4. Textual Analysis Of Sherman Alexie’s Short Stories and Other Prosaic Works Sherman Alexie’s Background And His Position In Contemporary American Literature And Society
The aim of the second part of this thesis is to show how Spokane/Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie exemplifies my findings about the Native American humor. I want to trace its usage in various tones and moods in the work of this significant representative of the contemporary Indian literature for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that Alexie is readable and accessible to different audiences. The fact that as a teenager he left the reservation to be educated further in predominantly white mainstream schools provides him with both outlooks on the Indian issues – the traditional one, based on his early life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and the urban Indian one, gained through the experience which has marked his later adult life. As a member of the so-called “Generation X” and following the footsteps of his literary Native American Renaissance precursors, namely Momaday, Welch, and Silko, makes him determined to keep to genuine Indian writing, as well as exploring new grounds, for example an uneasy challenge how to write about Indians in a predominantly televisual country, as Grassian notes (11). Alexie himself admits his positive approach towards the popular culture with his main aim being reaching a wider audience. When he speaks of the inclination of reservation children to the white-dominated television, movie and music culture, he sees those as “a means to capture their attention and to speak their language” and calls it “the cultural currency” (Grassian 6). On an example of a conversation based on Superman among people from different ethnical origins and cities, Alexie in his typically controversial tone asserts: “It’s a way for us to sit at the same table. I use pop culture as most poets use Latin”, and goes on to compare television to the contemporary Gutenberg press and to suggest that “TV is the only thing that keeps us vaguely in democracy even if it’s in the hands of the corporate culture” (qtd. in Grassian 7).
As far as the impact on wider reading public is concerned, James Ruppert explains: “Native American writers write for two audiences – non-native and Native American – or in many cases three audiences – a local, a pan-tribal one and a non-Native contemporary American one. The attempt to satisfy those audiences generates the peculiar construct of their art” (qtd. in Grassian 11). This feature of Alexie’s work is emphasized further by the fact that apart from his literary work which aims both at adult readers and teenagers, and ranges from poetry to short stories, novels, song lyrics, screenplays and filmmaking, Alexie is also an active public speaker, commentator of social, political as well as cultural events, often hosted by major television talk shows and interviewed by high-profile magazines and newspapers. With his multiple talents, together with clever media coverage and recently gained national recognition, Sherman Alexie is on the best way to become what he called himself in one of his interviews “a cultural ambassador”. I am convinced that this approach and gained reputation can help him spread the awareness of the white majority versus Native American problematic relationship and historic struggle among the Indian, white, and possibly non-American audiences alike.
An interesting issue in Alexie’s public appearance and his social and political comments is his growing distrust towards ethnicity, culture and tradition. From the early praise of these values, he has radically changed his view since the terrorist attacks from 11 September 2001. He explains:
I am now desperately trying to let go of the idea of being right, the idea of making decisions based on imaginary tribes. The terrorists were flying planes into the buildings because they thought they were right and they had special knowledge, and we continue to react. And we will be going to war in Iraq soon because we think we have special knowledge – and we don’t. We are making these decisions not based on any moral or ethical choice, but simply on the basis of power and money and ancient traditions that are full of shit, so I am increasingly suspicious of the word “tradition,” whether in political or literary terms. (qtd. in Grassian 5-6)
This quote can explain some of the topics Alexie chooses to expand in his stories and poems, and the often skeptical and ridiculing comments he dedicates to the discourse on the awareness of belonging to the tribal communities and the fight for self-determination among the Native Americans.
In a Sidewalk’s on-line interview, Sherman Alexie even admits his attempts to rewrite dominant American history through his literary work. Grassian interprets his words as trying to commemorate the violent period of colonization and massacres of Indians by the European settlers which followed (8). Alexie himself adds: “If people start dealing with Indian culture and Indian peoples truthfully in this country we’re going to have to start dealing with the genocide that happened here” (qtd. in Grassian 8).
The main reason why I am going to explore Alexie’s work in depth is then his usage of humor as an important language and storytelling means which in various forms represents his writing more than any other technique, and therefore provides a valuable base to demonstrate my findings about the Native American humor in the theoretical part of my thesis. Sometimes harsh, sometimes quirky, ironic, equivocal, or even gallows, the range of humorous expression in Alexie’s writing is almost inexhaustible. Ridiculing both the Indians and whites, touching the most painful moments in their mutual cohabitation on the American land, as well as the issues typically associated with the life on reservations, such as substance abuse, violence, unemployment, family problems, poor education and lack of opportunities for the future generations make Alexie a sensitive observer and critic, as well as a healer. His humor helps his characters recover from anger, and also transcend their pain or loss. He learned the powers of humorous approach to life early in his teenage years. As a child, often mocked and humiliated by his fellows because of his physical abnormalities caused by hydrocephalus, a serious brain condition, he escaped to the world of literature and later also “learned the value of humor both as a means of deflecting the abuse from other children and also as a means of personal empowerment”, as Grassian points out (2). Alexie later commented: “Humor is self-defense on the rez. You make people laugh and you disarm them. You sort of sneak up on them. You can say controversial or rowdy things and they’ll listen or laugh” (qtd. in Grassian 2). It is important to add that throughout his literary work which bears often autobiographical features, as well as in numerous articles and interviews he gives, Alexie often turns this harsh humor towards himself with a fierce sincerity. When he was named by Granta magazine as one of the twenty American writers under the age of forty, he comically commented: “It’s because they needed a brown guy” (qtd. in Grassian 4). This attitude not only accentuates the feeling of a humble approach to his literary achievements but also arises in the readers the conviction that Alexie’s humor is genuine and naturally present in the personality of its author.
