Sherman Alexie, How Dare You Tell the Truth?

A young native writer’s ambush interview with Sherman Alexie throws her into a whirlpool of unanswerable questions about tribal loyalty, silence, and healing.

Author Sherman Alexie at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

Photo by Kevin Curlett

I used to hate Sherman Alexie’s writing—and I was obsessed with it. I chimed in with his critics, other Indians who called him a sell-out, a whiner, or even an “apple”—slang for Indians who don’t fit in. Red on the outside, white within. He’s one of the most controversial, arrogant, annoyingly honest, and successful Indian writers in history. So when I heard Alexie was coming to my reservation last October to promote his newest book, I knew I had to get an interview.

My aunt gave me a copy of First Indian on the Moon, a book of Alexie’s poetry and short stories, when I was an eighth-grader struggling to prove my identity on the Suquamish Reservation. Suquamish lies near Seattle, but across the water, isolated and rural.

That was the year I danced in the city at the Salmon Homecoming powwow. I wore my Miss Chief Seattle Days crown, the cedar bark regalia I had made myself, and my bare feet—because true coastal Natives should never wear moccasins. When a photojournalist for The Seattle Times wanted a picture of the dancers, I huddled in with the other powwow princesses and hoped we’d make the front page. But the photographer took one long look at my red hair, pale skin, and freckles, and ordered me to step clear of his shot. “Not you,” he barked, “you’re white.”

Too often I gained acceptance through silence. I believed that “real Natives” are stoic types who suck it up and don’t say what’s on their mind.

It was not the first time my complexion made me feel isolated from my community. I’ll never look like the idealized Indian, so I learned other ways to prove myself. Sometimes I showed off my knowledge of Lushootseed, my tribe’s traditional language, or defended myself with a retort: “What are Indians supposed to look like?”

But too often I gained acceptance through silence. I believed that “real Natives” are stoic types who suck it up and don’t say what’s on their minds. I learned to say nothing as I watched my cousins call to their alcoholic parents from the sidewalks outside the bars, begging for a ride home, money for fireworks, or at least something to eat. I accepted sexual abuse and violence, then later told myself I deserved it—that the pain would make me more Indian. I started a drinking habit and even convinced myself it was okay to drink in front of small children. I learned to fake comfort while getting high with my cousins as their babies cried for attention in the next room. I wanted to fit in so badly that I didn’t speak out against what I knew was wrong. I couldn’t risk angering the people whose acceptance I most wanted.

But while I was silent, Sherman Alexie wrote the truth. In his books, I found all the ugly and beautiful stories of reservation life laid out right there on the page, for millions to read. He wrote about our poverty, addiction, and repeated cycles of violence and despair. I both envied and resented the freedom and openness of his words.

When I got to college, I told my creative writing professors and friends I despised Alexie. He’s not proud of his people; he’s not traditional; he’s marketing stereotypes, I’d say. And if anyone compared my writing to his, I’d roll my eyes and insist they only did so because, on paper, Alexie and I both looked Indian.

For years I protested and ranted about Alexie’s work. And then one moment I arrived at an unavoidable conclusion: I had no point. Unfortunately, that moment came less than half an hour before I planned to ambush Alexie for the interview. The realization was hard to swallow, but I had to swallow it fast.

Lunging from the couch, I ran for my notebook to review the questions I’d written. To my embarrassment and horror, I discovered that none of them would work anymore. I ripped them out, painful page by painful page. I had no backup plan and decided just to go ahead and wing it—wing an interview with the writer who has been called “the voice of Indian people.” To say I was nervous was an understatement. Scared didn’t do it much justice either, because Alexie was expected to arrive down at the tribal center in ten minutes, and I still hadn’t even been able to confirm an interview.

Luckily, when I got there, everything was off to a late start, and the tribal maintenance department had reliably forgotten to unlock the small conference room where select tribal members and leaders were going to have dinner with Alexie. I found him standing right there in the center of the hallway, the same hallway I’d so often paced when I was a nerdy and unpopular redheaded kid, trying to figure out how to fit in. The woman accompanying Alexie, some local librarian, looked completely annoyed with the locked door and even more irritated when I walked straight up to the writer himself and asked if I could have an interview. “Who are you?” she demanded, before Alexie could even respond.

“I’m Heather Purser. And who are you?” I said, hiding my nervousness beneath a false air of self-importance.

