom and to who the Indians are represented.

Alexie would like his work to be accessible, and it is. But this poem wonders if that accessibility always has to come with a Hollywood ending, and what happens if it doesn’t. He can change that Hollywood ending, reach into the pop culture unconscious, and begin to recreate the image of the American Indian along with its double bind. But can the Great American Indian Novel be more than just a pop culture joke? And if it could, would anyone read it? And if no one read it, what would be the use of writing it? Pop culture may be a tool and a weapon, but Literature lasts. Alexie enters the Indians into the debate about the Great American Novel, pulling them into the question of American identity, reminding his audience – surely not only rez boys – that any novel claiming to be "American" must engage with the Indian in itself. But he wonders, and rightly, how far that injunction can extend. The Indians, in any work aimed at mass culture (Alexie wants to aim his work at mass culture; he wants to make money and he wants people to read what he writes), may be ghosts. They may, quite literally, be ghosts: the Indians are starving to death, as he points out elsewhere in his essays. If attention isn’t drawn to them – not only to their beautiful shields, but to their alcoholism, their poverty, their early and frequent deaths ("There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape./Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.") – they will, by the time anyone gets around to writing about them, be dead.

The lyric speaker of Alexie’s "Indian Boy Love Song (#2)" has a complex relationship to oral culture (embodied in that poem, as it frequently is elsewhere, in the tongues and chests and hearts of women). He asks forgiveness from the women for his distance from them, asking that he be forgiven for not being Momaday – for not celebrating American Indian culture in appropriate ways. But those tongues and hearts, Alexie implies, don’t last. The chests are thin. The stories of the old women won’t last long. But if he writes them down – the stories about the old women as well as their folk tales and songs – they’ll live on. But then how can he sell that to the critic sitting in the stands at the powwow, eating his hot dog?

Copyright 2001 by Beth Anne Palatnik


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