In accord with Gerald Vizenor’s and several other influential writers’ notion that the ancient legacy of the Trickster appears even in the post-modern Native American novel, also Sherman Alexie fulfills this assumption by playing its role by providing the readers with both the comic healing and liberating in literature, as Vizenor defined some of the Trickster’s new roles (188). Also Indian writers’ expected “multiplicity of styles and forms to suit their purposes” which, according to Jace Weaver, is the way the contemporary native writers adopt the Trickster’s role is present in Alexie’s work (qtd. in Grassian 12).
An important feature of the personality of Sherman Alexie, reminding us of the characteristics of the Trickster figures as well, is undoubtedly his rebellious and often controversial attitude. Grassian notices that distrusting and suspicious about the New Age tendencies to revive anything Native American, Alexie refuses stereotypical mainstream notions romanticizing the image of Indians, as I have pointed out and shown on examples in the chapter Where Does the “Stoic Indian” Stereotype Come From?.Apart from his effort to provide a truthful account of the Native life, Alexie attempts at being “fiercely independent”, making “his audience think about the issues he writes about, even if his positions on those issues are radical, disturbing, and confrontational.” Refusing himself as a writer of literature which provides entertainment and escape, he also states: “I want books that challenge, anger, and possibly offend” (qtd. in Grassian 14).
Sherman Alexie writes about his experience with the best tradition of Native American storytelling in mind. He is capable of breaking the stereotypes, touching even very painful moments of the Indian reality in the most human way, shocking his audience, making it cry and laugh almost at the same instant, while still keeping his writing cohesive and tasteful. Through his books, he confirms the notion that the ability to be almost intimately open to readers makes a great writer, and that the storytelling power, catching readability for the mainstream public and literary quality do not necessarily exclude each other.
I want to believe that if carefully and more frequently translated, Alexie has the ability and opportunity to use his potential to influence general and often stereotypical knowledge and understanding of the Native American culture worldwide.
A Drug Called Indianness
The pervading issue in Sherman Alexie’s poetic and prose work, an inexhaustible source of inspiration, and a rich ground for his humorous as well as serious observations, is the position of Native Americans in current America. The feeling of “Indianness”, its perception by both the Natives and the mainstream society, the struggles and hardships it brings but also the ironic and lighthearted comments it sometimes motivates, is vividly depicted in Alexie’s works. The author’s ability to reach a sensitive balance between grief and humor, to remain critical as well as sympathetic and even hopeful is well described by Daniel Grassian’s observation that Alexie is on the one hand a “serious moral and ethical writer, committed to Native issues and to counteracting Indian oppression” (56) but on the other hand the one who “shows how Indians have helped conquer themselves by self-defeating ideology” (57). Alexie’s hope for a better future is then described as a non-fatalist approach, since Grassian sees him as suggesting that “Indians can counteract their oppression through imagination, hope, and self-sufficiency.” (57). As far as the tool of imagination present in this fight is concerned, I am going to extend this concept to Alexie’s humor, irony, and sarcastic comments aimed at providing a different approach defining the Native versus mainstream cultural cohabitation in this part of my thesis.
We may begin exploring Alexie’s usage of various humorous means to provide his view of Indianness by looking at the way he approaches traditions.
In the beginning of “A Drug Called Tradition”, a story published in the highly acclaimed collection of short stories The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, the characters happen to be present at a party given by Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a reservation Indian who was paid a reasonable sum of money by an electricity company for using a part of his land to build their power poles on. Alexie does not hesitate to comment on this event in his typical ironic manner: “When Indians make lots of money form corporations that way, we can hear our ancestors laughing in the trees. But we can never tell whether they´re laughing at the Indians or the whites. I think they’re laughing at pretty much everybody” (13).
Not surprisingly, when Thomas, who paid for the party but is otherwise considered weird for his way of repetitive storytelling without much sense, realizes that the others behave in a friendly way to him only because they drink at his place for free, he leaves the house to be found and picked up by two other youngsters on their way to try out a new hallucinogenic drug. Alexie accentuates the corrupted way the young generation views spirituality and ancient rituals on sacred places when he lets the first person narrator exclaim: “Jump in with us. We’re going out to Benjamin Lake to do this new drug I got. It’ll be very fucking Indian. Spiritual shit, you know?” (14). After having taken some of the unspecified drug, the boys have visions reminding them of the Indian traditions, dances, music, storytelling, stealing horses and ancient warriors fighting the whites. At this point the reader is losing certainty whether Alexie remains ironic or becomes serious, letting his characters realize their Indian roots in the flashbacks caused by the drug. Faithful to the best tradition of the oral storytelling magic, he does not provide a clear answer even at the conclusion of the story when the young Indians are approached by Big Mom, the spiritual leader of the tribe. She gives them a small drum and tells them that she knows what they had seen. The drum is supposed to be used in case they want to keep in touch with her. The crazy behavior of the youngsters and their initial disrespect towards the Indian traditions suddenly become a serious matter, bringing about almost religious fear. The narrator never used the drum, and because Big Mom already died he wonders whether it would work anyway. Still, he comments: “I guess you could call it the only religion I have, one drum that can fit in my hand, but I think if I played it a little, it might fill up the whole world” (23). Alexie, masterfully using his storytelling skills, leaves his readers not with a lighthearted laughter as in the beginning of the narrative but with a curiously wondering and doubtful smile.
