On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Thread Book Hour: Sherman Alexie on the aftermath of the 'Native American Apocalypse'

Share story

Author Sherman Alexie
Author Sherman Alexie
by Chase Jarvis

The "Talking Volumes" season opened Sept. 14 with Sherman Alexie, author of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," which won a National Book Award in 2007.

Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, is a poet, novelist and short-story writer. His new book, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," is a memoir of his mother, Lillian, and their difficult but enduring relationship.

"I've come to understand that I share most of her bad qualities, and very few of her good ones," Alexie said during a talk with MPR's Kerri Miller, adding that he thinks he's managed those bad qualities better than his mother did.

So in his writing he doesn't say that he misses his mother or even wants to miss his mother — when he does write about her there's a notion that he is actually talking about himself. Alexie owes a lot of his success to being a good person, "but a lot of it has to do with being an arrogant cannibal too," he said. "I am my mother's son."

His angry reactions to her anger toward him throughout their relationship made it difficult for Alexie to see the good in her and in himself.

Alexie's generation lived in the aftermath of the "Native American Apocalypse," he said.

"They had everything taken from them. Our parents' generation and our grandparents' generation had everything stolen from them," he said. "And we were raised by them."

The strength it took for the generations before to survive at all is astonishing, Alexie said, but it also created a disconnect between life and culture. It became something Alexie and his siblings had to grow up outside of.

Alexie sometimes gets Native readers writing him to complain that he is betraying the culture by writing about stereotypes and accepting that his work will appeal to non-Indians.

"In the hurricane of my life, I'm the idiot who just tied himself to his front porch," he said.

He turns back and faces history, even though he doesn't have any Native colleagues to help him deal with the pitfalls of creation and success. 

"I don't wander off into some bed and breakfast in a really white part of the country to have somebody cook for me while I create my precious little fiction," he said. "It feels like it's false." As he was writing his latest book he tried to be honest, and in doing so uncovered a lot of deep-rooted pain.

"It's that tricky thing where that solitude to create art becomes lonesomeness," Alexie said.

To listen to the entire conversation use the audio player above.