Kidnapped! And taken back in time!
Alexie is a writer of poems, short stories, novels, and films that are by turns inventive, funny, angry, poignant, and ironic. His autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007. War Dances, a collection of stories and poems, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2010.
He is perhaps best known for exploding stereotypes of Americans Indians and mainstream America's desire for natives to fulfill mythic roles in everyday life. What is he NOT famous for is representing tribal customs and traditional lifeways in his fiction; he famously avoids doing that. If anyone wears feathers in his stories they are either acting like a fool or they are updating some notion of traditional culture with contemporary flavor.
Nearly all of his stories are firmly established in modern, urban, media-saturated America.
That is why is was so odd to see this sentence in the Los Angeles Times review of Blasphemy, Alexie's new short-story collection: "Reading Alexie is like listening to a man tell stories by a campfire."
Out of nowhere -- kidnapped!
The reviewer's campfire statement seems very much out of place in a review of Alexie's work, but I can guess where it comes from. There is this impulse in the United States to confine American Indians to the past, some region that is pure and simple and enviable to the stressed and disillusioned American. (I have written about it in relation to contemporary American Indian art (and here) and in images of the "stoic Indian.")
That notion of the Indian as pre-modern is so firmly established within the American national mythos and psyche that it can emerge when there is no evidence to support it; in this regard, reality must conform to the assumption.
These thoughts were further impressed upon me when the same writer, a week later, reviewed a new book about Edward Curtis and his famous images of American Indians from the early days of the 20th Century. I have written before about the conflicted relationship Indian Country has with Curtis.
On the one hand he created important archival images of American Indians intended to depict them as they would have appeared before being inundated by the tidal wave of Americans, their military forces, their religions, and their material culture. This was remarkable when you consider that not many years before his photographs, the U.S. government was waging genocidal warfare against the same people Curtis photographed.
"Taking Identity," by my friend Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair about the current conflict between the First Nations and the Canadian government.)
When Curtis was taking those pictures, he was hurtling into the 20th century, adapting to a rapidly changing world, just like his subjects. But he didn't want to record that intriguing experience of American Indians adapting to new conditions, forging new relationships and identities -- just as they had always done, long before the Europeans arrived. Instead, perhaps with a kind of envy, he wanted to photograph them NOT changing, NOT entering that new century.
The LA Times reviewer says this about Curtis's photographs: "His portraits, especially, have a timeless quality." Timeless is an appropriate word here, not because Curtis's photographs transcend the interpretative limitations of historical moments (time), but because they try to stop time, to erase the process by which American Indians entered the 20th century.
He wanted to toss them into a time machine -- just a decade removed from H. G. Wells's novel that gave us that concept. That was a century ago, and a lot has changed since then, but, with the LA Times as evidence, apparently Curtis's DeLorean still has some gas in its tank.