Rarely, Alexie’s humor concerning the perception of Indianness touches political issues, and if so, it usually only forms the background to another of his stories focusing on an individual captured between the Indian and the white worlds. A good example is the story appearing in the same collection called “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock”, which begins by a rather quirky introduction: “During the sixties, my father was the perfect hippie, since all the hippies were trying to be Indians. Because of that, how could anyone recognize that my father was trying to make a social statement?” (24). Although the rest of the plot tells a story of a family break-up revolving around a bizarre event of the narrator’s father being arrested for beating a policeman, which was captured on a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph celebrating hippie protests against the Vietnam war, Alexie wants us to feel the political tension of these times from the very beginning. The fact that he uses irony to do so is not surprising. The military introduction gives rise to some later comments on similar topics throughout the story. When the narrator as a small boy complains to his father that his generation lacks the opportunities to fight for something, he is laughed at: “I don’t know why you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you ain’t had to fight a war. You’re lucky. Shit, all you had was that damn Desert Storm. Should have called it Dessert Storm because it just made the fat cats get fatter” (29).
Apart from the harsh and sarcastic utterances when commenting the political topics throughout this story, Alexie uses another factor preventing the plot from getting too much despairing and gloomy – Jimi Hendrix’s music. The narrator’s father claims he is the only Indian who saw him play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, just after he got out of prison where he was sent for the incident at a peace demonstration, and this event influences his life for the rest of his life. Even when the story concludes by the narrator’s parents’ separation, one of their final quarrels takes place at the Hendrix’s grave where the father takes his family to pay a tribute to his “hero”. Alexie stays humorous, but this time quite bitterly as he connotes the upcoming divorce with Indian survival:
A hundred years ago, and Indian marriage was broken easily. The woman or man just packed up all their possessions and left the tipi. There were no arguments, no discussions. Now, Indians fight their way to the end, holding onto the last good thing, because our whole lives have to do with survival. (32)
Feelings of displacement from the white world and the notion that the relationships between the whites and the Indians are basically drawn by a constant and sometimes violent conflict are the main features of the title story of the collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The narrator, an urban Indian struggling to settle down in the city of Seattle, describes conflicts with his white girlfriend, as well as his fury when provoking a 7-11 night shift assistant who obviously feels nervous and endangered by the narrator’s ethnic looks. Some nights the narrator gets in his car and drives endlessly around the city, just to relax and forget about his despair. During one of these rides, he ends up in an upscale residential quarter where he is stopped by a police officer, apparently called by somebody who “must have been worried” (182). The following conversation shows Alexie’s sarcastic approach towards the feeling of the Natives’ alienation in the modern day America:
“What are you doing out here?” the police officer asked me as he looked over my license and registration.
“Well, where are you supposed to be?” he asked me, and I knew there were plenty of places I wanted to be, but none where I was supposed to be.
“I got in a fight with my girlfriend,” I said. “I was just driving around, blowing off steam, you know?”
“Well, you should be more careful where you drive,” the officer said. “You’re making people nervous. You don’t fit the profile of the neighborhood.”
I wanted to tell him that I didn’t really fit the profile of the country but I knew it would just get me into trouble. (182-183)
Sadly enough, the narrator becomes so much obsessed by the feeling of inequality that, as Grassian observes, “if conflict doesn’t immediately exist, he often creates it” (66). Alexie becomes critical here, disapproving of this behavior which reflects the false feeling that everybody is necessarily showing their superiority and disrespect towards Indians only by the simple fact of being white.
The biting humor with which Alexie depicts the current social and cultural issues and the fight for self-definition of the Native Americans sometimes addressed to as “Indianness” may seem as creating a larger gap between the white mainstream America and the reservation or urban Indians rather than bridging it. Still, when considering how many efforts of the official government policies failed to provide any positive result in reaching a possibly better mutual understanding, cannot humor, even in its harsh forms, serve as an ideal communicator? Like a drug, it could lead to feelings of despair but it is also fun to try. Alexie’s sometimes controversial view on being Indian may have its roots in the identity crisis of many mixed-blood people due to being actually biracial, as Grassian points out (24), but more probably on his notion that culture, particularly literature in combination with the works of popular art, can provide a better counseling than politics.
