The Fancydancing Voice of Sherman Alexie

When I was in the MFA program at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, a poetry professor assigned a book called The Business of Fancydancing (Hanging Loose Press, 1992) by a writer from my home state I’d never heard of: Sherman Alexie. When I turned the book over, the black-and-white on the back showed an enviably-young man in a checkered shirt beside a listing of journals he’d published in. Below was a quote from a front-page review in the New York Times that called the book “wide-ranging, dexterous and consistently capable of raising your neck hair.”

I don’t know that the book raised the hair anywhere on my body, but it did raise my consciousness and my sense of what poetry and short stories and writing of any kind can do and be. A Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian who seemed to love basketball as much as I did, Alexie not only knew how to explode expectations but how to challenge those who felt they had a right to impose them, and how to wrestle the language his people were forced to speak into forms and lines and juxtapositions that made it seem entirely new.

Here, for example, is a poem from that book called “Evolution”:

Buffalo Bill opens a pawn shop on the reservation
right across the border from the liquor store
and he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

and the Indians come running in with jewelry
television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit
it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. Buffalo Bill

takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it
all catalogued and filed in a storage room. The Indians
pawn their hands, saving their thumbs for last, they pawn

their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin
and when the last Indian has pawned everything
but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks

closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old
calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES
charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.

Sherman Alexie was not the first Native American writer to break through the white wall, but over the next 25 years he was certainly one of the most successful. And he did more to shine a light on the real lives of Indians in the Pacific Northwest than anyone else.

One year after Fancydancing, which contains a mix of poems and short stories, Alexie published his first all-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993). I didn’t need to see more than the title to know I’d love it and be challenged by it and feel uncomfortable reading it, all at once.

Sherman Alexie, author photo by the Wellpinit Watchdog, from The Business of Fancydancing.

Since that time, Alexie has published close to 20 books, including Ten Little Indians (a collection of stories set in and around Seattle; Grove Press, 2003), the young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (set in the NE part of Washington he grew up in; Little, Brown, 2007), and his latest, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (Hachette, 2017), one of the most compelling and heartbreaking memoirs I’ve ever read. He’s also written and co-produced films from his work, including the hugely popular Smoke Signals (1998).

Until he stopped doing tours a few years ago, his readings were must-see events, with Alexie not only giving distinctive voices to individual characters but acting out his stories to both hilarious and poignant effect.

Unfortunately, not long after his memoir came out, several women stepped forth to say he had sexually harassed them. Since that time, he has remained quiet and a number of institutions have renamed or recalled awards associated with him or ended promotion of his books.

The question now is how we recognize or appreciate or contextualize one of the most important Native American voices in Pacific Northwest history. If we read his books, are we condoning his behavior? If we don’t read his books, are we denying ourselves and those who come after us an important perspective on our region, culture, and collective history? Is there a statute of limitations?

I don’t have any answers. All I can say is that back near the end of the 20th century a voice spoke to me in a language and form I’d never heard or seen before, and I will always be grateful for how it opened me up. How it challenged me. And how it changed me for the better.

The Powell’s List of 40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest

Image from the Powell’s Books website

One of my goals for this site is to introduce readers to writing set in the Northwest that hasn’t reached a large audience, especially works by writers other than white men. To that end, I’m working on future reviews of exciting new literature as well as posts by myself and others about past writings that should be better known. But I don’t want to ignore iconic Northwest books.

So, to get a lot of great books onto the site quickly, here’s a link to a post the folks at Powell’s Books put together back in 2014 titled, “40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest.” The list is a bit male-, white-, and Oregon-centric, but, to be fair, it was produced eight years ago and the intention seems to have been to alert people to some of the biggies. Maybe the Powell’s staff will produce a follow-up with more-current works soon!

Their 40 selections are:

FICTION

Mink River
by Brian Doyle

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Night Dogs
by Kent Anderson

Heartsick
by Chelsea Cain

Trout Fishing in America
by Richard Brautigan

East of the Mountains
by David Guterson

Hard Rain Falling
by Don Carpenter

My Abandonment
by Peter Rock

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie

Last Go Round: A Real Western
by Ken Kesey

Black Hole
by Charles Burns

Sometimes a Great Notion
by Ken Kesey

Glaciers
by Alexis M. Smith

The River Why
by David James Duncan

Boneshaker
by Cherie Priest

Permeable Borders
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn

No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July

Ricochet River
by Robin Cody

The Motel Life
by Willy Vlautin

Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?
by G. M. Ford

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Ken Kesey

Dies the Fire
by S. M. Stirling

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie

Witchling
by Yasmine Galenorn

Ten
by Gretchen McNeil

Trask
by Don Berry

NONFICTION

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir
by Tobias Wolff

Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story
by Brent Walth

Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon
by Chuck Palahniuk

Hidden History of Portland, Oregon
by J. D. Chandler

Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place
by Robert Michael Pyle

Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest
by Stewart Holbrook

All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families
by Rene Denfeld

Of Walking in Rain
by Matt Love

Visions of NW Writing: Nature, Stereotypes, and the White Default

Fishing, ca. 1920, Asahel Curtis, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed: 11-4-21

If you Google “writing the Northwest,” one link that pops up is a 2004 tongue-in-cheek piece from The Stranger called “How to Write a Great Northwest Novel.” Among the elements author Ryan Boudinot suggests be included are several that are nature-centric: salmon, weather, and trees. While the others—like strong-willed women, technology and industry, and boats or cancer—don’t relate exclusively to white people, it’s hard not to think the type of novel Boudinot is poking fun at would have a white protagonist and be written by a white author.

