[(interview date 2007) In the following interview, originally conducted with Mellis in 2007, Alexie explores his use of teenaged protagonists and the issue of racial identity in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Flight.]
Interviewer: Why don't we start with Flight: Zits seems to have trouble with his mixed heritage, so much so that early on he states, "I'm not really Irish or Indian, I'm a blank sky, a human solar eclipse." His dual identity seems to be one factor in his troubled consciousness insofar as his identities seem to cancel each other out rather than form a hybrid identity for him. Do you think that Native American children have to struggle with a similar dilemma--that is, having to negotiate being both Indian and American?
Alexie: Well, I don't think that Zits has a problem with either identity; I think he has a problem with having no identity. Like he says, being Indian and Irish would be the coolest thing in the world. I think he has a problem with nobody teaching him how to value either culture, so I think that Native American kids' problem is not being a hybrid--not being two things at the same time--I think the problem is when people tell them they have to be one thing or the other. (I prefer mixed breed dogs and mixed breed humans.)
Interviewer: When Zits is transformed into Hank, the FBI agent working for HAMMER [a FBI task force assigned to suppress IRON, a militant Indian Civil Rights organization], he learns that Horse and Elk, two Indian heroes for IRON, are actually double agents working for the FBI. Zits realizes that the two "aren't freedom fighters or anything like that. They don't care about protecting the poor and defenseless. No, man, these guys just like to hurt people"--a sensibility he also recognizes in the FBI agents. Given the brutality of both the Indians and the FBI agents during this experience, I'm wondering what you're saying about the nature of men and the myths built around them.
Alexie: (Laughs) That whatever our politics, we always find ways to justify violence. For me, there's really no difference between the left and the right when it comes to justifying violence. Worldwide, you know, the Palestinians and the Israelis aren't all that much different to me.
Interviewer: In other scenes in the novel, Zits occupies the bodies of both a Native American boy at the Battle of Little Big Horn and the elderly Indian tracker Gus, who at first leads a slaughter of an Indian village, and both these scenes are filled with brutality but also a sense of redemption: both the unnamed Indian boy and Gus eventually refuse to engage in the surrounding slaughter. These scenes seem to foreshadow Zits' eventual refusal to shoot up the bank at the end of the novel. Given the brutal history of American and Indian relations, how do you see these two scenes offering a new vision of the relationship between the two groups in the United States?
Alexie: Well, I don't know if it's as much a new vision as a different way to take lessons from it. ... We did plenty of killing on our own and I think the sort of centuries' long effort to completely villianize and demonize white folks is very self-destructive to us.
Interviewer: And is that where the character of Justice comes in?
Alexie: Yeah, he has the inability to find the goodness in other people and other cultures. He can only see what's wrong.
Interviewer: As I was reading, I was struck by the physical features of Crazy Horse as he appears in the novel in that he kind of reminds me of Justice. Their representations seem very singular--were you trying to create the two as foils for each other?
Alexie: A little bit, but also the fact is that by all accounts Crazy Horse was a pale light-haired dude, so it's quite probable that one of the great heroes in Native American history was part white, so that I think it renders the whole notion of ... you know, it makes all of us look like fundamentalists. I mean identity is far more complicated than history teaches us.
Interviewer: Given the delineation between the white world and the Indian world, I'm curious about the ending when Officer Dave rescues Zits from himself. This marks a significant change in his life and I am wondering if there's a degree of irony in that, given the brutal characterizations of the FBI agents in the novel, to have a representative of the state or government be the impetus of the turn-around in Zits' life?
Alexie: I suppose irony is a term; I prefer to think of it as the evolution of a country. You know if someone breaks into my house, I'm not calling a member of the American Indian Movement, I'm calling a cop. My house catches on fire, I'm not calling Jesse Jackson, I'm calling engine number nine down the block. You know the mark of a successful society really is the quality of its civil service. You know, Zits says he feels like he's in the civil service hall of fame--there's a nurse, a cop, and a fireman--so that's less about an ironic look at American history and what has happened and more of a small celebration of civil servants.
Interviewer: It is a really poignant ending.
Alexie: Yeah, well, I believe in civil servants.
Interviewer: I know, I spent all morning at the DMV.
Alexie: I wish some civil servants were faster.