Violence Versus Humor
An interesting example of humor in its darker moods is provided by Alexie’s ability to use it sensitively even when describing violent scenes without losing plausibility or ridiculing the obviously serious context. In the opening story of the short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven called “Every Little Hurricane”, young boy Victor is witnessing a wild New Year’s party turned into a violent fistfight between his Indian relatives. Nobody of the family members tries to stop the fighting uncles, they only stoically observe the situation. Alexie describes the situation with a reference to the historical wrongs done to Indians, the current situation in investigations of the reservation crimes, and still does not become pathetic, and even adds a slight touch of humor:
“They’re going to kill each other,” somebody yelled from an upstairs window. Nobody disagreed and nobody moved to change the situation. Witnesses. They were all witnesses and nothing more. For hundreds of years, Indians were witnesses to crimes of an epic scale. Victor’s uncles were in the midst of a misdemeanor that would remain one even if somebody was to die. This little kind of hurricane was generic. It didn’t even deserve a name. (3)
When the fight is over, Victor sees in the faces of his uncles “look of hate and love” (3), and through his bedroom window he can almost smell “the sweat and whiskey and blood” (3), and still in his grim ironic style leaves the scene to describe his own physical pains from the past injuries and compares all the situation to the possible damages of the coming hurricane as he knows it from television. The dark mood of the narrative is further enhanced by the narrator’s memories from his childhood when his family lived in poverty, and “Victor’s father wept because he didn’t have any money for gifts” (4). And still, forgiveness and a slight touch of irony are the feelings that pervade after the violent fight is over. Victor’s interior monologue and simple diction reminds the reader of a child diary, and this writing style seems to decrease the effects that the close contact with violence could have on a child with all its possible tragic consequences.
In another Alexie’s story called “Class” which appeared in his collection The Toughest Indian in the World, we can see the narrator’s attempt to transform violence, rage, and anger into a constructive way to realize and appreciate his position in the society, as well as in his own family. After years of living in a hastily concluded, childless, and unhappy marriage with a white woman, the protagonist, a middle class urban Indian lawyer Edgar ignores his wife’s love affair and rather seeks for sex with prostitutes. Because of his low self-esteem as somebody who left behind his indigenous lifestyle but is not able to define his relationship with the white majority, he finally realizes that choosing only blue-eyed white prostitutes does not help him gain power over the whites, and symbolically ends up his period of promiscuity with a fake Indian girl. When Edgar finds out that he was tricked by the escort service company unable to provide him with a real Indian, he promises himself to symbolically quit this way of life. Instead, despite being abstinent, he tries to find a solution in a low class bar where he provokes a fight with a burly reservation Indian, a professional street fighter. Even though the plot thickens, and the given background of Edgar’s life does not provide the readers with much optimism, Alexie adds his soft touch of humor which makes even the introduction to the violent fight somehow human:
“I’m sick of little shits like you,” he said. “Fucking urban Indian in your fancy fucking clothes. Fuck you. Fuck you.” I looked down and saw my denim jacket and polo shirt, the khakis and brown leather loafers. I looked like a Gap ad. “I ever see you again,” Junior said. “I’m going to dislocate your hips.” I flinched. Junior obviously had some working knowledge of human anatomy and the most effective means of creating pain therein. (50)
Later, Alexie avoids a detailed description of Edgar being beaten to unconsciousness, and also does not state a clear opinion on who is the clearly defined negative hero, concentrating more on explaining the violent fighter’s possible social isolation and despair. He even lets the reader feel some kind of apology for Edgar’s behavior, depicting him in the context of his unhappy relationship, tragedy of the death of his newborn child, and also his attempts, however desperate, to seek for his place in the society. Typically for Alexie, we may read between the lines also a trace of accusation of the white dominant culture as being the main cause of the Natives’ misery. Daniel Grassian interestingly observes: “Although he never directly states it, Edgar seeks reconnection with his ethnic roots but isn’t aware of how to go about doing it other rather than through sex and violence, which, according to Alexie, are the hallmarks of the heterosexual, mainstream American male” (164).
More than just adding a slight touch of humor to an otherwise violent scene is provided in a story from the same collection called “South By Southwest”. This parody of the outlaw narratives ridicules the essential principles of violent behavior on a story of Seymour, who tries to “steal love” by an absurd act of robbing a pancake restaurant. The contradiction itself, robbing love, is a concept which evokes the most extreme dichotomies of the Trickster, the central element of the Native American humorous expression and perception. Seymour not only robs the restaurant with an unloaded gun but despite the offer to take all the money from the safe, he only collects one dollar from each of the diners. His quotes such as “I know how hard it is to live in these depressed times, I just want a little bit of your hard-earned money” and “I aim to go on a nonviolent killing spree and I need somebody who will fall in love with me along the way” (58) make the reader not only anticipate a surprising and somehow lighthearted conclusion – which later comes in the form of an intimate homosexual relationship between Seymour and a Spokane Indian volunteering to become his “hostage” – but also allow to accept this form of pretended violence as a joke. Similarly, the reader does not feel any worry, hatred or disgust when in an attempt to act as real outlaws and “to do this nonviolent killing spree the right way” Seymour suggests: “We need to find a farmhouse […] and we need to terrorize an old man and his wife” (61). Not surprisingly, it again turns out to be only a ridiculous comment as they finally visit an old lady, and quite gently announce her that they are doing “their best to fall in love” (63). Upon this introduction, despite being told about their “killing spree”, she invites them for lunch and over a glass of lemonade tells them stories of her husband fighting in the Second World War.
