How to Write the Great American Indian Novel
All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.
The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.
If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man
then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.
If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white
that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.
When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps
at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.
If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.
Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.
Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.
Indian men, of course, are storms. They should destroy the lives
of any white women who choose to love them. All white women love
Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust
at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.
White women dream about half-breed Indian men from horse cultures.
Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian man
unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.
There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.
Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.
Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions
if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian
then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry
an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed
and obviously from horse cultures. If the interior Indian is male
then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.
If the interior Indian is female, then she must be a healer, especially if she is inside
a white woman. Sometimes there are complications.
An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman
can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,
everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.
There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.
For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender
not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.
In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
I want to say that “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” initially positions the reader as an enlightened but amused insider. But what I mean is that as a reader I feel positioned by the poem as an enlightened but amused insider. Even I, a white woman who grew up down the road from an Indian reservation but never went there, can laugh knowingly along with Sherman Alexie about toxic stereotypes: “All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.” Everyone is in on the joke. Even me.
The poem uses the form of a mega-ironic “how to” list to move down the page and builds through repetition (“horse culture”) and accretion (man, woman, and, finally, child). I join Alexie as a fellow cultural critic. He lets me pass as cool, as simultaneously anchored by world-weariness and buoyed by my vast post-comprehension of everything everywhere. I get it: the misappropriation of native culture and misrepresentation of native people is so horrible and yet so openly tolerated, even incentivized (“There must be redemption, of course”), that the obvious disjunct has wrapped all the way around and become farcical. It’s so true! Who are the rockheads who keep perpetuating this stuff?!
In the poem’s last line, though, the outrage and grief that has haunted the poem’s cool logic finally breaks through. When we wind across the last line break, the bottom drops out. There’s nothing remotely amused or amusing about that last line. And there really hasn’t been anything funny about the entire poem. It’s a trick of structure, tone, and distance that we were all nodding knowingly together seconds before. And now, with this sudden and absolute change of tone, the reader’s position—my position—toward cultural cooption is abruptly up-ended and corrected. Alexie and I aren’t on the same team after all. At the end of the poem, I’m an Indian and he’s a ghost. I’m not a cultural critic, I’m a witness to cultural erasure.
The turn in the last line of Sherman Alexie’s devastating contemporary satire “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” is, among other things, an antidote to two strains of American smugness: the smirking, hip, postmodern variety and the willfully naïve, post-racial variety. The joke the poem rides finally breaks down and the stakes of our endless amusement are revealed. If we could stay right there in the moment Alexie’s last line lands in our brain pans, we would be much safer from ourselves than we are.
Catie Rosemurgy is the author of two collections of poetry, My Favorite Apocalypse and The Stranger Manual, both published by Graywolf Press. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. She teaches at The College of New Jersey and lives in Philadelphia.
Sherman Alexie, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.” Reprinted from The Summer of Black Widows © 1996 by Sherman Alexie, by permission of Hanging Loose Press.