Thursday, December 30, 2010

Old Kitchen

They moved towards the darkness, feeling their way forward with their feet as they directed the dim beam of the flashlight around the wall. Unless they pried more wood from the walls, there was nothing in the living room. Robert turned towards the pitch dark doorway that led to the kitchen, but Jerome hesitated. “Come on,” Robert said.
Jerome took a small step forward and paused. “What do you think is in there?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if it’s rat city?”
“I thought you weren’t afraid of any of this stuff.”
“I’m not.”
“You were the one who got us under the plywood in the first place.”
“That was before I knew there were rats. I can take one or two, but what if it’s crawling with them.”
“I don’t see why it would be. I bet the food’s been gone for years.” Robert walked over to where the dead rat lay and picked up the chunk of concrete. “If there are any rats, we’ll be ready.”
“Give it here,” said Jerome. “You aren’t the only one who can kill a rat.”
“Yeah.” Jerome didn’t sound like he was fully convinced, but taking the concrete, he turned and, without another moment of hesitation, walked through the doorway.

The flashlight's beam reflected dully off the broken windows blacked out by plywood. The glass was filthy, covered in years of unwashed dirt and cobwebs.

Robert Flannigan: Talking Himself Out of a Stake Out

Consider the rat: how you killed it by hucking an old bit of concrete. You hadn't guessed the power of your arm. You hadn't calculated the fulcrum of it, the length it gained this year as you turned thirteen and stretched towards man-size. Everything has felt awkward lately, but not that throw. And now, contemplating a way to find what's missing (a brother--no small thing), you confront the fact that maybe what is required is not a stakeout after all. Rats watch from shadows, but you? You are a killer of rats--an inadvertent killer but a killer nonetheless--which is not such a shadow-thing as it sounds. Concrete: that which can be touched.

Knock and ask. There is no rock her mother can sling so very hard. Go on and ask her where your brother is and why he left.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Notes from a Floating Carnival

Over the ocean salt smell, the cloying scent of handspun cotton candy--how the air itself cuts the tender red skin of nasal passages and throat, aerated shards of glass. Elephant ears and funnel cakes. Or, what remains of elephant ears and funnel cakes after being ourselves handspun on tea cups or the Octopus. The "hand" has always meant a machine. There are things the human body cannot take. We pay dollar by dollar at a time to fail to take such things. To eat what we can't digest. To be handspun until our wallet is empty of all but worn receipts. The lights continue to flash their frenetic, epileptic flash. The sea laps more slowly at the piers. At such times, it is difficult to believe we are not all doomed. The ocean does not go on forever, nor do we. There is a bottom to all this.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sunset, sunrise

Since the wild west class has now ridden off into the sunset and an ample mourning time has transpired, I suppose it is high time to put some fresh writing back into the world. The other day, I started back on the novel I set up last summer, writing the following bit. It's invigorating to be writing again.

For those who follow me, the agent hunt continues for Borrowed Horses, AKA novel #1, but I have more full MS requests every week and I'm hopeful that soon those requests will turn into an actual agent. Time will tell. For the mean time, though, there's plenty to write.

(Some background: Thirteen year old Robert, the protagonist, is trying to figure out what has happened to his older brother Sean, who abandoned his two children and disappeared. Robert is going to the high rise apartment building where Sean lived in hopes of finding clues to where and why he went.)

The air in the building was suffocating. Judging from the smell of old sweat, mildew, and urine that hung in the air, Robert guessed the air conditioner had been broken for some time. He wondered how long. Weeks? Months? Years? Robert pressed the call button for the elevator. It was sticky and a thin level of grime made it difficult to make out the arrow. An old lady came up and stood next to him, dark skinned and very prim in her flowered housecoat and wire-framed glasses, with a small canvas bag of groceries hanging from her arm. A white man came in behind her. He wore no shirt and continuously mumbled something Robert couldn’t hear. His hair was long and bedraggled, and his chest was dirty. If his mother was there, Robert might have taken a step closer to her, but here there were only strangers. The man was standing so close that his arm brushed Robert’s sleeve. His words were all hissing, the volume dropping and raising like a man in an argument with himself. The black woman only stared forward, waiting for the doors of the elevator to open and let them in.

No one spoke, and the only sound was the squeaking and rattling of the elevator as it approached. Anger began to rise within him again: Sean had no right to do this, to make him come here. “Whatever, geek,” his brother would say if he were here. “You came here on your own—I had nothing to do with it.”

