A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie wafted into the film world with his 1997 cinematic debut Smoke Signals. Prior to his successful venture into filmmaking, he was a self-described “sheltered, small town, rez, Eastern Washington kid” until one little poetry book, entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, launched him to national attention in 1993.
Social commentary, achieved through his novels, films and public appearances, is what Alexie craves to offer. “Political correctness” is not in his vocabulary, as he takes equal aim at rednecks, liberals, conservatives, and, perhaps most shockingly, at American Indians.
Sherman Alexie grants few interviews—he says he likes to either be interviewed by the biggest news operations (think Vicki Mabrey of CBS’ 60 Minutes, who spoke with Alexie in early 2001) or journalists who are just getting their feet wet (think Jessa Crispin, from Bookslut.com, who recently wrote about her passionate crush on Alexie). When asked which end of the spectrum he thought I fell on, he replied, “Obviously the latter.” Undaunted-yet-I sat down with the master to hear his views on fame, fortune, art, and politics.
Robert Capriccioso: With your recent movies and novels, you have seen modest success. Did you ever dream of such fame when you were a child growing up on the reservation?
Sherman Alexie: Oh no! (laughs) Wanting fame and being famous is a different thing. I wanted to be great at whatever I did. And in any society, when you are great at what you do, you get famous. Who could have ever imagined? I grew up on a rez! I mean, if you would have asked the 9-year-old me, would I have this life now? No way! It was totally outside the realm of possibility. I hope my success makes more things possible for young Indians. They see a rez-kid like me doing what I do and they might start thinking, well, I could do that. I am tangible evidence of the possibilities.
RC: When did you realize that celebrity was going to be your fate?
SA: (laughs) Well, don’t forget, I’m still just an Indian poet. My Q rating is not very high. Local weathermen have higher ones than me. When I started getting recognized on the street, I realized that it extended beyond just writing books. [The recognition] is always fun. It’s never been weird. I think you can make it weird, but I’m not famous enough to get nutbags chasing me down the street. I get recognized by intelligent, literate people, so I’m happy with that
RC: How did your parents influence you to be the man you have become?
SA: Well, they are still married, living in the house where I grew up. They did not expect me to go on to be a writer or filmmaker. I mean, I’m the first person in my family that ever graduated from college, so their measure of success is entirely different from many people in the world. You know, I was always the smart one—they worked really hard to make sure that I had access to opportunity. They got me into—they paid for college. My brothers and sisters helped me pay for college. They worked and helped me pay, so it was a total family effort to get me through school.
RC: Has your family all read your books and seen your movies?
SA: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I give readings in Spokane, Washington and my brothers and sisters and mom and dad will be in the third row.
RC: Do they have critiques about your work?
SA: Oh, yeah, at the beginning it was really uncomfortable for them and they stopped telling me any stories, but then when they started realizing all the attention I was getting and how much power they had, now they remind me of things, like ‘remember that time we did that,’ so it has come through a cycle-denial, acceptance and now they embrace it.
RC: Is your family put off by your fame at all?
SA: Well, it depends on the personality of the family member. The more introverted ones hate it, while the extroverts enjoy it. One of my sisters—we have the same last name—whenever the last name gets recognized, she denies—they’re like ‘Do you know him?’ and she says, ‘oh he’s some distant cousin.’ That protects her from having to be a public figure.
RC: Let’s talk about your newest film—The Business of Fancydancing. How did the experience of creating this movie compare with that of Smoke Signals?
SA: It’s interesting because Smoke Signals has really become a mainstream film; it has mainstream ambitions. It’s based on my work—I wrote the screenplay, but it’s still more audience-friendly than my other work is. It’s much easier for audiences to digest that work. It’s much more approachable, much more accessible. Fancydancing is not only odd because of its characters—you know, Indians—but it’s odd because of its aesthetic and its structure, so I think Fancydancing is much harder for people to get into it. When I was making it, one of the crew members said, ‘You know, Sherman, you’re making a film about a gay Indian poet—It’s too Indian for white people, it’s too white for Indians, and its too gay for everybody—nobody’s going to see this!’ So, (laughs), I think he was right. I thought he was right then, and I’m sure he is right now. It’s going to have a limited audience, always, but I don’t care. I made it because I wanted to make it, and the people who see it are great, I’m happy for that, but I’m not really interested in making a movie like Smoke Signals again.