What is it then that makes even seemingly violent narratives in Alexie’s stories somehow balanced with feelings of pervading humanity and hope instead of hatred and destruction? I have mentioned the possible explanation by the Trickster based duality of expression. In accord with this notion is Gerald Vizenor’s suggestion in his critical discourse on social theories, isolating in his opinion certain elements in the tribal narratives, that the legacy of Trickster provides a contrasting view of the Trickster as being always a “communal sign, never isolation”. This, according to him, also means that “the trickster is not tragic because the narrative does not promise a happy ending. The comic and tragic, the hypotragic, are cultural variations” (Vizenor 12). Thus we might observe a possible connection with the elements of evil in Sherman Alexie’s stories with the Trickster imagery, and the fact that the violence depicted in his works is often softened by the touch of humor, irony, or ridicule. Interestingly, Vizenor goes on to claim that if aggression was present deep in the personality of the trickster, then it would prevent him from providing the contrasting comic outlook. He states: “The trickster is as aggressive as those who imagine the narrative, but the trickster bears no evil or malice in narrative voices. Malice and evil would silence the comic holotropes; there would be no concordance in the discourse” (12).
Another interesting view why aggression and violence are often present in otherwise humorous narratives is Arthur Koestler’s observation that there are various “moods involved in different forms of humor, including mixed or contradictory feelings; but whatever the mixture, it must obtain a basic ingredient which is indispensible: an impulse, however faint, of aggression or apprehension”. Criticizing liberal humanists’ and postcolonial interpreters’ attitude towards the tribal cultures, Koestler’s conclusion is that if we “replace aggression with sympathy […] the same situation will no longer be comic but pathetic, and evoke not laughter but pity” (qtd. in Vizenor 13).
Also Drew Hayden Taylor in his essay Teasing, Tolerating, Teaching notices a seemingly unusual interconnection between humorous tribal narratives, often expressing a feeling of social harmony within the Native communities, and physical violence with emotional pain which so frequently appear in these stories. After offering a brief explanation that in many cases, such violence does not seriously harm anybody, and we may thus accept it as “just a joke” (41), he explores the subject further, this time with the help of an anthropological and sociological insight into the phenomenon of the famous Balinese cockfights. This given context helps him explain his observations about the role of the violence and humor in the works of Native American writers. Many of these notions are based on Clifford Geertz’s essay Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. As the national obsession, these cockfights seem to have a much more important social role than they really do. So they, similarly to humor, do “not appear to actually “do” anything” (Taylor 42). Contrary to this observation, Geertz points out the interpretive function of the fights, and concludes that they “must be read not as reflections of life in Bali but rather as texts that say something about that life, to be interpreted much as we would literary texts” (qtd. in Taylor 42). As a parallel to the Indian humor, Taylor continues to explain that using fun is “an indirect means of thinking through contentious community issues” and a “way to displace, condense and examine various social tensions, anxieties and contradictions” (43). The connection to violence is then, according to Taylor, obvious – in a reflection of both the Balinese cockfights and Native American humor, if we take only the ethnographic approach concluding that these issues simply reflect the real problems within the communities, such as abuse and victimhood, we would limit the more subtle shades of describing the life of the indigenous communities.
As a form of embodiment of these theories in the real life stories which are an admitted inspiration of his characters and events, Sherman Alexie is capable of creating a unique tension between the violence and humor, letting them influence and enrich each other. As if with the legacy of the Trickster narratives in mind, Alexie teaches his readers that the seemingly contrasting qualities of these two concepts may form a strange but fitting harmony.
Demon of Alcohol – Demon of Laughter
One of the most serious social issues causing the loss of positive values, family disintegration and many vain deaths among the Native American population is substance abuse, namely drug addiction and extensive drinking. For Sherman Alexie, this topic is an especially acute one since his father was a heavy drinker who often changed occasional jobs and would leave his family for days when on drinking binges. Alexie himself found pleasure in drinking when he was younger but quit it for good on the day he learned that his first collection of poetry, The Business of Fancydancing, was accepted for publication in 1992. This was a symbolic moment in his life and career, and shows that his dedication to literature was probably a stronger reason to give up drinking than only recalling his childhood memories of his alcoholic father and other reservation inhabitants. When asked in the interview conducted by Joelle Fraser about the differences between writing drunk and sober, Alexie admitted inspirational importance of alcohol but on the other hand expressed skepticism whether the few good pieces written while being drunk were worth it:
You’re an addict - so of course you write about the thing you love most. I loved alcohol the most, loved it more than anybody or anything. That’s what I wrote about. And it certainly accounted for some great writing. But it accounted for two or three years of good writing - it would never account for 20 years of good writing. I would have turned into Charles Bukowski. He wrote 10,000 poems and 10 of them were great. (Sherman Alexie's Iowa Review Interview)
Furthermore, his comment about “waking up with stories on the typewriter and not remember writing them” recalling his early college days also suggests his awareness of the negative consequences of depending on alcohol as a driving force in the creative work. However, Alexie does not avoid the topic of alcoholism in his writing, and is on the contrary capable of approaching this topic openly, vividly and with his always present sense of biting and harsh humor.