You left, and now I have to pick up the pieces.

The elevator door opened and Robert, the lady, and the shirtless man walked into its box of stale air and flickering lights. Robert pressed the button for the 17th floor and silently prayed the elevator would make it that far. A fourth person, a girl with a nose ring and purple hair, squeezed through the doors as they closed and punched the button for the third floor. “Sup, Matilda?”

The older lady nodded at the girl and then stared at the elevator doors.

The girl turned to Robert. “Haven’t seen you here before.”

“I’m, um.” Robert faltered. “I’m looking for my brother.”

“OK, I’m-Um. I’ll let you know if I see him around.” She grinned broadly, and Robert wondered if she was making fun of him.

But would it matter if she was? Would it change anything? She might know something. Robert cleared his throat and tried again, “Sean Baxter. My brother Sean.”

The girl’s smile dropped a little. “Sean, huh?” She looked at Robert quietly for a moment, as if sizing him up, then shrugged. “Haven’t seen him.”

Robert stared into the corner of the elevator so he wouldn’t have to say anything else. Stupid, he thought. Stupid to think some stranger on a rusty old elevator would know something.

The doors opened and the girl stepped out. “Catch you later, I’m-Um,” she said, laughing lightly.

Robert felt himself blush, but concentrated his gaze on the graffiti covering the walls. Most of it was unreadable, the letters curved like scimitars and ending in arrow points. He had the sense again that he needed a whole different school to understand this city. What he could read was profanity, some of it misspelled and some not really all that profane, “eat this” or “suck it.” Sometimes an adjective added more color, “suck it hard.” With an elevator this slow, hadn’t they had time to come up with something better? And did these ghost people, the ones who had written these things, always carry black markers for this purpose? Did they wait until the elevator was empty? If he were to pull out a marker now, say, and write “F you, Sean,” on the panel by the door, would the lady or the shirtless man say a word against it?

His eyes traveled over the panel, reading note after note, until he saw it, there, in the corner, the tight cramped writing that he’d know since childhood. “The pilot is dead and we’re all going down,” Sean had written.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I was listening to Rage Against the Machine on my way into school this morning, and "Settle for Nothing" really made me think again of Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals, so I thought I'd post the lyrics and a link to the video (don't click on this link if you prefer not to listen to hard music--it's not easy listening by any stretch of the imagination).

The lines in particular that got me thinking were, "Read my writing on the wall/ No-one's here to catch me when I fall/ Caught between my culture and the system."  In Rage Against the Machine, the anger transforms into a call to action, and yet the anger is also laced with a sense of despair.  To be caught between one's culture and the system seems in this song to be an almost hopeless position--one that leads to crime, suicide, and other forms of violence against the self and others.

It seems to me that Victor is fighting against this same type of despair, but he uses humor to keep him level.  Of course, he hasn't exactly become a productive citizen--Thomas reminds him that he hasn't got a job and has been "moping around the reservation" for years--but he has resisted the alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors that so many of his peers fall victim to.  ("Hatred passed on, passed on and passed on.")

At any rate, for what it's worth, I thought I'd post the connection to music from a difference cultural experience since it seemed to tap into the same emotional well.

(I suppose I should add a disclaimer to say I don't endorse any of their views, etc, etc, but I do recommend thinking about them--but hopefully you all know me well enough by this point to know that this is how I feel about texts in general.  Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers once sung about listening to Public Enemy, saying "I listen to the music that makes me think."  Amen, brother.  Amen.)


A jail cell is freedom from the pain in my home
Hatred passed on, passed on and passed on
A world of violent rage
But it's one that I can recognize
Having never seen the color of my father's eyes
Yes, I dwell in hell, but it's a hell that I can grip
I tried to grip my family
But I slipped

To escape from the pain in an existence mundane
I got a 9, a sign, a set and now I gotta name

Read my writing on the wall
No-one's here to catch me when I fall
Death is on my side....suicide!

A jail cell is freedom from the pain in my home
Hatred passed on, passed on and passed on
A world of violent rage
But it's one that I can recognize
Having never seen the color of my father's eyes
Yes, I dwell in hell, but it's a hell that I can grip
I tried to grip my family
But I slipped

To escape from the pain in an existence mundane
I got a 9, a sign, a set and now I gotta name

Read my writing on the wall
No-one's here to catch me when I fall
Caught between my culture and the system....genocide!

