In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • “We’re All the Same People”?The (A)Politics of the Body in Sherman Alexie’s Flight
  • Kerry Boland (bio)

In the opening line of Sherman Alexie’s Flight, the adolescent male narrator instructs readers: “Call me Zits” (1). Insisting that his “real name isn’t important,” Zits characterizes his precarious identity in terms of a bodily affliction. Alexie’s choice of acne as the main character’s most prominent skin feature serves a double purpose: it points to a seemingly universal, apolitical, and ahistorical teenage annoyance; on the other hand, it also tells readers that Zits’s face is red, signaling the derogatory name for Indigenous Americans.1 Acne marks the narrator’s Indian ancestry at the same time as the name Zits obscures his connection to any particular history. Shortly thereafter, Zits wonders if his acne problem is linked perhaps with being biologically half-Indian (4). Born to an Indian father who has since abandoned him and a white mother who died when he was six, Zits is a foster child and delinquent—spending his time shuffling between varying homes and jail. The upheaval has left Zits unsure how to be a “real Indian” (12). So while the opening of the novel may seem to indicate merely a passing concern of an adolescent boy, by connecting Zits’s acne to worries over Indian authenticity, Flight quickly begins to conjure more sophisticated questions of Indigenous political marginalization.

Lonely, frustrated, and vulnerable, Zits is drawn to a fellow young delinquent—a white boy called Justice who is highly critical of the American state. Their bond leads Zits to attempt a shooting massacre in a bank—a setting that serves as a microcosm of American multi-culturalism with “many different colors,” “four or five different languages,” and “many different religions” represented among the patrons and potential victims (35). In a disturbing twist on the supposed justice of a multicultural state that respects cultural differences, Zits sees the [End Page 70] massacre as an act of revenge against American injustice. It is a violent political strategy that directly challenges the settler state’s contemporary discourse of cultural tolerance and state recognition of minority rights. Zits’s ensuing bodily “flight” through history, however, develops into a struggle to reconcile his familial alienation and violent actions with a growing sense that continued violence will not create justice for anyone, no matter their heritage or racial ties. This easily digestible, humanizing, anti-violence moral is the novel’s most overt message and would appear to drain it of any concern for specifically Indigenous political rights.

Zits’s bodily time travel not only pays heed to the physical pain of violence but allows him to see history up close from a variety of perspectives—a process that presumably, in the vein of multiculturalism, leads Zits to develop empathy across racial lines and eventually renounce violence when he comes back into his own body at the end of the novel. Both the anti-violence message and the time travel recall Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, in which the central character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time” (22), shuttling between episodes from World War II and other moments in his life. Taking his epigraph—“Po-teeweet?”—from Vonnegut’s novel, Alexie makes evident that he is adapting Slaugtherhouse Five’s narrative techniques and its global anti-war message in order to speak against the perpetration of violence within the United States. In the words of critic Joseph Coulombe: “By exposing the parallels between different types of violence . . . Flight broadens the way that readers think about global violence and fosters understanding between ostensibly different peoples” (131). Implying that beneath the surface all people share a connection despite “ostensible” differences, Coulombe’s reading supports an uncritical multiculturalism harmful to any struggle for Indigenous sovereignty. While multiculturalism operates under a veneer of tolerance and equal representation for minority groups, countless critics have shown how multicultural discourse actively inhibits justice by ignoring material inequities. For example, philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek describes multiculturalism as “a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism, a racism with a distance” that leaves the colonizing nation-state as the “privileged empty point of universality...