This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Never mind his status as the pre-eminent face of American Indian letters. Sherman Alexie is that rare creature in contemporary literature, a writer who can make you laugh as easily as he can make you cry. He's also frighteningly versatile, as a poet, screenwriter, short-story author and novelist. Following his 2007 National Book Award for the young-adult book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian , his latest volume, War Dances , covers the breadth of his talent in short stories and poems.
In recent interviews, you've said it's the job of writers to offend a portion of their audience. What do you consider a successful example of offending your own readers?
You have to subvert expectations to some extent, otherwise you might as well make Big Macs. Whenever I deal even remotely in sexuality, people freak out. One of my stories in the New Yorker , "The Toughest Indian in the World," involved a homosexual encounter between an Indian journalist and an Indian street-fighter. Indian readers freaked out. I was getting crazy messages asking, "How could you write this! Indians are not gay!" Oh, sure we're not. With non-Indian readers there was this notion of, "Why the hell would we be interested in that?" Philip Roth could write about masturbating onto a light bulb, you know, but minorities do similar things and somehow it gets frightening. Name me an Indian sex scene. It's like we're panda bears. We're counted on not to have sex.
Why are you adamant in your opposition to the Kindle?
"I'm shocked more writers are not against it. The general public has no idea of the changes going on inside publishing right now, and right now writers should be forming a very strong union. The increasing corporatization of publishing means we will be at their mercy. When we talk about writers, we're generally talking about a very poor group of people, and the general suspicion toward artists is that we're not deserving enough to make money. Hopefully, there are a lot of young writers out there now who are as suspicious of corporate motives as they are talented.
You've singled out Paiute poet Adrian Lewis' words about "the reservation of my mind" as the motivation behind your becoming a writer. Please expand.
That Adrian quote is also about being trapped, and integrating to the point where you see those barriers everywhere. A reservation border can become not just physical, but emotional and spiritual. Leaving "the rez" isn't about becoming a different person, but becoming more American: The first people here are the last people immigrating. I hope that by talking about this, natives will come to see themselves as the newest immigrants.
It's well-known that you're a basketball fan. The University of Utah reached an agreement years ago with the Ute tribe over use of the name and some American Indian symbols for sports teams. Still, there's lingering controversy. What's your opinion on the use of American Indian mascots and symbols for sports teams?
Tell me the difference between the image of the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo and Sambo. There is none. The feathers, paint and drums are part of our religion. More than just racist, those images are blasphemous. I would think a heavily religious state like Utah understands blasphemy. Also, you will never run out of Indians happy to subjugate themselves. That's a precondition of being colonized.