It is obvious from the numerous examples found in Sherman Alexie’s work that the memories from his childhood when he witnessed the negative effects of heavy drinking from a close distance inspired him to depict these experiences in his writing. In the chapter A Drug Called Indianness, I mentioned how the factor of Jimi Hendrix’s music is used to brighten up the otherwise serious topic of political involvement of the narrator’s father and their family separation described in the story “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock”. As in many other Alexie’s stories, the alcoholic experience plays a significant role also here, after the narrator himself becomes involved in a weird ritual upon which Jimi Hendrix and his father “became drinking buddies” (26). When his father returned home at night, the narrator switched on the stereo with a worn down Hendrix tape, and witnessing how his father had passed out, he fell asleep under the kitchen table near his feet. Then they would “dream together until the sun came up” (26).
The otherwise depressing consequences of his parents’ divorce are ironically made somehow more bearable by the narrator’s comments pointing out their alcoholic life. It is definitely sarcasm of the rough kind to dissolve one human tragedy by making fun of another but in Alexie’s case it works without letting the reader offended or shocked, but rather with the pervasive feeling of humanity and hope. Alexie is able to criticize and forgive at the same time, even though I would argue that it is necessary to view his writing in a larger context to be able to distinguish the slight differences in the particular shades of his dark humor. To achieve this balance, he lets his narrator speak with his mother who is remembering the passionate moments of her and her husband’s alcoholic sexual experiences, stating that: “there must have been a hundred times he passed out on top of me. We’d be right in the middle of it, he’d say I love you, his eyes would roll backwards, and then out went his lights” (27, italics in original). The narrator then meditates: “I was conceived during one of those drunken nights, half of me formed by my father’s whiskey sperm, the other half formed by my mother’s vodka egg. I was born a goofy reservation mixed drink, and my father needed me just as much as he needed every other kind of drink” (27).
Before the violent fight in the story “Class” featured in the collection The Toughest Indian in the World takes place, the narrator interrupts an intercourse with his wife who had been faking her orgasms for all their life together, and decides to go for a drink. As this phrase usually suggests drinking alcohol, the narrator makes it clear by stating surprisingly:
I don’t drink alcohol, never have, mostly because I don’t want to maintain and confirm any of my ethnic stereotypes, let alone the most prevalent one, but also because my long-lost father, a half-breed, is still missing somewhere in the bottom of a tequila bottle. I had always wondered if he was drunk because he was Indian or because he was white or because he was both. (47)
This seems as a fine example of Alexie’s reminiscence of him giving up drinking contrasting with his father who, being blamed here for having left the family, preferred his bottle to his family. The unclear blood quantum often causing feelings of insecurity and alienation among the Native Americans is also ridiculed here, as well as facing the all-present stereotype of being alcoholics.
Another way of looking at this stereotypical view of Indians drowning their dreams and hopes about a better future in the bottle is interestingly depicted in the story “A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result”, published in the collection The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Samuel Builds-the-Fire, the main character of the story, breaks two Native American stereotypes at once. He has never drunk, and he has a permanent regular job as a motel maid. On the day he is made redundant and has to leave the job, which was his only security and source of self-esteem, he finds his way to a bar, and orders a drink. The place he enters is the Midway Tavern, “where all the Indians drank in eight-hour shifts” (133). Even though the story evokes sad and bitter feelings and Alexie leaves Samuel lying on the train track at the end with an open ending, very probably a tragic one, he still inserts touches of ridiculing sarcastic humor which in this case is not meant to amuse but rather to make Samuel feel even worse. The following conversation takes place between Samuel and the bartender:
“So, what are you drinking, old-timer?”
“I’m not sure. Do you have a menu?”
The bartender laughed and laughed. Embarrassed, Samuel wanted to get up and run home. But he sat still, waited for the laughter to end.
“How about I just give you a beer?” the bartender asked then, and Samuel quickly agreed. The bartender set the beer in front of Samuel; the bartender laughed and had the urge to call the local newspaper. You got to get a photographer here. This Injun is going to take his first drink. (133-134, italics in original)
Even though the motif of alcohol is very often present throughout Sherman Alexie’s work, it usually functions as a second layer of the narrative, and creates the background to the stories of individuals who are somehow influenced by its consumption. Alexie is capable of depicting the tragic fates of alcoholic Indians while inserting a serious warning between the lines. Although he deals with a serious topic, offers moral messages and suggests educative approach in preventing obsessive drinking, which is done with urgency supported by his own previous alcoholic experience, Sherman Alexie does not always stay dead serious but adds slight touches of humor in his most delicate manner.
Coyote Aesthetics and Extreme Duality – Where Humor Meets Despair in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Apart from Sherman Alexie’s short story collections on which I have put the main emphasis so far because of their most natural resemblance to the original Native American storytelling tradition, I am going to have a closer look at the outstanding and controversial book called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in the last chapter of my thesis. This young adult book with its plot based on Alexie’s teenage years is written in a form of a diary, and differs from the previously discussed works of short story fiction in the person of the single narrator, strongly autobiographically crafted author’s alter ego Arnold Spirit, who is the central figure of the narrative.