RC: (laughs) I had a bit of a difficult time convincing some of my friends to want to go see that movie with me for the exact the reasons you mentioned.
SA: Yeah, the Indian world is incredibly homophobic. It’s so funny, all these white liberals think that Indians are so loving and peaceful and sacred, but you know, Indians are a bunch of rednecks.
RC: When you say things like that, do you feel the backlash from Indians?
SA: (heartily laughs) Well, from liberal Indians. But normal Indians are rednecks! That’s why we’re liberals—we fled! I mean, Indian people are very conservative. I don’t think you could really tell the social difference between the average reservation Indian and, you know, white farmers.
RC: So, little backlash?
SA: Oh, yeah, I get backlash all the time, for all sorts of reasons. It always amounts to whatever I’m saying or doing ‘not being Indian’ or ‘not Indian enough’ or ‘Indians don’t do that.’ That ranges from the ridiculous, like ‘Indians don’t eat their meat rare’ to, uh, like long before this movie, I was talking to an Indian elder—I can’t remember who it was—and he was talking about gay people and how evil they are. I said to him, you know, all these things you’re saying have been used against Indians, you know, quoting the Bible. So (pause), Indians are very good at lateral violence.
RC: Would you say that the final outcome of Fancydancing, although not as financially successful as Smoke Signals, was much more personally satisfying?
SA: Well, I mean, I’m never satisfied; nothing is ever good enough. So, is Fancydancing closer to the kind of movie I want to make? Yeah, but I want to get better ‘cuz I want to make better movies, in this way, in these kinds of movies so, yeah, I’m happy with it as a first step. I’m looking forward to making more and alienating more and more people.
RC: (laughs) Considering this alienation, are you concerned at all about having audiences for your future work?
SA: Oh, I don’t care. I mean, you know who I depend on? There are about 75,000 college-educated white women in the country who buy all of my books and go to all of the movies. I mean, if I had to depend on Indians for a career? No way! No chance. We haven’t geared Fancydancing towards Indian audiences because Indian audiences haven’t really been interested, while gay film festivals and gay audiences have. I mean, it played for two months in San Francisco.
RC: Were you surprised by the gay reaction to and acceptance of the movie?
SA: No, not really, I mean it’s something new. You know, as with any small group, I’m sure they’re sick and tired of the same dumb old stories. So, having a new face and a new kind of story within gay culture was great. I wasn’t surprised. I mean, with gay men, you’re talking about a very educated group of people, so I think the gay audience is going to be much more receptive to adventurous art than an Indian audience. Indians are mainstream; I mean, Indians are way into pop culture. Indian kids run around trying to look like Eminem. They’re not trying to look like Crazy Horse.
RC: Do you have a group of Indian friends that you run your ideas by?
SA: No. (chuckles) I make what I want to make.
RC: How does your tribe, like, do they have any comments or reactions to your movies? I’m sure they have seen them and maybe have tribal council meetings. Do they ever talk about you?
SA: (heartily laughs) I don’t know. I don’t think they stay up late worrying about my career. (laughs) I’m an artist; I’m not supposed to be accepted where I am from. My only purpose is to teach children to rebel against authority figures. You think tribal councils want that? Our politicians are just as corrupt as theirs. You know, we’ve been electing George W. for 120 years. We’ve been electing ill-educated, illiterate warmongers longer than the U.S. has. I mean, take a look at, I’m curious, maybe you should look this up—how many tribal council people across the country have college educations? I’m thinkin’ of my tribal council, very few. And then you’re asking them to compete in an increasingly complicated world?
RC: Do you ever find it problematic, though, to say that so many different tribes are homogeneous in that way? Do you ever find that Indians take offense to that?
SA: Sure. I mean, we don’t ever want to hear the truth about ourselves. Uh, because we’ve been oppressed and battered around for so long, all we really want to do is be flattered. So, that’s how we get easily manipulated. That’s how the new-age movement exists. That’s why, you know, Lakotas’ two elders run around with nineteen white people dragging behind them. Because, you know, Indians have not been loved in this country and when we are shown love, we go nuts.
RC: Should Indians change this?
SA: Oh, I don’t know, I mean a whole group of people can’t change. I mean, individuals make individual decisions.