 Another link you’ll find is for a film called “Writing Oregon,” a lush tribute to the natural beauty of that state, with gorgeous video of gently flowing streams, snow-capped mountains, and austere sageland alternating with writers talking about the importance of being in nature and the dire need to preserve it. Although the film includes poems by Native American authors, all but one of the writers who appear on screen are white.

A third link takes you to the home page for the Oregon State University MFA in Creative Writing program’s ongoing Literary Northwest Series, in which 23 of the 27 writers who have read to date have been white. (I don’t know how many of these writers write about nature or even about the NW, but it’s a good bet many of them do.)

I list these items not to criticize the people who put them together or those who appeared in the Oregon film or have read in the OSU series, but merely to point out how much of what people (inside and outside the NW) have imagined to be “Northwest writing” has been related to nature and written by white people.

(In more recent years, Boudinot has founded an organization called Seattle City of Literature which runs a program called Racial Equality and the Literary Arts and has a board with a majority of people of color, while OSU’s MFA program has brought an impressive number of writers of color to campus for its Visiting Writers Series and actively pursues diversity. As for the film, its focus is nature and the writers featured in it have devoted much of their writing to the celebration and preservation of nature.)

Even now, in the midst of a racial reckoning and reevaluation, when some of the most visible protests have taken place in Portland and Seattle, the visions readers have of NW writers and writing subjects generally have little to do with people of color. They also have little to do with the parts of cities where most Chinese immigrants, Asian Americans, and African Americans in the NW have resided; the kinds of farming most Japanese did before WWII or many Latinx immigrants have been forced to do; or earlier regional battles for racial justice.

If you were to ask most readers—especially those from other areas—what antagonists NW characters face, their answers would likely be: environmental threats, the hardships of living in nature, natural disasters like fire or earthquakes, internal demons (brought on by all that rain, you know), and maybe—just maybe—some kind of prejudice, generally of the settlers-vs.-Indians sort. (The online summary of the entry on “Writing the Pacific Northwest” in Cambridge University Press’s A History of Western American Literature, for example, is devoted exclusively to what it calls “the persistence of the Pacific Northwest as an ecological rather than social or political imaginary.”) The unexamined assumption behind most of these is that the protagonists and authors are white.

It’s no surprise, of course, that most literature written about the Northwest up to and including the 21st century has been written by whites and focused on white interests. Since the devastation of the Indigenous population in the 18th and 19th centuries, the region’s residents have been overwhelmingly white and the writers born of this dominant group have written for white audiences. While many of these authors have written books that are deeply sensitive (especially toward Indigenous culture) and focused in the broadest sense on what it means to be human, the fact remains that the experiences of NW people of color have been terribly underrepresented.

Among the voices seldom heard beyond a small circle are those of: the Native Americans who have outlasted repeated white predations; the Chinese immigrants who settled in the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, only to be driven out again; the tens of thousands of African Americans who’ve flowed into the region since the start of World War II; the Japanese Americans who developed successful farms and small businesses before being brutally bundled off to internment camps; and the increasing number of Latinxs, Asians and Asian Americans who have arrived in more recent times to take jobs in the tech industry and a wide variety of other fields.

There have been exceptions, of course, to the lack of attention paid to the lives lived by NW people of color. Among the breakthrough books are:

* Almost anything by Sherman Alexie, who did more than anyone else to highlight the self-told history and contemporary life of NW Native Americans before his personal actions caused many readers to shun him.

* Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s widely-read Thousand Pieces of Gold, which explores the plight of Chinese immigrants in the days before and after the Chinese Exclusion Act.

* Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which gives a glimpse of prewar Japanese American life in Seattle before taking readers into the hardships caused by FDR’s Executive Order 9066.

* Mitchell S. Jackson’s bestselling novel Residue Years and his hugely popular memoir Survival Math, both evocations of daily life in the Black areas of N. Portland.

Fortunately, in a region of increasing diversity, more and more writers of color are publishing works about their own experiences, as well as the stories of relatives, historical figures, or imaginary characters living rich and often difficult lives. These works provide alternative views not only of the NW but also of life itself—views that have the potential to move readers beyond the stereotypes of the past, showing them that the NW is more than salmon, weather, and trees.

