Sherman Alexie: Personal Life, Writing Style And Native American Identity

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Understanding Sherman Alexie's life from early childhood until now, is a significant way to understand his works and Native American society in the past and in the current time as well. Sherman Alexie is a prominent contemporary native American author. He was born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Welpinit, Washington on October 7, 1966. Despite the hydrocephalic disease, water in his brain, from his birth, Alexie could read by the age of three. He read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath by the age of five. By the age of six, he confronted a brain surgery and he survived. In the middle of his academic concern in reading and abnormal physical challenges, he was an easy target among his friends. In addition to this, he is from a poor Indian American family. His life was filled with tragedy and poverty. His father, Sherman, was a Coeur d'Alene Indian. He sometimes worked as a driver of trucks and as a logger chopped the woods. He was an alcoholic addict. His mother was a Spokane Indian woman who was doing two jobs at the same time. In order to support Alexie and his brothers and sisters, she scraped money by working as a clerk and doing sewing. His sister and her husband were killed when he was in the eighth grade. This accident affected Alexie severely (Grassian, 2005: 1).

Alexie's early life was manifested by uncountable therapies and treatments, as well as being one of six kids alive on a reservation. He was one whose life was filled with suffering from poverty and many other tragedies. Despite that, his parents were alcoholic addicts. All these tragedies have served as a recurring motif in Alexie's writing. According to Alexie, grief can be changed and it can even get smaller but never ends. Grief in Alexie's life rolled as the main character to attempt him think of a way to find life off the reservation. His parents and Alexie as well, decided that the best way for him was to enter high school outside of the Indian reservation in the White's society. It revealed that life in the reservation was in aggravating circumstances and rehabilitation. These circumstances motivated Indians to escape from their society to the mainstream and modern American society. For this reason, Alexie decided to live and get educated off the reservation. Thus, he could find a comfortable place in a new environment (Webb, 2014: 1-2).

He graduated from Reardan High School, then he could get Gonzaga University scholarship. Before graduating from Washington State University in Pullman in 1991 with an academic degree in American Studies, he attended the Gonzaga University. In Washington State University, Alexie registered his first creative writing class, where he was influenced and encouraged by Professor Alex Kuo. Via his Professor, he found himself in strong connection with the poetry of contemporary Native American writers and poets such as Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, James Welch, Adrian Louis, and Leslie Marmon Silko, whom he refers to them alongside Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as poets who influenced him most. Thus, he started his literary works as a poet and then turned to fiction writing (Velie, 2007: 9).

Alexie is a contemporary novelist, short story writer, poet, and filmmaker. He is known as the most recent Native American literary star. He has already written twenty-six books. Alexie has published 16 texts in twelve years and produced two films. He started with two books, collections of poetry and blended few short prose pieces, I Would Steal Horses (1992), and The Business of Fancydancing (1992). Later, he published two books, First Indian on the Moon (1993), Old Shirt and New Skins (1993). The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) is his first collection of short stories. This book was the source of blessings for him. He got recognized nationally. He gained the respected PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction and earned the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers Award as well. His publisher encouraged him to write a novel. Then, he continued to write full-length fiction. He published his first well-known novel Reservation Blues (1995). A year later, he published his second novel Indian Killer (1996). For his novels, he gained the Granta award of the Best of Young American Novelist, the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award, and the Murray Morgan Prize. He also received the People's Best of Pages award and New York Times Notable Book recognition. He wrote additional works: Ten Little Indians (2003) is his latest collection of best short stories, which included nine valuable short stories. Washington State awarded him the Regent's Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2003. In 2007 he published The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indians, an autobiographic novel. The protagonist grows up in the Indian reservation and got educated in the mainstream American society as the writer himself. It is exactly a semi-biography of Alexie (Grassian, 2005: 4-5).

Alexie's Style and Techniques in His Fictional Works

Alexie as Non-traditional Author

Sherman Alexie is known as a non-traditional Native American author. The sacred theme is one of the most popular tradition in Native American literature which is used widely by many Indian writers. Opposite to this, sacred theme as traditional writing is refused by Alexie. According to Alexie the time of sacred things is flown, in the present time Native Americans are in the modern age and they confronted many problems in the modern mainstream. As he argued in an interview: '…the sacred things in my tribe. I don't write about them ever. Some Indian writers do, and a lot of non-Indian writers writing about Indians do. I don't write about those, that is... forbidden.' (Alexie, 1996: 187)

Moreover, he focuses on modern issues in Native American society. Alexie is a postmodern writer and appears as an exception among the other Native American writers, due to the fact that he does not do anything with oral tradition. However, the period of his writings goes further than the oral tradition. Oral tradition is a distinctive tradition in literary writings which is used by many Indian American writers. At the same time, Alexie exposed that all his writings are typed by himself. In this case, how could it be regarded as or influenced by the oral tradition? Arnold Krupat argued that nowadays Native American author writing has never stated any kinds of appreciation and faithfulness to the predominant oral tradition. Krupat's aim is to highlight on Alexie's work indirectly. According to Krupat these works emerged under the shadow of postmodernism and postcolonialism. Similarly, Alexie emphasizes that there is a strong relationship between the effect of colonial history and his writings.