Read my writing on the wall
No-one's here to catch me when I fall
If ignorance is bliss, then knock the smile off my face

If we don't take action now
We settle for nothing later
Settle for nothing now
And we'll settle for nothing later
If we don't take action now
We settle for nothing later
We'll settle for nothing now
And we'll settle for nothing later

If we don't take action now
We'll settle for nothing later
We settle for nothing now
And we'll settle for nothing later
If we don't take action now
We settle for nothing later
We'll settle for nothing now
And we'll settle for nothing later

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Smoke Signals

If you’re considering writing about Smoke Signals, you may want to think about some of the following and consider how you might put some of these ideas together to make a coherent argument about what the movie suggests about America, about fathers and sons, about friendship, about journeys, and so forth.  I’ve broadly grouped thoughts here, but you could easily link quotations from different groups.  For example, the thoughts on “Learning to be an Indian” might tie into the section on “Fathers/Fatherlessness.” 

              House fire—Fourth of July party (fireworks)
              Thomas Build-the-Fire
              Thomas’s opening voice over: “You know, there are some children who aren’t really children at all.  They’re just pillars of fire that burn everything that they touch.  And there are some children who are just pillars of ash that fall apart when you touch them.  Me and Victor, we were children born of flame and ash.”
              Pheonix (city, bird reborn in flame—on rising from dead, Thomas: “Victor, I’m going to travel to Spokane Falls one last time and toss the ashes into the water.  And your father will rise like a salmon”)

              Thomas and Suzi—Arnold like a father
              Generational—roots, ancestry
              Thomas’s final voice over: (“How do we forgive our fathers?  Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving too often or forever when we were little?  Maybe for scaring us with their unexpected rage or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage at all?  Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?  For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?  And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or of coldness?  Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning?  For shutting doors?  For speaking only through layers of cloth, or never speaking, or never being silent?  Do we forgive our fathers in our or in theirs?  Or in their deaths?  Saying it to them or not saying it?  If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”)
              Bequest, inheritance, what do our fathers leave/give us?  (things both unexpected and the expected)             

              Arnold Joseph on Fourth of July: “Happy Independence Day, Victor.  You feeling independent?  I’m feeling independent.  I’m feeling extra magical today, Victor.  Like I could make anything disappear.  Houdini with braids, you know?  Wave my hand and poof!  The white people are gone, sent back to where they belong.  Poof!  Paris, London, Moscow. […] Poof!  Poof!  Poof!  Wave my hand and the reservation is gone.  The trading post and the post office, the tribal schools and the pine trees, the dogs and the cats, the drunks and the Catholics and the drunk Catholics.  Poof!  And all the little Indian boys named Victor.  […]  I’m so good, I can make myself disappear.”
              Arlene Joseph: “Yeah, your father is magic, enit?  A real Houdini, huh?  He sawed us into pieces, didn’t he?  I feel like my head is in the kitchen, my belly’s in the bathroom, and my feet are in the bedroom.”
Young Thomas: “When Indians leave, they never come back: last of the Mohicans, last of the Winnebago…”
Arlene’s magic fry bread
              Thomas’s voice over: “I don’t remember that fire.  I only have the stories.  And in every one of those stories, I could fly.”

              Thomas’s continual story telling
              Trading stories (girls in backwards-driving car, Suzi Song and Thomas)
              Suzi: “You want me to tell you the truth? Or do you want lies?”  Thomas: “I want both” (this seems to tie in to ideas in The Things They Carried)
              Incorporating other stories (e.g. the Biblical story of the loaves and fishes à Arlene and fry bread feast)

              Victor (Thomas’s grandmother: “A good name.  It means he’s going to win, enit?”)
              Joseph (Biblical—father of Jesus, Chief Joseph)
              Thomas (Biblical—doubting, )

              Cultural pictures (Thomas: “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV.”
After accident: “It’s like you’re the Lone Ranger and Tonto.”  Thomas: “It’s more like we’re Tonto and Tonto.”
References to John Wayne, Custer, Geronimo, etc)
              Victor’s lesson to Thomas on bus after accusing Thomas of having watched Dances With Wolves two hundred times (Victor: “You got to look mean or people won’t respect you.  You got to look like a warrior.  You got to look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.”)

