Friday, June 30, 2017

"YOU DON'T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME" -- A Review That Became an Open Letter

Sherman Alexie murdered my best friend.  Luckily, my friend was a survivor and revived in Paris, a delighted lucky reincarnation.  I didn’t meet him there and I’m not supposed to tell you that I even know him, but he doesn’t speak to me anymore so what do I have to lose.  I still love him dearly.  He must have his reasons.

Sherman doesn’t speak to me either, but we met once in the alley behind a theatre where he had spoken in Portland.  It was the Seventies and I was the theatre reviewer for the “Portland Scribe.”  He won’t remember — his people hustled him away to a party.  He was still high from performing.

This is not a conventional review but I have to say that after this book people should finally have gotten it straight in their heads that not all Indians hunt buffalo from horseback.  And I guess I could say that Sherman, middle-class Seattle Indian, is starting to sound like Garrison Keillor.

As I read these revelations, I’m not surprised.  I know hundreds of indigenous boys with the same life-stories.  They just never wrote about it.  Some of them died too soon anyway.  And mothers like his abound everywhere, not just on the rez.  I’ve met dozens in congregations — they know who they are and why.  They’re part of the reason I vowed never to be a mother.  

Men like Sherman’s father have been my students, my colleagues, my principals, my superintendents and my fellow foundry hands.  Also one or two best friends.  Alcoholic, helped along by women, barely coping because people make hopeful allowances for them.  Very often with white wives even as they claimed to be authentically old-timey.  (The old NW pattern was the reverse:  white man — “The White Headed Eagle” Dr. John McLoughlin — and his indigenous wife.  Her previous name was McKay and she was shaped like Queen Victoria.  Not Pocahontas.)

Other Native Americans are still writing, but no one pays attention much.  The moment of the NA Renaissance has passed.  Sales weren’t that good.  The white educated women have moved on.  One Potawatomi grandfather claims that the People write for each other now.  This is true in Canada.

So what makes Sherman special?  I guess that it’s his “body of work.”  He keeps coming, no matter the stereotypes and the restrictions, hopping from one genre to another.  His family needs the money and he needs the praise, which he would kill to claim.  Sam Vaktin calls it “narcissistic supply,” an intoxicating substance that works best if consumed judiciously.  It kills some anyway, but everyone needs a little of it.

The point is he’s lucky to have escaped alive to report the news but he’s not so unique.  He just hit the situation lucky — the publishers wanted a token Indian and he was non-threatening enough to get on the bus.  He’s still there but sitting alone towards the back.  Assimilation creeps up on a person and then dumps them out the other side.

If every sentence in this book that ended in a question mark were removed, the book would have been half as long.  But life in our times is all about questions anyway.

Somehow this un-review is turning into a conversation with the author.  Pretty dangerous, actually, don’t you think?

Sherman, you need to remember that salmon do not fuck.  They rendezvous and they make beds in the gravel, but they do not touch when they spawn.  It’s all cold-water intercourse, floating in the particulate joining of egg and milt.  Of course, that’s not as funny as your version, and maybe your little story of standing in front of an audience and calling your mom on your cell phone to thank her for fucking you into existence is not so much funny as Freudian. 

I love salmon.  My father traveled for work in Eastern Oregon and when he came home on Friday night, he always bought a salmon from Celilo Falls on his way back through the Columbia Gorge so we could have it for our ceremonial Sunday dinner.  Even after salmon became scarce and expensive, my skinflint mother would spend what it took to have a wild salmon for major holidays.  They’re Scots as well as Indian, you know.  In Scotland the salmon belonged to the King and you could be hanged for poaching them.  (Not in the culinary sense.)  My love of salmon is only an entitlement to sadness.  You don’t love salmon — as you often point out, you ARE salmon.

The Grand Coulee Dam was before my time, but my father saw it as a monument to patriotism which was his religion.  We drove over it.  Bonneville Dam was built in my time.  We went on a tour underneath it where the turbines hummed, and we visited the lady who sat in front of a big window that looked underwater at the fish ladder entrance, holding a little clicker she used to count the salmon as they went through.  It is vivid in my mind, finned forces of life determined to push through, and the patient counter, like a fish novelist, a non-participant who watched, a guardian of the gate with the power of statistics in her hand.

