I selected a story by the Native American writer Sherman Alexie (3).
I thought of that story - and actually dug it out of the files since it was not included in the collection I wrote for my thesis - the other day after listening to a recent podcast of Selected Shorts where actor B.D. Wong read Alexie's story "Breaking and Entering."
The reading is fantastic, aided in no small part by the fact that Wong delivers this incredibly jarring story with all the emotion and power of the most practiced stage performance.
What I like about Alexie is the fearlessness with which he approaches the creation of character. The people who inhabit Alexie's stories are complicated and conflicted. Troubled and searching. Angry and hopeful and full of questions.
You know, just like in real life.
The response I wrote to Alexie's story was very much influenced by my own growing up near a reservation. Or, probably more appropriately to what it truly was, a dedicated Native American community. Much like cities have areas that become Chinatown or Little Italy, the concept of this place in our town was not a legal or federal one. It simply was what it was.
There was a school and library and an unwritten rule that you did not cross over into that section of town unless you were riding with someone that lived there or attending a sporting event. If you were non-Native - particularly if you were a teenager - you were not heading home without a ticket for some sort of traffic violation. No seatbelt before seatbelt laws existed. Fractions of miles-an-hour above the speed limit. Parking in a seemingly unmarked "No Parking" zone even when surrounded by a dozen unticketed neighborhood vehicles.
But even these incidents seemed to us less a form of racism and more a consequence of commerce. It was just what was done and how things worked.
I still don't know if I actually achieved that kind of character development with the story that I wrote, but that won't stop me from sharing a few of the opening paragraphs. Just for kicks.
The story was titled "I Love America and America Loves Me" taken from the 1974 performance action by the artist Joseph Beuys. For the work, Beuys spent 3 days in a room with a coyote.
"Walking from my car into the bookstore I decide that there are several things I will not tell people when they ask about the day Cloud Lawrence died.
I will not tell them about the urine. How Cloud’s body emptied itself as he sat in the wooden chair across from my desk. I won’t tell them how I sat and watched the wet patch spread its way down his leg till it formed a puddle on the floor around his shoes.
I won’t tell them that I was only half paying attention to the last words that came from Cloud’s mouth. That I was sitting behind my desk not even looking at him. Instead, I was making random hatch marks on the rental calendar on my desk, filling in the ‘o’ and the upper half of the ‘e’ in ‘November.’ I didn’t want to hear any more of his stories. I’d heard them all before. I just wanted to know when he and the other Indians wanted to use the Bellmer House lawn and then I wanted to get on with my day.
And I won’t tell them how, at the very moment when Cloud Lawrence died, I had been trying to figure out if I was a racist."
1. I LOVED being in school. I would actually love to go back to school to earn a doctoral degree, but I do not have any grand illusions that being able to list those three letters after my name - "MFA" - in any way make me a better writer. The people who pushed me to work harder and think harder about writing are what helped me develop the practices to become a better writer (2).
2. No. I have no idea why I felt the need to make that particular disclaimer for my sarcastic opening line...particularly because the footnote actually proves the opposite of what I said in that sarcastic opening line. Except, you know, Sherman Alexie does seem to make me go on.
3. I know, I know...but I'm going to skip the whole "Native American writer" vs. "writer who is Native America" for now.