Sherman Alexie had already published four collections of poetry by the time he gained national attention in 1993 by winning the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction for the short story collection The Lone-Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. In 1996, he was named as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in recognition for his first novel Reservation Blues. Two years later, he won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the screenplay of Smoke Signals.
In all, Alexie has published eighteen books and screenplays in sixteen years, making him one of the most prolific writers working in the United States today. But his multi-genre talents don’t stop there. He’s also collaborated on an album with musician Jim Boyd and turned his hand at film directing, too. And in his free time? He does a spot of stand-up comedy as well.
While much of Alexie’s earlier work explores small-town life on the Spokane Reservation where he grew up, the stories in Ten Little Indians (2004) focus on the lives of Indians who’ve gravitated to Seattle. Alexie himself is Spokane Indian, a term he prefers to the politically correct ‘Native American’ and ‘Indianness’ is central to everything he writes. In this collection, however, the characters are less ethnically strident: being Indian is only part of who they are.
In The Search Engine, nineteen-year-old Corliss regards herself as being somehow different from other members of her tribe: she is solitary and bookish in a communal society of blue-collar sensibilities. When she comes across a book of poems by the previously unheard-of Spokane Indian Harlan Atwater, Corliss believes she has found a kindred spirit at last, and sets off on a quest to track him down. What she finds, of course, is not what she expected, for Atwater is Indian in DNA only. In the end, as in so many of Alexie’s stories, both characters are left to struggle with the question ‘What is Indian?’
In numerous interviews, Alexie has discussed the way the focus of his writing changed after September 11, 2001. Where much of his earlier work was tainted with an antagonistic ‘them and us’ tribalism which examined the minutiae of Native American adversity, the stories produced after that date incorporate a broader, more universal view of the human condition. And although his protagonists are still almost exclusively Indian, their personal traumas are not defined by, nor the result of their ethnicity. They are human beings first, and Indian by accident of birth. It is this breaking down of old tribal affiliations – affiliations that encourage an unwavering sense of righteousness – that differentiates this collection from Alexie’s previous books.
Two stories, Can I Get a Witness and Flight Patterns, deal explicitly with the after-effects of 9/11. In the former, a middle-class Spokane Indian woman is having lunch in a Seattle restaurant when a suicide bomber walks in off the street and detonates the bomb strapped to his chest. She emerges from the rubble seemingly unscathed and confesses to her would-be rescuer that she had been longing to be released from her life by just such a ‘suicide by inertia’.
At its centre, the story criticises America’s indulgence in the ‘grief porn’ which flowed out of the media after the 9/11 tragedy, and questions the way that those who died were treated as saints and heroes. When the woman suggests that some of the victims ‘did deserve to die’ and that there may be a wife or a daughter who ‘thanks God or Allah or the devil for Osama’s rage’ her rescuer refuses to listen and tells her repeatedly ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ It was tribalism which caused men to crash planes into the twin towers and it was tribalism which prevented Americans from asking why anyone could possibly want to do such a thing. When George W. Bush said to the world ‘You’re either with us or against us” he not only stifled debate, but he also laid down the rules for membership of his tribe. By refusing to listen to the woman’s blasphemous suggestions, the man who came to her rescue is protecting his place within that tribe.
Redemption, in both senses of the word, is the theme of another story in the collection. In What You Pawn I Will Redeem, we meet Jackson Jackson, a homeless Spokane Indian man who finds his grandmother’s stolen dance regalia on display in a pawnshop window. Believing that the theft of the precious regalia sparked the cancer from which his grandmother died, Jackson sets out to reclaim it and wonders if by doing so he might also bring his grandmother back to life.
Alexie has spent his career smashing apart Indian stereotypes and creating, instead, characters which are challenging, honest and complex. Each of his collections has opened up a world that few in his white readership have seen, worlds full of humour and poignancy, rage and atonement. Despite its title, however, Ten Little Indians is the first book he’s published where being Indian has been incidental.