Sherman Alexie: Irony, Intimacy, and Agency

by David L. Moore


Sherman Alexie’s . . . popular persona as a comedian, poetry bout heavyweight, experimental writer, filmmaker, and social pundit has itself become a work of art. He shares with many American Indian writers a central motif reaffirming Native lives and Native nationhood, although his direct comedic style and ironic attitude set him apart from the earnest lyricism of the now canonized elder Native writers [e.g., Momaday, Silko, Erdrich]. . . . Unlike many, Alexie rarely points toward the redemptive power of Native community as a direction for his protagonists’ struggles. Instead, his bold, sometimes campy, style tends to affirm a more individual agency unique to Native identities, by a distinct artistic pattern of personal affirmation and reconnection. One reviewer marks an ironic balance, writing that Alexies’s “dry sincerity leavens the sentiment” of his Indian tales. For all his humor, indeed in the heart of his humor, Alexie invariably circulates the grave themes of ongoing colonial history and its personal effects in Indian country. . . . [B]ecause of the weariness of difference, Alexie’s voice comes from a radical affirmation of diversity. . . . 

Echoing the claims and musings of some of his fictional characters, Alexie affirmed in a I think the primary thing that people need to know about Indians is that our identity is much less cultural now and much more political. That we really do exist as political entities and sovereign political nations. That’s the most important thing for people to understand, that we are separate politically and economically. And should be.

Alexie’s emphasis on the political and legal status of tribal sovereignty, rather than the cultural dynamics of tribal life, reflects his own mixed engagement with mainstream and Native cultures. Alexie’s is a populist voice, uniquely situated behind enemy lines, of both those tribal changes and that tribal sovereignty. That duality is another source of his irony… His comedy sparks the surprise of reconnections, and his irony refocuses connections by their lack. The affirmation is tough, facing harsh realities, but it is ultimately enlivening. As he maps the intimate psychological and social violence of Indian-white relations, he not only humanizes that history of grief, but he minimizes it by showing how humor can survive even death….As Alexie explains in an interview, “These aren’t happy stories necessarily. But I think they are positive stories.”

Poetry of Race Relations

. . . If Poetry = Anger × Imagination, we can trace ironic agency through intimate confrontations in a pivotal poem with the dead-pan title “Introduction to Native American Literature.” [See Chapter 1.].. . The epigraph, “must I give you / the last words to the story too,” quoting a lament by Alex Kuo, Alexie’s mentor at Washington State University, slaps the reader with the author’s attitude, his mixed literary traditions, and his accusation of the audiences’ historical and literary failures. Kuo’s public exhaustion with cross-culturally ignorant readers is followed directly by the voice of Alexie’s persona echoing the weariness of that task as he addresses his irresponsible audience invested in its own ignorance. . . . Such an opening, asserting its own condescending fatigue immediately takes on the American audience and its media stereotypes of Indians. An angrily weary Indian is not a vanished Indian, and if not vanished, then he himself, not some manifest destiny, is an agent of change. . . . 

Relying on both print and film in a visual video age, Alexie’s in-your-face approach to the not so-so-dear reader reflects his urgent project to reshape Euroamerican audiences’ awareness of their liability for history. This enlightened though exhausted voice of an American Indian bard in the poem [“Introduction to Native American Literature”] reads the broken shards of American self-representation like a seer, telling an American readership to clean up after itself, to take responsibility for its brutal inheritance. . . . 

. . . If strong writers create their audiences, Alexie is doing so by educating non-Natives to their own complicity in colonialism[;] . . . by affirming his own bardic role to instruct readers through anger and imagination, intimacy, and irony, he reshapes readers’ ability to face themselves, America, and American Indians. Further, by enacting that literary battle on the page and on screen, he shows Indian kids how the pen is mightier than the virtual laser. (300–302) 


David L. Moore, 2005. “Sherman Alexie: Irony, Intimacy, and Agency.” Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. 300–302.