Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, by Sherman Alexie, Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 480 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0802120397
At the top of a hill in Volunteer Park, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighbourhood – an area popular with students, homosexuals, musicians and other “counterculture” types – the Seattle Asian Art Museum sits among the evergreen trees, adjacent to the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Unlike the rarefied sophistication of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts with its Monets and Titians, or the dazzling and in-your-face collections in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, this museum doesn’t house much Western art. Instead, it’s a tribute to a different kind of city.
Although a distinct and attractive Art Moderne structure, the museum’s actual building isn’t precious or flouncy. But it is stately, especially considering its location in the middle of a park in a laid-back section of town. And that stateliness seems well-earned and appropriate because from its inception in 1933 until 1991, the building was known simply as the Seattle Art Museum, minus the current “Asian” pin-holing identifier. This 25,000-square-foot facility was the bastion of and hub for the fine arts world in the city.
As a child, I visited this museum on occasion. Probably not frequently enough to accurately recall the exact layout or flow of the galleries, but enough to warrant specific memories. And what I remember the most is the museum’s collection of Native American art. Now “Native American” is a rather broad descriptor, and like any other ethnic group, members identify more with a specific tribe. The only people referring to all of the approximately five million American Indians as one ubiquitous and unified amalgamation are, well, non-Indians. So as I look over SAM’s website, I realise that many of the things I saw were produced in villages in coastal Washington State and Canada, immediately north of Washington. Apparently, much of the museum’s Native American collection came from Gwa’yasdam and Haida villages. To a casual onlooker, they all look the same – the irony being that they are, in fact, grouped together under a broad heading.
Despite the fact that Seattle’s Native Americans comprise only 0.8 per cent of the city’s population, the influence of American Indians – specifically the Duwamish tribe – on the city is undeniable, as its moniker, a nod to Chief Sealth, can attest. Totem poles dot the landscape and the names of nearby landmarks remind us of the people who preceded the Europeans: Shilshole Bay, Alki Point, Tukwila. It’s a place where all of the preconceived notions about a rugged and natural lifestyle come to roost layered between the patina of “sophisticated” Western ideas about success, property, and power. This is, after all, the home of Microsoft, Amazon.com, and the ubiquitous Starbucks. In this push-pull between old and new, Seattle emerges as place where traditional Western values undoubtedly prevail but also have to vie for space with other cultures that have helped to shape the city.
Nearly twenty years ago, however, in an instance that only helps to highlight Seattle’s metamorphosis from a pioneering city built on physical capital (firstly, the timber industry) to a cosmopolitan mini-metropolis showcasing intellectual capital (the tech industry), the Seattle Art Museum moved to a Robert Venturi-designed building downtown. One of Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man sculptures stands outside. A new and shiny version of this city emerged – but perhaps not a complete shift in psyche, demonstrated by a group of local artists who rebelled by attaching a ball and chain to this sculpture, a homage to the seemingly forgotten working class.
This is where PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author Sherman Alexie lives. A registered member of the Spokane Indian Tribe (its reservation is about three hundred miles east of Seattle), Alexie is the author of four novels (his first, Reservation Blues, won one of fifteen American Book Awards in 1996), four collections of short stories, and one screenplay (Smoke Signals). Blasphemy, his latest short story collection featuring thirty-three stories –fifteen of them new – was released at the beginning of 2013 in Europe. This split-personality city provides an apt backdrop for an author who writes about that amorphous space between one’s culture of origin (in his case, “the rez”) and where one chooses to end up (a place where he doesn’t “fit the profile of the neighborhood”, as many of his characters acknowledge in his stories). In “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend, leaves Seattle, and returns to his family on the reservation. He explains their lack of surprise at his return: “There’s an old Indian poet who said that Indians can reside in the city, but they can never live there. That’s as close to truth as any of us can get.” Nearly every story takes place either in the Seattle area or on an Indian Reservation, much like the one he grew up on in Wellpinit, a town with a population of less than a thousand in eastern Washington State.
“Breaking and Entering”, originally published in 2009’s War Dances, provides a look at how one can feel like an outsider but still be perceived as an insider. In this story, George Wilson defends his home against a young, black intruder and in an instant, without thinking through the numerous consequences that will enter and later haunt his life, kills him. A media frenzy ensues, the general narrative being “He’s just another black boy killed by a white man. And none of these white men care.” Alexie’s twist, however, is that this lead character is not, in fact, a “white man” but a light-skinned Indian. George’s desire to set the record straight – to get the media and the protesters to understand that he too is a victim of disadvantage and stereotypes – devolves into a messy swirl of accusations and side-taking in a city where these types of “identity crises” are perhaps more common than in a homogeneous area. George says: “One could easily mock my lack of cultural connection, but one could not question my race. That’s not true, of course. People, especially other Indians, always doubted my race. And I’d always tried to pretend it didn’t matter – I was confident about my identity – but it did hurt my feelings.” So, is George an oppressed minority? Or a member of an elite ruling class? The answer, of course, is simultaneously neither and both.
In “Do You Know Where I Am?” Sharon and David “were Native American royalty” – two Indian university students who enjoy the relative wealth and power that they are born into. Years into their subsequent marriage, they reach a critical sink-or-swim moment, and David wonders if “another Indian man of my particular talents existed out there in the world”. Sharon and David are anomalies, despite playing the right parts in a white person’s drama. Far removed from reservation culture (Sharon never lived on one, while David spent summers with his Indian paternal grandparents on one that seemed, to him, “like a sedate version of Disneyland”), the couple seemingly prides itself on creating a typical urban family life – until adultery, a sin that knows no cultural boundaries, makes its presence known.