RC: But, do you think that, as a whole, maybe Indians should be less conservative?
SA: I think the whole world should be less conservative. The thing is, one of the great moments in Indian history for me was, with the Macaw Whale Hunt, and at one point the Macaw were out, trying to get a whale, they were in their canoe. The Coast Guard was protecting them from this, and, you know, this Grateful Dead granola-head woman on a jet ski who was trying to intercept the canoe—I was watching this live on television. And the Coast Guard boat bumps into the jet ski and knocks her into the water, and she’s all right, but I watched it and I started thinking, ok, as an Indian, who have been our allies all along? The right-wing guys in uniforms with the guns or the granola-head liberals? Of course, the granola liberals. And then, personally, I thought, who’s more likely to be at my house for dinner? I mean it’s the white liberals. I mean, trust me, I don’t know anybody in the Coast Guard. So, if I’m doing something that needs protection from the Coast Guard, how has my life really changed from who I really am or what I should be?
RC: How does this make you feel—are you sad about this, hopeful for change?
SA: Oh, I’ve got a great life. Trust me, there is not an Indian in the country who wouldn’t trade places with me for at least a day. I mean, the Sherman Alexie life is a vacation for indigenous people. I get to see the world.
RC: A review has said that Fancydancing is “a distinctively empathetic drama about an egotistical, intellectual, gay American Indian poet returning to his reservation 16 years after leaving to make his fortune by publicly exploiting the heritage he privately shuns.” How is the movie reflective of your life and artistic choices?
SA: Well, that description is accurate of me, except for the gay part. All art is exploitation.
RC: Do you really feel like you have sold-out your own people?
SA: No, well, I’ve made mistakes about subject matter, things I probably shouldn’t have written about. I wrote about events I shouldn’t have written about. And that was a personal moral choice to stop writing about those events. I didn’t have to, and even if I had continued to write about them, it was my prerogative. You know, as an artist, it’s not my job to fit in; it’s not my job to belong. I’m not a social worker; I’m not a therapist. It’s my job to beat the shit out of the world. I’m not here to make people feel good.
RC: The main character in Fancydancing, Seymour, realizes who he has been. What has been your own realization?
SA: I mean, Seymour is happy he’s gone. Part of him is always going to stay on the rez; he has history there, but he’s happy he’s gone. I’m happy I don’t live on the rez. And, I think urban Indians, because of social pressure, don’t talk about it much, but I would venture most of us are happy not living on the rez.
RC: American Indian cinema, as a whole—I’m talking about films written, directed and produced by American Indians—would you say it is exploding?
SA: (laughs) No. What, that there are four of us? It exploded; there used to be one, now there are four. It’s taking its first real baby steps. You say ‘Indian cinema,’ but if you take a look at the people who have collaborated on these movies, it’s multicultural. Native cinema is a convenient way to talk about it, but the influences are multicultural. Calling something ‘Indian cinema’ is great, but I worry that it’s pretending to be more pure than it is. Chris [Eyre] was really trying to do it with Skins, you know with the publicity, about how it was the most Indian movie ever made, how true it was to the Lakotas. It was funny because, you know, he’s Cheyenne, who was adopted out and raised by white folks, making a movie based on a book written by a Paiute who lives on the Lakota-Sioux rez on a screenplay written by a white woman on a movie produced by white people and financed by European money. And you can talk the same way about Fancydancing, ah, out of the twelve core crewmembers, two of us were Indian. You know, I was more interested in having women, so the majority of the crew were women, which is really rare for a film set.
RC: Who do you want to like your films?
SA: As an artist, you’re out there trying to be disliked, in a sense. You know, I often love Steven Spielberg films, but I don’t want the people who love his movies to necessarily love mine. I mean, it’s like with Kurt Cobain. Part of his dilemma was that the kids who used to beat the shit out of him when he was in high school were dancing to his music in the audience now, and he couldn’t live with it. So, he had far serious problems that contributed [to his suicide], but the artistic dilemma is similar. Mainstream acceptance always means you’ve compromised.
RC: How do you deal with that reality?