That got her. She relaxed and refocused her attention on the locked door. Alexie kindly agreed to the interview, and after a few seconds, the woman asked me to wait with him while she looked for someone who knew what was going on. I just shrugged as she took off down the hall and left me standing there with “The Sherman Alexie.” It was perfect. It was awful.

Heather Purser prepares to embark on an Intertribal Canoe Journey. Photo by Sarah van Gelder.

I fumbled around with my notebook for a few seconds too long and pretended to read through my imaginary notes. Finally, I mumbled something about being a creative writing major, something about being “like, totally nervous,” and oh, yeah, something about never having actually liked Alexie’s writing because of my own jealousy. This last remark immediately sucked the tension from the air, and he cracked up in laughter that knocked some of the nervousness out of my trembling body.

I summoned enough composure to ask him the one question I’ve always wanted to know: “How are you able to understand yourself enough to write about where you’re from?” I had trouble writing about my own reservation, I explained, because I was afraid of getting something wrong and hurting the people I love.

“I don’t care,” he said nonchalantly. “I don’t care what people on the rez think.”

“But what about the elders, your aunts, your uncles—?”

He cut me off. “I don’t care. I mean, you can’t, and if you do, you can’t write about it. You have to write about something else.”

I thought about my family and all the people on the rez that I cared about. How could I hurt them with my version of the truth? None of them chose to carry the weight of the problems they inherited from their parents and their grandparents—or to pass addictions, secrecy, and anger on to their children.

We never intended to hurt one another.

“I feel like I have to understand exactly what I’m saying before I can begin,” I said.

“Oh God, no,” he almost gasped, “That’s not what writing’s for. Writing is asking questions, not having answers. You write to try to understand it. That’s the whole process.”

After an awkward pause, Alexie turned his attention to the talk he was about to give. Those two simple and perplexing answers were all I could get from him, but I had just caught a glimpse of the freedom that allows him to bring his thoughts into the world.

No matter what faults my community has, or what suffering it bears, the reservation has always taken me in.

On the reservation, it’s so easy to fall into silence. During the decades when the U.S. government banned our potlatches and spiritual traditions, took away our livelihoods, and sent my grandparents’ generation to boarding schools where they were beaten and harassed for speaking their native language, native people learned to be silent just to survive. Those decades have stayed with us. We have hidden ourselves and our pain beneath addiction, abuse, and poverty. And we are still fighting to reclaim our identities.

Now silence tempts us with its promise not to hurt us, but it’s a promise always broken. We tell ourselves to keep our heads down and our mouths shut because it’s easier to leave our problems buried. Those who speak up ask for trouble; they stir up emotions that no one wants or knows how to deal with. When someone like Sherman Alexie comes along and exposes our pain, people get angry.

I’ve never wanted to betray my community, because the reservation is the one place I’ve always been able to return to. No matter what faults my community has, or what suffering it bears, when I am hurt, brokenhearted, or hopeless, the reservation has always taken me in. But I realize now that it’s not the secrecy that has held us together.

Months after my interview with Sherman Alexie, I was sitting on a cousin’s couch, trying not to feel like a therapist or a superior because of my recent decision to stay sober. I didn’t focus on the fact that my cousin was drunk again or that the house was falling apart around us. I listened to the words she only lets out when we’re alone. It’s always been that way ever since we were just little kids whispering our secrets back and forth in the dark. The only difference is that now she has to be almost too drunk to know what she’s saying in order to tell me her fears and dreams.

That night she told me about her pain, more pain than I could even imagine. She told me what happened when she was too small to realize her body was hers and that her innocence deserved protection. She explained how bad it hurt to be alive and how angry she was that she couldn’t escape her memories. I knew she might not remember this in the morning and that I wouldn’t say anything to remind her. She would only have gotten angry. I couldn’t force her to feel the peace or the dignity she deserved. But we had that one night where her intoxication created room for honesty without the fear of judgment.

So I wrapped my arms tightly around her sobbing body and told her all the things she needed to hear, “It’s not your fault. It was never your fault. You deserved better. I love you.” The harder she cried, the closer I held her. Silently, I prayed that I would learn to speak the truth.

I don’t want to hold on to the trauma I experienced growing up, and I can’t allow myself to continue to hide behind fear and addiction. If I can use my voice to help myself and others find comfort and healing, why shouldn’t I let the truth out? Why should I care what anyone has to say about it? I don’t care. I can’t be silent anymore.

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