Furthermore, he declares that he is a colonized man and he has to write as a colonized one. So, by his refusing to use oral tradition, he wants to make a distance between himself and the authors of Indian American renaissance (Newton, 2001: 413-414).

The mixture of cultures and the resulting transmutations are one of Alexie's concerns. In this respect, he is not so far from Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American writer who commonly contrasts with Alexie by critics. Silko has a different view to the Native American rituals. Moreover, Silko exposes that, rituals must grow to sustain their effectiveness. For the sake of promoting growth and change, Alexie attempts to put all his fictions squarely in a Native American literary tradition. Continually composing with sharp recorded mindfulness, Alexie changes past conventions – in the case of moving, drumming, or narrating – to fit a changing world reality. Alexie says his fictions don't try to restore a past legacy, but instead to depict its reality in the present. As Sherman Alexie responds in an interview, which is quoted by Coulombe, and states:

I’m not talking about four directions corn pollen mother earth father sky shit. I’m not talking about that stereotypical crap about being Indian. There’s always a huge distance between public persona and private person. In my art I try to keep that as narrow as possible. I try to write about the kind of Indian I am, the kind of person I am and not the kind of person or Indian I wish I was. (qtd. 2011: 128)

In this manner, Alexie's writings outline that the Indians not only confronted the realities of harsh cultural situation but also the strength and arrogance that maintain them.

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Notwithstanding Alexie's positive portrayals of renewal and change, he no more supports the unchecked approval of mainstream culture, instead, he will suggest the insignificance of past cultural traditions. For instance, Alexie reveals the occasional grotesque distortions, which is the result of mixed cultures. The misogynist refused and angered with the unknown mother and wife, who is a woman protagonist. He also argued that the Indian society faced, and was assimilated into the gender discrimination and misogyny in the modern white culture. The Fun House, one of the powerful short stories by Alexie in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, uncovered how whites damage Indians and their culture, and the weaknesses in white culture. For these changes in culture and tradition of Native Americans, Alexie supposes that not only white America is the original cause but also the Indians are blamed (Coulombe, 2011: 128).

Alexie is criticized by some critics for blaming the whites. As Owen exposes that Alexie accuses white culture again and again without certain evidence. As he argued, 'No one is really to blame but the Indians, no matter how loudly the author shouts his anger' (Owens, 1998: 80). Owen thinks that the Indians themselves are the cause of their own failure. He reveals that Alexie himself blames the Indians since in his writings he accuses Indian people as drunken and careless.

Contrarily, Alexie criticizes the United States government in The Fun House, for the woman's suffering from cleansing program enact: 'The doctor tied her tubes, with the permission slip my aunt signed because the hospital administrator lied and said it proved her Indian status for the BIA' (Alexie, 2013: 81). In this vein, he emphasizes to accuse the modern society which systematically oppressed on the Indian people rights for hundreds of years. Despite the fact that white Americans has frequently shaken their head over the iniquities of the remote past, few of them try to recognize the present unlawful and immoral machinations. Similarly, The Trial of Thomas Builds-The-Fire highlights slaughters committed against Indians. A court docket scenario allows Thomas to tell Indians about a chain of white crimes tales, including lynching, massacres and thefts. It ends when Thomas being sent to prison with ' four African men, one Chicano, and a white man from the smallest town in the state' (Alexie, 2013: 103). Alexie shows the negative reality of modern justice in the United States of today: the system of face colour, the poor, especially poor in colour, racism, inequality, cultural trauma, and oppression that Indians confronted in the modern American society and how Native Americans have remained so for a long time. (Coulombe, 2011: 129).

Modern Native American Identity

Sherman Alexie is considered to be as a non-traditional Native American writer and at the same time, he is calling himself so because he makes use of his own experiences to write creatively and honestly about the modern issues and subjects in his real life. He wants to play a role in painting a new identity for Native Americans in this modern world. Hence the major topics in his writings are those key aspects such as alcoholism, stereotypes, and self- worth. Sherman Alexie in his past two periods has accurately painted a modern Native American identity. This identity reflects the struggles and sufferings that inflict a great majority of Native Americans in the United States today.