              What is Victor’s journey?
              What is Thomas’s journey?
              What is the function of each in the other’s journey?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sherman Alexie

So far, we've read one or two Alexie poems and an Alexie essay and we've watched an Alexie interview.  Tonight, you read an Alexie story and tomorrow, we'll begin watching an Alexie film.  Had enough yet?

I think this is a great opportunity to look at how one writer explores issues by using different genres.  Alexie's voice is much different in each piece.  The two we'll look at this one make this especially clear.  On the surface, each tells the same story...but that's ONLY on the surface.  You'll notice he makes different choices in each, starting with the title and going far deeper than that.

For instance, I love that we get to hear his dialogue with the Tribal Council in the story, even though it is shorter and would seem to have more time/space limitations.  I love, too, that almost every line spoken by the Council starts with, "Now, Victor..."  I imagine that every one of us, regardless of our cultural background, knows what it means when someone says, "Now, [insert your name here]..."  The subtext is universal: we, the wiser, will instruct you, the over-reaching, on how to get back in touch with reality as we see it...."

That said, I have to acknowledge how very different the story "This is What It Means to Say Pheonix, Arizona" and the film Smoke Signals are from one another.  Part of me wants to compare and contrast, and part of me wants to separate them entirely into two pieces that need to be treated as distinct bodies.  After all, though there names remain the same, even the characters seem different (notice how Victor treats the gymnast in the story vs. the film, for example).  Much of the film draws from other stories in the collection as well as this one, but even with that in mind, I'm not sure if I want to treat the film as an adaptation of the collection or as whole new material treating a similar topic.  I'm inclined toward the latter.  I'm interested to hear what you think.

Louise Erdrich

I'm so pleased by the class's positive response to Louise Erdrich!  I was especially pleased by the things you noticed about this story.  For instance, Caitlin mentioned that both the ice that kills the men trapped in the cooler and the rainstorm/tornado all involve danger via water, which seem appropriate for Fleur, with her history of drownings and her relationship with the river demon.  It was a clever thing to notice, and I have no doubt Erdrich was thinking along precisely these lines when she was thinking about the form Fleur's retribution might take.

I promised I would upload a few book recommendations and links for those of you interested in learning more about Louise Erdrich.

I've read nearly everything she's written, and I have loved every one of them.  My two favorites so far are probably The Master Butchers Singers Club and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, both of which came out in the last ten years or so.  Love Medecine is among her most famous works, and it's also excellent.

Faces of America Interview with Louis Gates (four parts--each connects you with the next in the series; about 20 minutes total)
2009 Commencement Address at Dartmouth (about 20 minutes)
Democracy Now! Interview talking about her newest novel Plague of Doves (about 9 minutes)
Democracy Now! Interview talking about Leonard Peltier's conviction (less than 5 minutes)

Of these, I highly recommend the Dartmouth Commencement address.  It shows her at her most relaxed and humorous of the three.  The Faces of America interview with Henry Louise Gates is also excellent.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ghettos, Sterilization, and Other Things We Might Consider

I've been having some lingering thoughts about Monday's discussion and since Wendy Rose's poem touch on issues of appropriation as well, I thought I'd stay with the already established topic and go deeper.

I've noticed that a number of students felt that Churchill was going too far in supposing that mascots could *really* be a problem, so I wanted to add a couple points to consider in our discussion:

1) The history of ghettoization.  Many students associate the word "ghetto" with the inner city and, in this country, tend to think of Watts, Compton, Harlem, Skid Row, and so forth, but the term itself was first used in Venice to describe neighborhoods in which Jewish people were compelled to live.  The term came into more widespread use during WWII when the Nazi party ghetto-ized the Jewish people in Germany, Poland, etc.  I bring this up because it might make Churchill's comparison of mascots to the case of Julius Stricher more poignant if we consider the fact that Native Americans in this country are, to some extent, a ghetto-ized people.

2)  An argument was raised that, if Native Americans left the reservation, they could better themselves, but of the nation's 2.1 million Native Americans, only 400,000 live on reservations.  Many living off the rez still face problems with poverty.  Those on the reservation have some help in the way of tribal support, government assistance, health care, and the like, but those services only go so far to help.  According to a 1997 article in the Washington Post, "Pine Ridge, which is in Shannon County, S.D., [is] the poorest county in America, a place where unemployment hovers around 80 percent, where the per capita income is $3,417 a year, the lowest in the nation, where two out of three people live below the federal poverty level"  (Carlson).  We should not over-simplify the difficulty of a decision for a person or family to leave their home in hopes of a better life that may not be available to them.