Links to help you find some of these writings:

* From the Seattle Library: “PNW Asian American and Pacific Islander Authors

* From Humanities Washington: University of Washington English Professor Anu Taranath’s “Top Ten Pacific Northwest Authors of Color

* The Seattle-based African-American Writers’ Alliance

* Resilience Through Writing: A Bibliographic Guide to Indigenous-Authored Publications in the Pacific Northwest before 1960 (The writings here aren’t literary, per se, but the 2,000 entries give some idea of the volume of Native American writing available.)

A few books you might start with:

These offerings are only a sample of all that’s available.

What are your favorite books that explore the NW lives of people of color?

(To leave a comment, click on the blog post title.)

What Does It Mean to “Write the Northwest” Today?

Exactly 75 years ago—on Halloween weekend in 1946—a group of authors, journalists and academics gathered for three days at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for the first and only Writers’ Conference on the Northwest. The conference organizers’ stated aim was not to hold a traditional writers’ conference, in which young writers learn from more-established writers, but to discuss the essence, history and future of a region: the Pacific Northwest.

In his introductory remarks, Reed College President Peter H. Odegard said that, in many respects, “the Pacific Northwest is coming of age. In literature and art, in history and biography, in music, the record and resources of the region should be a source of pride and confidence. We need to discover our own cultural heritage and to encourage our own youth to look about in their own back yard to find inspiration and employment for their creative talents. It ought not to be necessary for them to go to New York for recognition or for their need of glory and reward. New York will come to them.”

The conference took place just after the end of World War II, which did more to focus attention on the Northwest than anything before it. Northwest contributions were viewed as vital to the Allies’ victory: Boeing planes built in Seattle, Kaiser ships assembled in Portland and Vancouver, nuclear weapons created in secret at Hanford, and aluminum and other metals forged in scattered plants—all powered by FDR’s huge new Columbia River dams.

Given what Odegard called the region’s “coming of age” and the inevitable self-examination (and self-regard) occasioned by its outsized role in the war, it must have seemed natural in 1946 to consider how those writing about the region would depict it. After all, scant years before the war, the Northwest had been a backwater to most Americans.

“During most of its history,” Odegard said, “the Pacific Northwest has been a colonial outpost of the East. It has been looked upon and has regarded itself as a source of raw materials to be shipped to eastern cities for processing or fabrication.” After comparing the region to the American South and talking about “cultural colonialism,” in which a region or country is guided by cultural standards set elsewhere, he proclaimed, “There are signs that the colonial period of northwestern history may be coming to a close.”

While Odegard and the other conference participants—including politician and journalist Richard L. Neuberger, folk writer and Northwest interpreter Stewart Holbrook, and noted Columbia University historian Carl Van Doren—deserve some credit for beginning the difficult task of defining a region in literary and historical terms, they, like other white men of their time (and today), failed to see that what they were engaged in was a colonializing enterprise itself.

The Pacific Northwest they were discussing was a white Pacific Northwest that began, in their minds, when “tens of thousands of migrants” moved into a region that “lay hidden on the outer fringes of western civilization, inhabited only by people of primitive culture, whose science was magic and whose literature was the folklore of the tribe.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that all of the conference organizers and speakers were white men, as were all but a few of the participants in its discussion panels—and those few were white women.

I learned about the 1946 conference when, in the course of doing research for a Northwest-centered project, I discovered a book called Northwest Harvest: A Regional Stock-Taking (The MacMillan Co., 1948), a collection of the conference’s major papers. As you might expect, given the time and makeup of the conference, the entries in it are chockful of ethnocentric and supremacist views, not only of the Northwest but of literature, the United States, and the idea of “progress.” Its main value lies in the snapshot it gives of dominant-culture thinking about the Northwest at a time when its straight, white, privileged, and male inhabitants were just beginning to consider it a distinct place.

The purpose of this website is to do a new kind of stock-taking—to present and examine literary and historical depictions of the Pacific Northwest in a contemporary context. Over the past 75 years, the Northwest has become not only a place people pay attention to but also a place of diverse perspectives and strong, divergent voices. Among the Northwest writers who have entered the national literary conversation are: Mitchell S. Jackson, Cheryl Strayed, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sherman Alexie, David James Duncan, Molly Gloss, Sharma Shields, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Timothy Egan. The visions these writers present of the Northwest region are not only vastly different from those expressed in that 1946 conference, they’re also vastly different from one another.

While contemplation of contemporary literary depictions of Northwest life and history will be one of the website’s main aims, it will also present less-lofty considerations of the region’s history, environment, social change, and popular culture. The main intent is simply to explore the many ways writers and others are—and have been—Writing the Northwest.

To that end, I hope you’ll send me suggestions for topics to explore and writings to present or link to, especially those that might be less-known. And if you have a post to propose, please send me a query. I’ll get things started with a few initial posts, but my hope is to make this site a place of many viewpoints and robust discussion.

(To leave a comment, click on the blog post title.)