Interviewer: Ok, my final question regarding Flight has to do with the character of Justice, who is preoccupied with the Ghost Dance, the ritual that is meant to bring the dead back to life. And Flight reminds me somewhat of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in that it's populated by ghosts, both dead and alive, but instead of the dead rising up to take vengeance, the novel ends positively with Zits seeming to assimilate into the white world, accepting his Christian name, and moving in with officer Dave's brother and sister-in-law. And my question is how do you see modern Native Americans engaging with the white world today, given that your books are filled with both mainstream pop-culture references and the possibility to retain, like the Ghost Dance, a traditional cultural legacy and still have an American identity?
Alexie: Well, the Ghost Dance itself is something pretty ironic; it was not native theology. Wovoka, who created the Ghost Dance, was a Methodist minister, so the Ghost Dance is actually very much Christian apocalyptic thinking ... it's really funny that the U.S. cavalry massacred Indians for being Christians. So, once again, it was a subtle questioning and criticism of cultural purity. The Ghost Dance was essentially a completely impure cry for purity, so assimilation ... people who are worried about assimilation are always worried about some romantic notion of purity. With assimilation, people always assume that it's a one way bridge--Native Americans, all of us, whatever we are, have had influence and been influenced by the common culture, we've all worked together to create it. Certainly, history books focus on one group or another as being the originators of our country, but we all know in reality George Washington's wife had as much to do with it. I refuse to take a lesser recognition on this, we've all been here together making it work. Or not work.
Interviewer: And what about humor, and how that serves your novels? Your works are quite serious but also very funny, despite the brutality that goes on within them. How do you think humor operates for contemporary Native Americans?
Alexie: You know, Shakespeare was hilarious. This is always a funny question for me because if you asked my mom and siblings about me they'd say I was the morose one in the basement playing Dungeons and Dragons. So I'm the least funny member of my family. ... I have found personally that, if you're funny, people will listen to everything you say and that being funny is also [the mark of] people who haven't given up.
Interviewer: So do you think it's less of a coping mechanism than a reflection of ...
Alexie: A reflection of strength.
Interviewer: That is a pretty good segue into the next book I'd like to talk about, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and my first question is that it represents a bit of a change for you, in that it's being advertised as being for young adults. I know that in some of your "adult works" there's been some debate as to what audience you're writing for, and by shifting gears this way, did you have a particular young audience in mind?
Alexie: Well, you know, do you know who reads my books? Do you know who reads all literary work? Any book, every book, all of them? The primary audience is college-educated white women, so that's who reads everything. If you want to talk about an indication of that--certainly this book is geared towards young adults, but I was at the American Library Association convention in DC a couple of weeks ago, and there were something like 15,000 librarians there and 99 percent of them were white women so ... Thank God ... they seem to be the people most willing to ignore barriers and boundaries and to reach across, so that's who my audience is in reality. In this book, specifically, I'm really hoping it reaches a lot of native kids certainly, but also poor kids of any variety who feel trapped by circumstance, by culture, by low expectations, I'm hoping it helps them get out.
Interviewer: That sense of being trapped is all over the book, obviously, and there are a lot of heartbreaking scenes, and I know some parts of the book are based on events in your life. To me, one of the most heartbreaking scenes is when after transferring to Reardan, Arnold is rejected at a basketball game when everyone in the audience turns their back to him. I'm curious, was this based on a real event in your life?
Alexie: Not quite that dramatic, but it was a football game actually that is not in the book, a flag football game in eighth grade. I transferred in eighth grade, and my former friends and [their] family members and everybody else on the other side were cheering against me, and the whole tribal team we were playing against quit having a game plan to win the game, and all they were focused on was knocking me down. They were running plays so that people could hit me and coach was willing to take me out, but I stayed in and took the hits the whole game. So when you look up in the stands and see people's parents cheering for their children to brutalize you, you sort of think "wow, I'm banished."
Interviewer: And in the book Arnold's sister seems to express a similar desire to get out and escape and she takes a somewhat different trajectory and dies tragically, and I'm wondering about the two different reactions on the reservation regarding the attempted escapes of Arnold and his sister and how you account for that?
Alexie: Well, she married an Indian and moved to another reservation, so she stayed within the community in that sense, plus she was just nicer. Arnold is a mouthy little bastard.
Interviewer: I like him, though.
Alexie: I like him too, he reminds me of somebody (laughs).
Interviewer: Ok, getting back to the scene of the basketball game, it's interesting that basketball appears a few other times in your work--as a pivotal scene in Reservation Blues when the Indians play the reservation police and at the end of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. How important is basketball to reservation life?