3) Many of us are not fully aware of the extent of anti-Indian prejudice because it isn't a part of our daily lives, but the writers we're examining this semester are more fully educated on the topic.  This isn't a matter of simply having their feelings hurt.  They're looking not only at a history of genocide against their people, but know that much of the attempt to wipe them out has continued into the present day.  Both Alexie and Churchill mention the sterilization of Native American women through the 1970s, for example. (To find a more comprehensive list of links, look at the bottom of Churchill's essay.)

This is by no means a comprehensive list of factors we should consider when we read Churchill's article, but it's a good place to start.  Perhaps it makes it a little easier to see why these writers are offended by the cartoonish representation of their people--a representation that makes it easier to ignore them and the continued threats they face.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Balancing on the wire separating "culture" and "stereotype"

As many of you know, this course evolved from much of the reading I did when I was first drafting my novel, Borrowed Horses.  The main character of the novel, Joannie Edson, is a white woman living in Idaho, and her love interest is Timothy, the son of a Welsh father and Spokane mother.  Because I've long been an admirer of Alexie's work, it was impossible for me to write without his poem, "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" in my mind, and I still read it, thinking of my own book, and wondering if I've been careful enough to create a character that feels real and whole and that represents some of this rich culture without seeming stereotyped.

This is a devilish hard line to walk.  I'll give an example from my own culture to illustrate--

When shopping for houses, we stumbled upon one that might have been nice if its previous owner hadn't chosen to cover all the walls of one room with plastic wood laminate paneling (gag).  Someone who I will not identify here jokingly commented that the previous owners must have been Irish because the Irish love fake wood paneling.  "Hey!" I yelled, wanting to launch a protest in defense of my mother's people, but then I remembered my grandmother and grandfather, who pulled down the solid mahogany wainscoting in their turn of the century semi-detached in Philly and replaced it with (cringe) fake wood paneling.  And then I thought of one uncle's home, and another.  Paneling, paneling, paneling.

So, would I have been right to call this person out for a stereotype, or had s/he simply located an aspect of the culture?  (Immigrant practicality?  Too much time spent scrubbing the darned wood in other, wealthier people's homes?)  If I wrote about a character who was born of Irish immigrants, would placing paneling on the walls of her childhood home be stereotyping or merely a nod to a cultural phenomenon? 

To get back to my own novel, if Timothy has a dream (as he, like Joannie, does), then am I giving him a vision and violating my own desire to avoid stereotyping?  And are then Joannie's dreams, the white girl who, according to Alexie's satiric poem, is "Indian by proximity" [line 27] affected by this, too?  Do I remove the dreams?  But, then, don't people have dreams?  And aren't those dreams sometimes oddly telling of the knowledge that we carry subconsciously?  And does it matter that some of the dreams were written before the character Timothy was introduced to the novel?

I am not so naive a writer as to believe that, just because some of the sections predate Timothy's creation, that his presence won't affect how they're read, and much of my revision has been dedicated to the task of separating him as far from stereotype as possible and creating a character that readers will sympathize with and admire.  Still, I read my own work with Alexie very much in mind.  I want him to approve.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How current is THIS.

Check it:
The Good, the Bad, the Weird
this link gets you to the trailer of...

a brand spanking new Asian remake of Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!!!

We are on the edge, my friends.  We are the zeitgeist.


I've written before about how Leone doesn't allow his characters to hold true to stereotypes of white = good and dark = bad.  In class, we've talked specifically about Tuco and how interesting it is that this character, the brownest of the three major characters, gets more backstory and a more complex characterization than perhaps any other.  At the time, this was ground-breaking, and I've always seen it as a real mark of Leone's excellence that he would challenge this long-customary western stereotype.  Tuco is the first fully developed Latino character I can remember seeing in a movie of any genre.

But I need to complicate even this because, as ground-breaking as it is, Leone also chooses to cast a white actor (Eli Wallach) in the role, just as John Ford cast a white actor to play the Native American, Scar, in The Searchers (a move we've already talked about when we read Alexie's "I Always Hated Tonto"). 

Why on earth do we make of Leone's choice?  Leone is too intelligent and too aware of his own choices not to have been conscious of the political implications...  What do you make of this?