I enjoyed the incident about the scornful Navajo woman who found you insufficiently Indian.  Karma seeks you out, doesn’t it?  Fishtrap, the writer’s workshop in Joseph, Oregon, once organized a summer session entirely around a panel of well-known and wide-waisted female NA writers.  I was careful not to sign up.  In fact, the whole thing blew up halfway through.  There should be a pow-wow song called Woman’s Rage Dance.

If I ever get trapped in a elevator, I hope it’s with your wife.  I didn’t know she had a theology degree, which makes me curious.  If it’s comparative theology, I find it’s excellent preparation for understanding both writers and tribes.  Have you thought of collaborating?

In the end the relationship between readers and writers is more like a salmon spawn than a bear fuck, and not nearly so intense as the relationship between a mother bear and her cubs, even when she’s unconscious in hibernation and involuntarily giving birth.  Readers forget a book is merely a rendezvous.  They demand to have the author pledged to their embrace, book after book.  In return they offer little tokens — income, of course, but also awards and fan letters, applause for onstage appearances, laughter at jokes whether or not they really understand them.

Your life, as opposed to your writing, is much admired in Heart Butte on the Blackfeet rez where mothers feel their sons must leave as soon as they can in order to survive, to avoid the drugs and car crashes.  Girls stay; girls have babies.  They want to raise their babies there until they are old enough to follow the river to the sea.  But that’s only one pattern.  Now a lot of people return in retirement.  Some have stayed to grow where they are and done well at it, for the benefit of all.  

It’s both better and worse for rez Indians now.  They don’t seem to read much, but they can text faster than a grandma can bead.  They resist drinking and know how to use rehab, but drugs are deadlier than booze.  They have a community college and are serious about it.  But they still joke a lot.  There’s less need to kill the competition.


artemesia said...

Mary, you must be thinking of someone else re: alley encounter with Sherman Alexie. He was born in 1966. Even in 1979, he would only have been 13 years old.

artemesia said...

And the Portland Scribe was only published from 1972 to 1975. But a story on the Scribe mentions that Wounded Knee was big news in those days. So there were probably several NA speakers coming through town.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Let’s see if I can sort out this time-line:

I left Browning to return to Portland in 1973, and worked at Multnomah County Animal Control from 1973 to 1978 when I left for seminary in Chicago. My first theatre review in the Portland Scribe was in June 15-21, 1974. It was an evening of sketches called “Cheep Theatricks”. The last review was April 19-25, 1975 and was about “Gingerbread Lady” at PSU.

I haunted Powell’s when the NA Renaissance writers were just hitting the downside of the curve so that their publishers were sending them out to speak. Powell’s was remaindering the books for $5 each and I was buying three copies of each, one for me and two to send back to the rez, so it must have been after I taught in Heart Butte ’89-91.

Jim Welch was the son of one of Bob’s best friends in grade school here in Browning, so I already knew him. His cousin, Sid Larson, organized a conference of NA writers in Eugene and I met a lot of NA writers there: Harjo, Momaday, and their generation, mostly baby boomers. Louise Erdrich spoke at Powells just after Dorris committed suicide. There were many local Indians attending, respectful and silent. She had great dignity. Louis Owens also died about that time, but I had never heard him speak. I knew well a friend of his.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn and I had a nice visit at the Powell’s on Hawthorne while we waited for an audience to gather. Debra Magpie Earling I heard speak later back here in Montana. Greg Sarris spoke at the 23rd Street bookstore — he’s gay and also the chief of his tribe. Vine Deloria Jr. spoke at the Portland City Club luncheon with a “observing” audience of local Indians, including some street people. You’re right that Sherman was born in 1966 so he was one of the youngest, though now he’s the grandfather survivor.

Adrian Jawort is a correspondent; sometimes Adrian Lewis is and a few others. Sterling Sacred White Mountain I’ve never talked to, but I taught both his parents. Woody Kipp is here but I don’t know him well. Beverly Hungry Wolf came through not long ago. Whether you count Adolf or not is open to discussion. I’m not counting all the anthros. And I’m forgetting some of the Native Americans.

I’m glad someone cares about time-lines as much as I do, and I wish I weren’t getting so spacey about names.

Prairie Mary

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Artemisia says I'm still not clear. My revised memory is meeting Sherman backstage about 1992. He didn't shake my hand only because he didn't want to get goop on it.