Alexie: It's every bit as important as it is in inner-city black communities. Number one, it's cheap. All you need is something resembling a hoop and something resembling a ball, and you can play it with any number of people. I really think it is a function of the simplicity of the game and also it sort of rewards, I'll get in trouble for saying this, but it really is an effeminate game. ... Indian men are, you know, among the most effeminate on the planet. It rewards a certain body type and a certain level of grace and beauty that is not always seen as being masculine. I think that's part of it, sort of, the androgyny of the game.
Interviewer: It's interesting that you mention that it [basketball] is as important as it is in inner-city black urban life, because as I was reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I noticed a lot of similarities between the cultures, not only the emphasis on basketball but also motifs that appear in a lot of African-American fiction like racial profiling, marginalization and ghettoization, lost cultural heritages, wise elders, etc. I'm wondering if you see these parallels, and if so, is there a lot of contact between the two cultures?
Alexie: No. By and large, no. That's one of the problems with contemporary civil rights and contemporary liberalism. ... People march for their own rights so you don't see a whole lot of people working for [groups] outside of themselves. One of my jokes is that every year we should have a liberal giving tree where every liberal has to pull down a piece of paper from the tree and support that group for a year (and it can't be their own). So you might get a piece of paper that says "gay Black Panthers for Iowa corn farmers, Native American urban liberals for single mothers," so ... no, it's a long way of saying there's not a lot of interaction or cooperation. One of the big things is that black folks are really powerful, economically, politically, culturally, and they don't really need our help.
Interviewer: How do you account then for the lack of power amongst Native Americans?
Alexie: We have no natural allies. We are on our own. The only people rushing to our defense are those white women.
Interviewer: Like in Reservation Blues.
Interviewer: Ok, well the portrayals of whites in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian seem particularly interesting in that Arnold realizes when the book begins, he says that white equals hope, but as the novel progresses he sees the guilt ridden Mr. P, Penelope struggling with anorexia, the embarrassment of Billionaire Ted and realizes that whites are as troubled and ridiculous as everybody else. Do you think that seeing their problems is a fundamental part of his path of self-identity and self assurance?
Alexie: Definitely. The maturation process is of seeing that, for lack of a better term, everybody's screwed (laughs). That reminds me, I was watching the movie [Léon:] The Professional, have you ever seen it? With Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. And in one scene her face is all beaten at the beginning and she asks him, "Is life always this hard or is it just when you're a kid?" and he says, "It's always this hard." So we can [see] Arnold being Natalie Portman and white culture being Jean Reno, "is life this hard or is it just because I'm an Indian?" and no, he learns that no, life is hard for everybody.
Interviewer: The character of Rowdy in the novel is very compelling. At the end of the novel he calls Arnold "an old-time nomad" who will wander the earth, and it seems that that prediction or characterization of Arnold allows him to retain his Native American identity by leaving the reservation and becoming that nomad, but also lose the modern Native American identity through that same departure. My question is, then, what do you think needs to be done either on or for the reservations to change the attitudes reflected in the novel?
Alexie: I have no idea. All I know is that just a few years ago when I realized that I traveled the world telling stories and that's how I make my living, I was on stage when I said that and I realized that and I thought, "wait a second, what's more Indian than that?" and it sort of collapsed all these notions I had about myself and all these struggles and all these ideas about my connection to my culture and my people and all of that. I realized that my culture was inherent in me. I came from a storytelling family. Maybe my stories have more dick jokes in them but they're still traditional. ... To change the cultural idea about that? All I can do is live my life and write my books and tell my stories, and I know for a fact that it's influencing all sorts of other Native American people and pushing them to embrace their own eccentricity and to get nomadic, so I'm not worried about chronological definitions of identity whether it's old or new. I just know that I'm doing now what I would've been doing two hundred years ago, but now instead of somebody throwing me a salmon for a story, they pay me.
Interviewer: And you grew up listening to stories?
Alexie: Yep, my grandma's traditional stories and my dad's alcoholic ramblings.
Interviewer: And both are reflected in your stories?
Alexie: I like to make the profane sacred and the sacred profane.
Interviewer: It's a fine line. What's next for you?
Alexie: A new book of poems next year, called Thrash, and a family memoir I've been working on for a long time about the history of the men in my family and war, and there's another novel out there.
Interviewer: Do you ever struggle with honest portrayals about reservation life? With all its violence and alcoholism?
Alexie: No, the people who have an issue with that are the ones who are still drunk.