There's a line from an old Kris Kristofferson song that goes, "He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction," and while it may seem wrong to compare a contemporary Native American literary artist to a character from a cowboy song titled "The Pilgrim," the whole truth is that Sherman Alexie is a walking embodiment of that line.
Alexie is a Native American who has thrived by mastering the language of his peoples' oppressors. His work in poetry, novels, short stories and film has garnered dozens of national awards and earned a large and loyal following.
He's a staunch proponent of physical media (books, magazines, newspapers) who just recentlyand reluctantlymade all of his literary works available in digital form. He has taken up a vigorous crusade against the internet economy in general, and global giant Amazon in particular.
In short, he's the perfect guy to kick off the 14th annual Montana Festival of the Book. The Independent caught up with Alexie in advance of his reading at the Wilma.
You're an outspoken proponent of live readings and local bookstores.
Sherman Alexie: With live readings, it's the immediate emotional reaction. It is multimedia, in a way that multimedia isn't. I can smell a room full of people, I can hear them. I can look in their eyes. It involves every one of my senses, and every one of theirs.
You also advocate physical books over e-readers.
SA: With digital readers, I get that the act of reading is the same. I'm not a Luddite. I'm an old-fashioned liberal. I just don't understand why my fellow liberals are not up in arms about Amazon. Amazon represents everythingpolitically, socially, culturally, economicallythat we liberals are supposed to hate. The monopoly, undue capitalistic influence on politics, their libertarian politics, their separation from the community, the way they treat their workers, their crushing of local, small businesses. It's amazing to me that so many liberals have sold their politics for free shipping.
The nature of digital content and the challenge of monetizing it are huge issues for artists of all kinds.
SA: Even that word, monetize. That's what it is, that's our reality. The thing is, nobody wants to pay for anything. That's the coming backlash, people not wanting to pay for anything, so nobody making it is getting paid. But that comes back on you. If you're not gonna pay for your shit, and not pay the people making the shit, then the people making the shit aren't going to pay you for the shit you make.
"Information wants to be free"that's actually a really socialist concept that could crush capitalism, but it's only going to crush capitalism for those of us who aren't in control of the technology. Mark Zuckerberg is John D. Rockefeller. Our robber barons just wear hoodies now.
Does your championing of "old-fashioned" media ever leave you feeling like Quixote?
SA: [laughs] I'm an Indian, man. It's my job to tilt at windmills.
You're an active Twitter user. Seems odd for a champion of old media.
SA: I like the creative aspect of it. They're constructed, they're little pieces of art. I'm not in a dialogue with anybody. I think that's when it would become a problem. And when you start getting into conversations then they're just getting the ordinary me. There's this intense drive now to know the artist, but as a person I'm not really more interesting than the next guy.
You've made a couple of appearances on the "Colbert Report," during which you managed the rare feats of making him laugh out of character and rendering him temporarily speechless.
SA: I'm going to speak immodestly here, but that was a massive moment in American history. A rez-raised Native American went toe-to-toe with one of the absolute masters of the English language! And it's funny that it didn't get seen that way. I mean people love it, I love it. But its historical meaning was completely lost. It was the equivalent of Crazy Horse debating Lincoln or something.
You're a producer of Winter in the Blood, Alex and Andrew Smith's adaption of Jim Welch's novel. Did you have any reservations about white filmmakers making such an intensely Native American story?
SA: Not at all. There were certainly no other filmmakers who had been babysat by the author. Their personal relationship with Jim trumped all other relationships that were possible. Also, they're great filmmakers and great writers. I knew they weren't Indian-obsessed hacks. And I knew they wouldn't rely on any Indian bullshit.
They had the courage to not romanticize the story.
SA: They filmed the story. They filmed Jim's vision. A different white filmmaker might have shied away from certain things.
It was real. The movie is going to catch grief from some academic Indians, and it's going to catch grief from Indians who think Indian art is supposed to be about social work, or it's supposed to be PR, and not the portrayal of complex human beings who are Indians.
Sounds like some of the same people that give you grief.
SA: Yes. And then the Smiths are going to catch it more because they're white. Or actually, maybe less [laughs]. Maybe less than I do. And they're going to get a double whammy because I'm a producer and I'm in itcertain people are just going to slap them around completely.
What kind of impact would you like to see from the movie?
SA: The hope that there's some Indian filmmaker who will see this and then make the Indian Taxi Driver. Who's gonna make Indian Five Easy Pieces? To inspire some Indian filmmaker to take bigger chances.
One of the things is we Indian artists are a bunch of intellectual academic fuckers like every other literary artist. We're navel-gazing assholes. We're all professors, and if we're not teaching we're still professor types. I'm hungry for the non-professor filmmakers. I want a Scorcese! Forget that, I want Russ Meyer! I want Lloyd Kaufman! Roger Cormanwhere's the Indian Roger Corman?
How about you?
SA: You know...there are things brewing. I'll just say the phrase "Red Noir" is in my head.
Sherman Alexie reads from two decades of his works at the Wilma Theatre as part of the Montana Festival of the Book Thu., Oct. 10, at 8 PM. Free.