From the position of a teenager shaping his opinions and perception of the adult world, captured in the bi-cultural trap of the life between the reservation and an all-white high school he chooses to transfer to, he comments on the most urgent Indian issues. Those range from education problems, alcoholism, poverty, health care or racism and bullying to the more positive ones, such as strong family ties and tribal unity, or Arnold’s motivation to compete with his white counter-parts, and live the American dream. The fact that the story is narrated in first person emphasizes its autobiographical character even further.
An interesting feature of this book is also the usage of poignant cartoon drawings by Ellen Forney. These do not only enrich it graphically but also serve as an equally important narrative tool with a direct connection to the text - Arnold draws them to help him comment on the world he lives in. Furthermore, they are a great source of humorous observations, and form an experimental sub-genre in studying Alexie’s usage of humor as such.
As I have already mentioned, The Absolutely True Diary has been accepted quite controversially, and raised many heated discussions among literary scholars as well as the reading public. Fulfilling Neil Gaiman’s prediction on its cover, the book was “in a year or so […] winning awards and being banned” for openly dealing with the topics like racism, bullying, death in the family, complicated ways towards sexual maturity including masturbation, and so on. Apart from this, it is sincerely open and emotional, uncovering the deepest feelings the narrator has concerning his attempts to overcome his health handicaps, to cope with alienation from both the reservation and the white world, and to face the everyday tragedies as well as a few pleasures of life.
I have chosen to dedicate The Absolutely True Diary the final chapter of my thesis also because of the fact that it not only offers amusing and heart-warming reading but in its plot resonate practically all the aspects of the Indian humor as I have described them. We can trace there an essence of the Trickster legacy which Vizenor believes to be an important distinguishing sign of the postmodern Indian novel, spiritual as well as communal function of humor, irony and sarcasm as ways to avoid being victimized, examples of razzing and teasing, and most importantly, the all-present duality of the Indian comic expression. Furthermore, through this narrative Alexie helps the young generation of contemporary Americans understand the Native American struggle for identity and position in the society probably the most playfully of all his works, and therefore fulfills his mission as a cultural ambassador which he once admitted to have an ambition to become.
As the concept of duality is the most distinctive feature of Indian humor, I am going to trace its extreme examples throughout the book, and place them in the corresponding context of the theoretical background I have established in the first part of my thesis. Apart from my focus on duality of expression, The Absolutely True Diary provides a good ground for studying the concept of fragmentation which Amy J. Elias calls coyote aesthetics.
In the chapter Teasing, Razzing, Shame Stories – A Critical Insight into the Native Community Humor, I claim that the ability to make fun of oneself is a sign of maturity, and even respected elders are capable of this to gain respect among their fellow tribesmen. When teenaged Arnold describes his physical abnormalities and health complications caused by his hydrocephalus, a serious brain disorder he suffered from in his early childhood, he does it with a harsh humorous style which wins him the position of a mature storyteller. Furthermore, the resulting effect is a strong dichotomy between the pain and social exclusion suffered, and the tragicomic way to illustrate them.
One of the side effects of Arnold’s condition was having forty-two teeth. When he describes the surgical removal of the ten extra teeth, he comments:
I went to Indian Health Service to get some teeth pulled so I could eat normally, not like some slobbering vulture. But the Indian Health Service funded major dental work only once a year, so I had to have all ten extra teeth pulled in one day. And, what’s more our white dentist believed that Indians only felt half as much pain as white people did, so he only gave us half the Novocain. (2, italics in original)
Not surprisingly, due to his physical abnormalities including skinny figure contrasting with his large hands and feet, thick glasses, speech disorders like stuttering and lisping, frequent seizures and a big head Arnold becomes an object of bullying and ridiculing by his teenage counterparts. He sadly but rather stoically asserts: “And my skull was enormous. Epic. My head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it. Some of the kids called me Orbit. And other kids just called me Globe. The bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, “I want to go there.” (3).
Despite his isolation, Arnold does make some friends. As I have pointed out in the chapter Teasing, Razzing, Shame Stories – A Critical Insight into the Native Community Humor, a balance in peer relationships within the Native communities is often achieved through rather violent and insensitive acts. It is then no surprise that Arnold finds his best friend in Rowdy, “the toughest kid on the rez” (15). Rowdy is a son of always-drunk parents who is often violently beaten, and his own violence and toughness provide him with the strength to cope with his bad fate. He ridicules Arnold as much as the others do but at the same time offers him protection from the bullies. This relationship is in accord with Kristina Fagan’s observation that there is often an outside, not fitting in the community, and both humor and violence can be found in a strange harmony when overcoming the hardships he or she faces when trying to find the place within the group. She states that: “There is always an edge to community, an edge that lies between inclusion and exclusion, identification and alienation, power and victimhood, harmony and conflict.” (qtd. in Taylor 43).