SA: Well, you don’t compromise. Let’s look at all the independent films that have really done well over the last ten years, if you take a look at them, some are really great movies that I love, but if you look at them, none of them is really politically or socially revolutionary. None of them really challenge sacred institutions; none of them really question history. I mean, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it’s a fun film, but what does it challenge? Does it really challenge anybody’s notions of how the world works?
RC: But, at the same time, you gotta wish—
SA: Oh yeah, all the while I’m saying this, I think, yeah, hell, I wish Smoke Signals had made $297 million. So you’re always battling the basic human need to be loved and accepted. That’s always the conflict with the artistic need to challenge the world. I want to make movies that alienate as many people as they nourish. I don’t want to be John Grisham in the book world either. Do I wanna sell that many copies writing what I do? Yeah. But I don’t want to write what he writes.
RC: Do you cringe when you see your own work?
SA: Oh, yeah, all of it—poems, stories, everything. It’s going, ‘Oh God, they let me publish that shit?’
RC: Which is more satisfying, writing or filmmaking?
SA: Writing books. It’s just that everybody involved is so much smarter. I mean, my joke is, and I say this only half kiddingly, you know when I’m surrounded by other writers, poets, I’m almost always by-far the least educated person, scrambling to keep up. When I’m in a room filled with directors, I’m fuckin’ Einstein.
RC: And yet you keep on filming.
SA: I know. I’m a whore for pop culture.
RC: What do you like most about writing?
SA: You can take more chances and more people are willing to go with you.
RC: You have huge fans now; how has this success changed you?
SA: Yeah, I always laugh when you hear people say, ‘Oh I haven’t changed.’ It’s funny this whole new Jennifer Lopez PR thing for her is how ‘I’m just Jenny from the street,’ you know from that song she has, and I start laughing, ‘Oh bullshit.’ Of course I’m different, you know, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t different to begin with. But, uh, how has it changed me, well, in physical ways, I’ve got food in the fridge whenever I want. I like carrying a few extra pounds because it means I’m not poor. The best thing? When I’m in a store and there’s a book I want, I can always buy it. I never have to think about whether or not I can afford the book. I can buy a book a day, two books a day, three books a day, if I want. You talk about luxury, privilege? For me that’s privilege, I don’t give a shit about driving a great car, living in a mansion. I can buy three books a day. Personally, I’m more confident, more arrogant, uh, tougher. I work in a very public sphere where your every move is examined and criticized and debated and discussed, so I have thicker skin. I’m smarter; I dress better. I mean, I think I’m an adult now.
RC: Has fame made you a different artist?
SA: Well, I know people are paying attention. It must be really hard to labor in obscurity.
RC: So has it made you want to play more to the mainstream?
SA: No. I don’t even know how. My ethnicity automatically limits me, and then my personal aesthetic limits me even more. And my politics limit me even more. So, even if I had those ambitions, it would be impossible for me to get there.
RC: You recognize that you are famous now, you have a lot of fans, but that will never mean you are a mainstream artist?
SA: Oh no! I’m not Jennifer Lopez.
RC: Will you ever be “Jennifer Lopez?”
SA: If I keep eating fry bread, maybe. (big laugh) Maybe my ass will get that big. But I doubt it.
RC: Would you consider yourself a self-promoter or an Indian-promoter?
SA: I’m not an Indian promoter because I don’t know Indians; I don’t know all of them. Comparatively, I know very few. How many Indians am I close to? 500, 200, 100, 10? I don’t think anybody can promote a race. I just laugh when I hear Indian artists say, (stoically) ‘I’m doing this for my people.’ Bullshit! Bullshit. And how many of those people live on the rez? How many are working, teaching third grade at the tribal school?
RC: Do you feel like you have to be on the reservation to make that difference?
SA: If you say you are doing it for your people, then go do it for your people. Go where they need you most.
RC: Do you feel you have a different responsibility than a non-Indian writer or filmmaker?
SA: I have it whether I want it or not. Sometimes I have to deal with it and use it and respond to it and other times I just try to ignore it. That’s another thing about being Indian and an artist, people assume I have some sort of social responsibility to everybody. I don’t. All I owe the world is my art. People can either read it or not watch it, that’s their decision.
RC: Any future projects on the horizon?
SA: A new book of short stories coming out in the spring 2003.
RC: Title yet?
SA: Ten Little Indians.
RC: Thank you so much.
Image courtesy Red Diaz/Duende Publishing