Despite all the messiness and unanswered questions, should Alexie – and other Indians – see a city like Seattle as a reprieve? As he asks in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his semi-autobiographical young adult novel, “What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?” Seattle, with its skyscrapers and opportunity and generally liberal politics and open-mindedness, perhaps springboards Alexie into a place he feels more comfortable. But he’s not immune to its downfalls. As a columnist at The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle, he occasionally contributes “Texts from South Lake Union”, quick blurbs on life in a gentrifying part of town and all the preciousness and über-self-awareness that goes along with that. One: “Here, in the neighborhood where I work but do not live, folks are desperately trying to turn a big city into a small town. And I’m a small-town boy who asks, ‘Why the fuck would you want to do that?’ ” And two: “On the sterile streets of South Lake Union, I am constantly reminded that I have become a seriously privileged fucker with privileged moral dilemmas.”
But what of the Indian Reservation, the place where Alexie spent his childhood and where some of Blasphemy’s stories are set? Land parcels granted by the US government in the mid- to late nineteenth century as a way to broker peace between settlers and natives and their tussles for land, these reservations are technically governed by individual tribes and federal policy is somewhat limited. They are also places where poverty and lack of opportunity reign. Unlike Seattle, a transforming city, one could argue that the reservations are stagnant. How do all these stories fit together?
Alexie provided readers with a nearly foolproof portal into his mind and his thoughts about all of this when he released Diary in 2007. Protagonist Junior is different. He’s brainy and decides to try high school at the all-white farming town twenty-two miles away, where his peers’ relative affluence highlights what he’s thought all along: “Reardan was the opposite of the rez. It was the opposite of me. I didn’t deserve to be there. I knew it; all of those kids knew it. Indians don’t deserve shit.” But despite struggling with the Indian community, who sees him as a traitor for leaving the reservation high school, he does find his own self-defined space in his new community. “Well,” he tells Rowdy, his best friend from the reservation, “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” Neither the author nor his alter ego whitewashes their feelings about the place they were born: The reservation was “… located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy”.
What Alexie ultimately seems to convey is that leaving a place you love is hard, even if staying will ultimately squelch you. Is the destination any better? Yes, probably. But to think that one can shed an entire identity is naive. His aim is pretty clear, and in an interview, he describes the letters he gets from youth after reading Diary: “The theme [of these letters] is identification – rich, poor, black, brown – it’s the sense of being caught between being in a community and being an individual. The pain of your parents and your tribe telling you what to do and who to be.”
Readers can’t help but assume that we know Alexie given the repetitive details that play a part, however small, in his writing: basketball, brain tumours or other maladies (he had hydrocephalus as an infant), poetry (Emily Dickinson features prominently), and the role of Roman Catholicism and other white, Christian missionaries in Indian culture. We learn that he, like the Seattle that I know, has changed and challenged deep-seated stereotypes. But has the Reservation changed? Will it? Can it?
One of his longer contributions, “The Search Engine”, features Corliss, a freshly minted university student from the Spokane Indian Reservation who awkwardly straddles her past (the reservation) and her future (a college education). “As a poor kid, and a middle-class Indian, she seemed destined for a minimum-wage life of waiting tables or changing oil. But she had wanted a maximum life, an original aboriginal life, so she had fought her way out of her underfunded public high school into an underfunded public college. So maybe, despite American racism, sexism, and classism, Corliss’s biography confirmed everything nearly wonderful and partially meritorious about her country.” She knew that in order to succeed, she would need to leave. Alexie is precise in delineating how Corliss doesn’t fit the Indian mould: “What kind of Indian loses her mind over a book of poems? She was that kind of Indian, she was exactly that kind of Indian, and it was the only kind of Indian she knew how to be.” And “Indians were terrified of being lonely, of being exiled, but Corliss had always dreamed of solitude.”
She “believed in the endless nature of human possibility. She would be delighted if these two messy humans [the white, privileged, and in Corliss’s eyes, inane students clumsily discussing poetry] transcended their stereotypes and revealed themselves as mortal angels.” She believes this because she is experiencing her own “transcending” moment. “The Search Engine” takes her from her rural (but still relatively worldly) college campus to Seattle on a quest for a thoughtfully executed meeting with an elusive Indian author. After finding him, the myth of “being Indian” fades slightly and Corliss understands that even the sacred and authentic can be touched by imperfection.
“Cry Cry Cry”, Blasphemy’s first story – and one of Alexie’s new ones – stands out for two reasons. First, it gives readers a harsh view of reservation life, particularly in terms of drugs and domestic abuse. It is raw and disconcerting. But second, and more importantly, it uncovers the nuances of maintaining membership in a community. The narrator, whose cousin lands in jail for his indiscretions, says, “[Tribal members] screamed and chanted about racism. They weren’t exactly wrong. Plenty of Indians have gone to jail for no good reason. But plenty more have gone to jail for the exact right reasons … when you start fighting for every Indian, you end up defending the terrible ones, too.” It’s a bleak existence, and as evidenced by the majority of Alexie’s stories, a hard one to break from. But the narrator, cousin to a criminal a few times over, takes up dancing at powwows as a small effort at redemption. “I was dancing for my soul and for the soul of my tribe,” he says. “I was dancing for what we Indians used to be and who we might become again.”
Alexie realises that a utopian promised land doesn’t exist – not the reservation, and not Seattle. But he sits right down in the middle of where he is, with any location’s faults and blemishes, and attempts to unravel the mystery of why that is.