Stereotypic Portrayal of Native Americans

A stereotype is an immovable and frequently oversimplified specification of a specific class or group of people. For example, Native Americans have been stereotyped as alcoholics over the centuries. However, this stereotype has dominated them in several ways, but indigenous Americans have made little effort to prevent this stereotype from ongoing. Ethnic writers frequently use typical stereotypes and ethnic identifiers to comment on racism, racial prejudices, or an ethnic community problem. Alexie is one of these ethnic authors who write about native Americans in a stereotypical point of view. Ethnic authors can help to transform these negative depictions into positive changes in their communities by owning and deploying the stereotypes that target them. Extraordinary characters breaking out of the stereotype help to change the understanding of their communities which is based on stereotypes (Bryan, 2015: 3).

According to the reports by The American Psychiatric Association (APA) that jointly worked with the National Centre for Health Statistics alcoholism is the main reason behind the top four deaths in Native Americans which are accidents, domestic, violence, and child abuse and physical deterioration. There are many connections between Alcoholism and Alexie, both in his literature and his own personal life. Both his parents were alcoholics, and he himself has addicted to alcoholics for six years which led to many sad and sobering moments in his life just as we can see in his young adult literature novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Junior, the young character, loses a sister to a terrible fire due to careless drinking. Alexie writes this as a fact as early as his childhood; alcohol claimed the life of his older sister in the same fashion.

Sherman Alexie's Social Realism

Social Realism is also known as naturalistic realism which concentrates on social problems and the hardships of human's everyday life. Social realism is pertaining to the civilized urban American view of miserable artists. These artists were affected by the Ashcan school, a group of American artists who mostly highlighted a realistic view of the city life in their painting, of the early 20th century.

Alexie, as a Native American version of social realism, is famous for his clear description of the unpleasant social realities of life in reservations. He is unconventional, but rather a postmodern voice of the perpetual search for Native American cultural identity and social reality. His writings are the reflection of the Native American community. Alexie's poetry, short stories, and novels have been evaluated by scholars, reviewers, and critics for the realistic representations of the Indian American involvements in confrontation to the modern American mainstream. In his works, Alexie portrays a realistic picture of Indians in the reservation and off the Reservation. Sherman Alexie's writings show dark humour, the crippling impact of alcoholism, housing reservation, dysfunctional existence, the struggle of race, and poverty which penetrates the individual's daily life on the reservation, the anger which appears from the deformation and extinction of the Native American true identity.

In general, he focuses on three major issues in the Native American community: alcoholism, self-representation, and stereotypes. They can be counted as the modern culture of Native Americans. He depicts the urban Native Americans who are mixed with white immigrants and lost their culture. To Alexie, culture is a significant part of identity. Beside the Indian identity, they forget their cultural identity. Many urban Indians are mix-blooded. Instead of searching for their identity, Native Americans are addicted to alcohol severely. He portrays the modern culture and identity of Native Americans. The reader can easily be attentive to Alexie's techniques: for example, turnabout stereotypes that are seen in his works. Besides, humour is seen as superficial. He criticizes the dominant culture with the stereotypes attached to the Indians.

Alexie’s writings display dark humour, the devastating impact of alcoholism, lack of health care, unemployment, suicide, poverty, housing reservation, and racial struggle, that permeate Indians life on the reservation in addition to the anger which arises from the obliteration and misrepresentation of a factual identity of Native Americans. Alexie is identified as an inventive realist and scholarly contributor to Native American modern tradition. Irony and satire are kinds of humour conveyed through conversation. It shows Alexie's anger at the victims of the colony which still exists in modern American society. Talented blips, remarks, and epigrams are Alexie's weapons in the literary warfare to battle the multicultural society which torments the indigenous people. Additionally, according to Alexie being a traditional writer and dreaming the past is useless. The twenty-first century Native Americans still suffer from injustice and race trauma in modern American society. As a real Indian, he appropriates his writings with modern problems in the modern age. He writes for nowadays Native Americans. Undoubtedly, to show the miseries, suffering, inequality, and immorality, is horrible and may not be endured by the reader. So, Alexie handles the modern technique of humour. He uses humour as a green card for two reasons: to make the reader laugh even on the negative things, and to criticize the USA government for neglecting Indians and Native Americans themselves as well.

In this vein, social realism and humour overlap each other. Undoubtedly, in realistic issues, humour existed and behind all the humours a believable realism is found. As it can be seen in Alexie's style and techniques in writings, he handles a positive way to explore a negative side of life.

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Sherman Alexie: Personal Life, Writing Style And Native American Identity. (2021, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
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