Here’s a rarely glimpsed subculture: The Indigerati. But they were out in modest numbers last night—bookish Native Americans with long, well-groomed hair, bespectacled, wearing dark jackets or light cardigans, standing in the rush queue at the Fitz for last-minute tickets to MPR’s Talking Volumes, which opened its eighth season last night with The Most Famous Native American Author in the World, Sherman Alexie.
It wasn’t just the Indigerati who came out to support Alexie. The crowd was mostly that white, upper-middle-class–looking MPR crowd, mostly female actually. The place was packed, and there was that anxious crowd murmur thing going on that always happens in a theater before a big show.
Did I mention this was a book event?
MPR’s Kerri Miller was hosting and her interview with Alexie would be simulcast on air. Alexie came out wearing a gray European-cut suit and horn-rimmed glasses. His jet black hair had that thick, just-cut look; like a newly shorn black sheep. You don’t see Indians like him around either—maybe in some PBS documentary about early American Indian Policy or something, but never in real life. He sat down next to Miller and somebody yelled out, “Native Pride!” He shot back, “Custer had it coming!” and then turned to Miller and said, “We’re going to go through all the indigenous bumper stickers.”
Five minutes after good-naturedly deflating Native pride, Alexie was on a rant about “white, Ivy League educated types with German-designed eyeglasses quoting colonial white elitist crap like Thucydides or Horace.” Over the next hour and a half, he went on several tangents fueled with this kind of lucid rage, aimed at all sorts of targets: vegans, the humorless, humorless vegans, Diaz/Frey/Leroy and the fake memoir, Native American Literature’s overuse of talking animals, John Steinbeck’s misogyny/homophobia/social consciousness, the cult of the film director, and Nike’s new shoe designed for the indigenous foot. All of this with a bewildered Kerri Miller hopelessly along for the ride, her radio laugh losing its tone and sustain as the interview went along. Alexie has a fantastic, dexterous mind, and he can talk interestingly or wickedly about whatever he wants. When he told us that he aspires to be “the lovechild of Emily Dickenson and Richard Pryor,” he was pretty much right on.
But he was here to talk about himself. Alexie was promoting two books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Flight, both stories about conflicted, wounded Indians—basically both incorporating various versions of himself. Alexie has been fictionalizing different versions of his tragi-heroic “rez to riches” story since his first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (’93) and his first movie, Smoke Signals (’98). This time, he’s calling his story “an immigrant story” even though his country, the reservation, is inside another country. And while Alexie has taken criticism about being “repetitive” in the past, he acknowledged that these two newest books have received mostly positive attention on their media circuits. Not that Alexie is taking that “repetitive” thing sitting down: “How come when I do it, I’m ‘repetitive’ and not ‘obsessed’?” he asked. “How come Faulkner wrote all his books about four square miles and nobody calls him ‘repetitive,’ even though he was?”