- Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays
With twenty-one published books and an extra-literary career as a speaker who packs auditoriums and cracks jokes on television’s The Colbert Report, Sherman Alexie is arguably the most popular and productive Native American writer in history. Given his appeal to both mainstream readers and literary scholars—to say nothing of the hackles he has raised among some Native American writers and critics—a [End Page 319] collection of critical essays on Alexie’s oeuvre has been overdue. This volume does justice to the breadth and currency of two decades of artistic production as it brings together analyses of Alexie’s poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and film. It suggests strategies for interpretation and invites further critical explorations of the artist’s most complex and controversial expressions.
Noting that Alexie’s work “demands a different kind of literary analysis than that currently practiced,” coeditor Jeff Berglund promises “fresh approaches to a wide range of Alexie’s work” (xxx, xxi). While the essays gathered are perhaps not entirely fresh (two are republished), they do embrace the challenge of coming at their subject in innovative ways. Many of the contributors take an intertextual approach in keeping with Alexie’s mastery of multiple genres and forms. P. Jane Hafen’s analysis of Reservation Blues (1995) considers Alexie’s employment of popular music, within the novel and in his collaborations on a CD with the same title, to mediate the intersections of reservation and dominant cultures. Lisa Tatonetti’s essay uses a recurrent motif to construct a bridge between Alexie’s poetry and fiction, both of which, she argues, deploy the Ghost Dance as a potentially transformative pan-tribal metaphor, if at the expense of tribal specificity. Applying a similar methodology, Margaret O’Shaughnessey shows how Alexie reworks the racist nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians” into a song of indigenous survival that resonates across multiple genres. In a fascinating interdisciplinary analysis, Elizabeth Archuleta reads the short story “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” in the context of legal discourse to reveal Alexie’s challenges to dominant culture narratives.
Two undertheorized aspects of Alexie’s work receive much needed attention here. Essays by Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez and Nancy J. Peterson closely analyze Alexie’s poetics, revealing how techniques of sonority and form emphasize the complex cultural and political positions of indigenous subjects. These essays offer useful strategies for negotiating tensions between Euroamerican and Native American literary traditions, tensions that at once trouble and enrich Alexie’s poetry. Essays by Angelica Lawson and Stephen F. Evans, meanwhile, make meaningful contributions to discussions about gender and sexuality in Alexie’s work, which often emphasizes the intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia in indigenous and dominant cultural contexts. Lawson calls attention to strong female characters in Smoke Signals (1998), and Evans productively analyzes the cultural significance of “sex/gender variability” in The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), but more work needs to be done in this direction (187).
Perhaps most interesting here are those essays that attend to the writer’s self-conscious evolution across a still young career. Alexie tends to revisit, repurpose, and reimagine central themes in ways that reflect his changing sensibility. As Jan Johnson notes in her contribution to this volume, for example, Alexie identifies Flight (2007) as his answer to the nihilism of Indian Killer (1996), a novel he has publically disavowed [End Page 320] (224). Together with metacommentary delivered in his role as a public intellectual, these revisitations open a window on Alexie’s meditations on authorship, authenticity, and obligation to tribal communities for the Native writer—in short, on “the tangled mix of ideological and communal desires that condition expectation and determine critical authority,” as Berglund describes it (256). In a powerful final essay, Berglund analyzes Alexie’s deepening understanding of the complex role of the indigenous writer, suggesting possibilities for resolving the author’s conflicts with tribalist/nationalist Native American critics such as Gloria Bird and Elizabeth Cook...