I’m not a movie buff, so I’ve watched the #MeToo proceedings in Hollywood, not with disinterest, but with a level of disconnect. However, it’s a little different for me when it’s Sherman Alexie, who has not only been accused but also admitted that he’s done some of what has been said about him in what one of my professors termed a “lame apology.” NPR dropped an in-depth story on the situation, but I’d seen several little snippets of this here and there on Twitter before I read the NPR story. I spent a semester taking a course that was in part about Sherman Alexie, I read his Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in my adolescent lit class just a few weeks ago, and I started this blog for a project using a Sherman Alexie text. Needless to say, I’m in deep. That being said:
What do we do with Sherman Alexie’s work?
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer considering the award-winning nature of Alexie’s writing and the prominence of his work both inside and outside of Native American communities. I think there are three ways to approach this: personally, educationally, and culturally. I arrived at these conclusions on my own, in my adolescent lit class, and at a discussion event held by the Kansas State University English Department. Figuring this out is messy, and it probably will never stop being messy, but we owe it to ourselves and to other audiences of Alexie’s work to be having these conversations.
On a Personal Level
I can’t tell you that you have to stop liking Alexie’s work, because I’m not going to stop liking Alexie’s work. Flight is still one of the best things I’ve gotten to read and research, and Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is humorous, poignant, and important on so many levels. But on another level, you have to be able to look at the art and the artist separately, even while recognizing that they’re inherently bound together.
I think part of the answer is recognizing Alexie’s highly problematic nature, and keeping that in mind when reading any of his texts. I’m already looking back on Alexie’s female characters and trying to discern if this effects the way I read them. You, as a reader, have to be conscious of the negative impact of Alexie’s actions
Another aspect of this is that we really should stop supporting Alexie. If you have the opportunity to buy any of his books, don’t. Buying books = royalties. I can’t say don’t read his texts, but if you feel the need to do so check them out from your local library or buy them at a local used bookstore. Don’t give Alexie any more positive attention than necessary.
For myself: I’m probably going to take Alexie’s memoir about his mother off my reading list. I’m not going to get rid of the Alexie books I own, or delete my post on Vonnegut and Alexie, because at the end of the day I’m proud of the work I did on it and I’m a broke college student who feels the need to keep every book I purchase. I’m going to link to this post from that one, and provide an author’s note at the top with this added bit of context. In the meantime, I’m going to be working on finding an alternative book to pair with Slaughterhouse Five to try and provide another opportunity to still engage with that text in a similar way.
On an Educational Level
It’s on this level that I think the choices we make become more crucial, because not only are we making statements about ways to handle the works of those who abuse their power, but also any choices that get made are likely going to have an effect on the youth that you may be teaching these texts to (Insert here my regular heavy disclaimer about me being an undergrad student with no formal background/training in education).
I originally thought that the answer was to stop teaching Alexie, because there are other texts that can be used in place of his works. However, after having conversation with others, I realized we owe it to ourselves and to teens to have a larger conversation about these works and to give students the credit of being able to have tough conversations about current issues. Many people pointed out, reading Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be the only exposure to a text by a Native American author that some students have. So, read this text, but also talk about the situation surrounding Alexie. Even if students aren’t aware of this situation directly, chances are they’ll be able to contribute something based off of a wider social context. I don’t think there is a good way to teach any of Alexie’s texts without this context.
Additionally, one student studying secondary-education who it currently student teaching pointed out, if teachers wanted to replace Sherman Alexie’s work in their classrooms that may be a difficult process. They may not have access to the funds to purchase new books for their students to read. Secondarily, it may be difficult to get an alternative text past whatever sort of curricular review board is in place in a school—so it may be necessary to keep teaching Alexie.
If you do want to stop teaching Alexie that is a totally valid choice. Regardless of what purpose you’re using Alexie’s text for, there has to be an alternative text that can accomplish a similar purpose in a course. My adolescent literature professor provided a list in my class when we had this exact conversation. It’s a list of various texts that could fit the purposes that Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian filled in our class this semester. That’s a place to start, so I’ve reproduced her list below.
Seven Native Authors
- Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki): Hidden Roots, Code Talker, Wolf Mark, Skeleton Man, and more…
- Louise Erdrich (Ojibwa): The Round House, The Birchbark HouseSaga, and more…
- Eric Gansworth (Onondaga): If I Ever Get Out of Here
- Scott Momaday (Kiowa): House Made of Dawn
- Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee): Rain is Not My Indian Name
- Tim Tingle (Choctaw): House of Purple Cedar
- Erica Wurth (Apache, Chickasaw, Cherokee): Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend
Five Graphic Novels
- Mariko and Jillian Tamaki: This One Summer
- Hope Larson: A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel
- John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell: March, Book One (first in a trilogy)
- Richard Van Camp: (Dogrib): Three Feathers
- Gene Luen Yang: American Born Chinese
Five YA Novels that Fit the Bill
- Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
- Nancy Garden: Annie on My Mind
- Nikki Grimes: Bronx Masquerade
- Pam Ryan Munoz: Ezperanza Rising
- Andrea Warren: Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps
On a Cultural Level
Whether you’re interacting with this text in a personal or educational setting, one of the biggest takeaways I had from discussing Alexie with others recently was that we have to make sure that we’re aware of the larger cultural issues at play here. For example, Native American communities have a culture of toxic masculinity that stems from colonization. It seems that Alexie is being held to higher standards than white male authors who have been accused of sexual assault and harassment. We need to consider our response, since Alexie is a Native American author this affects Native communities. Our response should not automatically be their response because at the end of the day the white response is still the response of the colonizer. An American Ethnic Studies professor proposed that Alexie could come before a council of tribal women who can decide what solution is justice.
Another cultural issue at play, is that which surrounds sexual assault and sexual harassment and how it has become normalized and accepted in American society. However, when we consider that Alexie’s victims were Native American women—this become a conversation about the intersection of Native American issue and women’s issues. Native American women experience sexual assault and harassment at a rate far higher than that of other women.
I am by no means 100% knowledgeable about all of the cultural issues at play here are, but this can serve as an opportunity to springboard further research and conversations.
Below I’ve included some posts and information that I’ve read about the situation regarding Alexie if you want to gather other opinions and inform yourself about the situation. If I come across more I’ll be updating this post with them. If you know of any that you think should be shared, please—send them my direction and I’ll make sure that they appear here.
- Tracy Rector discusses why we need to read more books by Native Women
- Deborah Miranda discusses Alexie in context with her own father who was a sexual abuser.
- Debbie Reese, of the blog American Indian Children’s in Literature, has written an open letter about Alexie on her blog. I cannot recommend this post enough because Reese includes a timeline of posts by others concerning Alexie.
- NPR talks about the aftereffects of the allegations towards Alexie here, and here