Tuesday, May 28, 2013


My librarian friend, Dave Lull, just sent me a link to this video:   http://www.mhpbooks.com/sherman-alexie-and-laurie-halse-anderson-address-censorship/   Sherman gives good talking head since his first career was as a stand-up comedian.  His skyrocket career as a Native American writer has begun to dive now that he’s older and AIM has been replaced by other issues.  In fact, publishing itself is nearly destroyed.  Cries of racism -- which have always worked both ways -- will no longer sell books.  The only two categories that seem to sell now are bodice rippers and Young Adult books, both of which take on the most extreme kinds of sexual practices and desires.  Sherman went in at the shallow end with adolescent masturbation.  In Seattle where Sherman has lived for his whole adult life, this is hardly shocking, but in small town conservative America or on reservations where missionary influence still lingers, it might sell a couple of books.

Though he’s married and has children, Sherman has been suspected of gay tendencies, partly because of his lisp and soft voice, partly because of his short story, “The Toughest Indian in the World,” which I take to be about the archetypal romantic image of Indians in literature which refuses to die and gets into bed with journalists, no matter how raw and realistic the books about and by Native Americans might be.  (I think it’s a terrific story and not necessarily gay at all.)  But times have changed since Sherman began to write.  We’re far, far beyond masturbation, even as a subject for YA novels which now include such real-life problems as transsexual persons, suicide, living in the midst of Middle Eastern War, drug addiction, HIV-AIDS and just about anything else you can imagine.  Racism is dominated by black issues with an entering edge about Asian people forced into templates of success.  In short, Sherman is old-fashioned.  And the Indians are all vampires.

In fact, the whole issue of Banned Books is sort of moot in a time when legitimately published books are bootlegged on the Internet almost before they get to the book stores.  If trends continue there won’t be any bookstores to picket.  Freedom to read is an important issue and the court cases based on repression were vital to democracy -- as well as being terrific promotional devices.  But now anything that can be put into print can be accessed on the Internet, and possibly far more graphically with more dramatic consequences and retaliation.  Banning a book was part of the old system of “owning” copyright and determining who could buy a book in the first place.

There are two sources of censorship that are never mentioned in all the freedom of speech stories.  One is the focus on the writers of the books, claiming they must necessarily be Native American if they are going to write about Native American issues.  This is called “platforming” and Sherman depends upon it.  It’s as close to copyright as we have now.  In fact, he puts a lot of energy into pushing other authors off that platform on grounds that they aren’t NA enough.  The idea is that white people come along and make a lot of money writing about NA’s -- which is true.  They tend to be either historic anthropologists or modern cruisers who look for what is exotic, surprising, romantic, and so on.  Johnny Depp with a stuffed crow on his head -- but, well, that’s a movie anyway.

The REAL censorship is economic:  publishers will not publish books that don’t sell.  They don’t believe that NA books sell, or at least they don’t know how.  (HOW!)  As Vine Deloria Sr. noted, they have never tried to sell books on reservations.  The dynamics of selling are NOT dependent on the reality of people who buy books, but rather on who the publisher thinks will buy books:  shallow, cynical, shady books for people who want the inside story, the low-down, the theoretically inaccessible now revealed.  Snake oil.  And those readers have slipped off to the ebook devices now.  More secretive, more hip.

There’s a second censorship that’s stronger than anything publishers can do:  it is a self-censorship rooted in readers instead of writers.  Not based on what is trendy or famous or expensively promoted, but rather a matter of the truth of the heart.  The question for Native Americans is not why there aren’t more writers, but why there aren’t more readers?  Why don’t they buy books?  The rez library is a quiet place, there are no bookstores and the stores that do stock books sell to tourists:  19th century anthropology and picture books for kids.  In university towns of the West you might find some readers of NA novels and poetry, but most likely they are NA professors -- teaching white kids.  Platforming.

In 2006 Sherman vehemently attacked Tim Barrus, not only claiming he was not entitled to write about Indians because he was not Indian, but also claiming that Tim’s story of the terribly disabled boy he adopted was ripped off from Sherman’s own son who inherited Sherman’s hydrocephalic struggle, a story Sherman protected though he destroyed any such protection for Tim and his family.  (They WERE hurt.)  His standards are double.  He was passed over for a prize which went to Tim.  Called “Beyond Margins,” the prize was NOT specifically for Native Americans, though I think he believed it was.

Tim went to Paris where he continued his lifelong work -- far more vital than writing books -- with boys in trouble, boys no one else wants or will help because they are outside the mainstream, stigmatized, traumatized, hard to manage.  Since 2007 I’ve been a friend of this career, both Tim and boys.  Working with them always makes me think of wildlife rescue: they come off the streets malnourished, badly hurt, infected, suicidal, gay or possibly transsexual, doing sexwork in order to eat, doing drugs in order to tolerate the sexwork and hunger.  At Tim’s safe house through their adolescence they get clean clothes, a safe place to sleep, enough food, and access to electronic gizmos which they seem to know how to use almost instinctively.  They don’t necessarily learn to read but they speak three and four languages, including computer programming.  Six years is long enough to have seen them reach adulthood.  By then, confident, handsome, intelligent, they are ready for the world.  That’s the hardest part for me: the release.  I get attached to individuals, same as I did when I taught high school on the Blackfeet reservation.

I’m even kind of attached to Sherman, because I do read him, though not as much as I used to.  Sherman is a good writer, but not like Tim, whose fancy-dancing poetry is far beyond what Sherman does for YA readers.  There’s a big difference between writing to make money and writing that is emergent from a lifeway intimately connected to the redemption of others.  That last is what NA writing used to be -- still is for some writers like, say, Adrian Louis or Wendy Rose or Rolland Nadjiwan.

If Sherman tires of explaining masturbation, I would recommend he take on the issue of teaching reading on reservations.  Why is it that those tribal kids are not readers?  But then, in Seattle, where he is, the schools are different.  Maybe he plans to rip up Judy Blume for writing “Tiger Eyes.”  Or will he take on the “Twilight” series?

If you’re braver than Sherman and not hung up on mainstream values, you could go to real-stories-gallery.com to see the SmashStreet boys’ work.  If you have an electronic tablet, you won’t have to explain the cover of a book.  So adults won't be shocked.  You can't shock a rez kid.

1 comment:

Angie said...

Thanks for the great exploration of these literary issues!