Arnold’s other friendship is a completely different one but still illustrates Fagan’s quote very well. When he transfers to Reardan to study at an almost all-white high school, Arnold associates with Gordy, a young genius with encyclopedic knowledge, vast vocabulary, and rather weird behavior. As Arnold comments, “this kid was an eighty-year-old literature professor trapped in the body of a fifteen-year-old farm boy.” (93). That is probably the reason why Arnold offers him to become friends because, as he rightly assumes, the fact that both of them are considered to be freaks by their counterparts could help them overcome the drawbacks of such isolation, and motivate each other to finish school successfully. That is another moment when Alexie inserts an Indian concept to understand relationships and community ties. When Arnold complains to Gordy that he is called names back on the reservation, he explains: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” Gordy understands that Arnold is considered to be a traitor, and replies: “Well, life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” (132). That is when they realize that their isolation can make them stronger, as they continue their dialogue about tribalism as a way to protect an individual by creating a community:
“Weird people still get banished.”
“You mean weird people like me,” I said.
“And me,” Gordy said.
“All right then,” I said. “So we have a tribe of two.”
I had the sudden urge to hug Gordy, and he had the sudden urge to prevent me from hugging him.
“Don’t get sentimental,” he said.
Yep, even the weird boys are afraid of their emotion. (132)
Arnold’s feeling of isolation from both the reservation and the white world is one of the central aspects of the book. The pervasive dichotomy of the Native American expression is present in the very fact that having recognized his talents and aspirations, both the teachers and his family support Arnold in his decision to transfer from an Indian school at Wellpinit to the white town of Reardan. While understanding the importance to provide him with a better-quality education there, none of them hide their hatred and suspicions towards the white people, and thus support the racist feelings illustrated by many examples throughout the narrative. When Arnold reflects his travels between the two different worlds, he observes: “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay very well at all.” (118). When he sums up his observations from the first days in the white school, he describes the Reardan students as kids who “weren’t just white” but “translucent” (italics in original), and adds: “I could see the blue veins running through their skin like rivers.” Typically for Alexie, these rather serious comments alienating Arnold from his classmates conclude in a comical reflection: “They stared at me like I was Bigfoot or a UFO. What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town?” (56, italics in original).
Feelings of otherness naturally form a base for stronger racial attacks, both verbal and psychological. These are uttered or acted mostly by the members of the white majority and aimed at Indians but the division between them and us can be felt in both directions. A good example of a bitter racial comment turned the other way is found in the dialogue between Arnold and his father when they discuss the meaning of Thanksgiving, and whether to celebrate it or not: “Hey, Dad,” I said. “What do Indians have to be so thankful for?” “We should be thankful that they didn’t kill all of us.” (102). Another quite unusual example of the racial perception comes when Arnold falls in love with Penelope, his white classmate. He wonders: “I’m an Indian boy. […] How can I get a white girl to love me?” Gordy offers to “do some research on that” and on a case of two hundred lost Mexican girls bringing only small public attention demonstrates his surprising conclusion that it is only the beautiful white girls who are cared about on this planet. When Arnold does not see his point, Gordy sarcastically assumes: “I think it means you’re just a racist asshole like everybody else” (116).
However, these rather comic situations often change into hard racial offenses. While being bullied by his white classmates, Arnold learns that “Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo” (64). Also Penelope’s father is openly racist when he learns about the platonic relationship of his daughter with Arnold, and comments: “She’s only dating you because she knows it will piss me off.” After some more violent threats, he adds: “Kid, if you get my daughter pregnant, if you make some charcoal babies, I’m going to disown her. I’m going to kick her out of my house” (109). Still, Alexie’s masterful ability to turn even hard moments into biting irony is immense. Arnold describes Reardan as a town “filled with farmers and rednecks and racist cops who stop every Indian that drives through” and continues with the reminiscence that, when he was little, “during one week […] Dad got stopped three times for DWI: Driving While Indian.” (46).
As a motivated student and somewhat of a nerd, Arnold finds the reservation education conditions a good ground for his sarcastic observations. His teacher, Mr. P, is described as a helpless sleepy figure who deserves pity only for being forced to teach at the reservation because he is only “a lonely old man who used to be a lonely young man”. Arnold nevertheless pursues another theory that, according to some, Mr. P might be a Sicilian accountant who testified against Mafia and is hidden by the Witness Relocation Program as “if the government wants to hide somebody, there’s probably no place more isolated than my reservation, which is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.” (30)
Another issue that Arnold describes in a rather unorthodox way is his family’s and whole reservation community’s poverty. It often results in hunger as his father often drinks for the last money which is left. Such situation is described when Arnold sadly asserts: “I wish I could draw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills, and perform some magic trick and make it real.” (7) and continues to comment that quite often “sleep is the only thing we have for dinner” (8). This sad result of the reservation and his family’s conditions is then transferred to a more philosophical and pan-Indian thought: “Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands.” (11, italics in original). Despite the fact that Alexie chooses to introduce the topic of poverty by sad recollections from Arnold’s childhood, he later changes the mode of depicting it when the main character gets older and attends high school. With an ironic twist, Arnold describes his Halloween celebration: “At school today, I went dressed as a homeless dude. It was a pretty easy costume for me. There’s not much difference between my good and bad clothes, so I pretty much look half-homeless anyway.” (77). Later, Arnold comments on his parents trying to support him studying in Reardan and providing him with all the necessities: “My parents gave me just enough money so that I could pretend to have more money than I did.” (119). He pretends to be better off to prevent himself from being ridiculed by his newly found white friends. One night, when he joins his classmates for late dinner at a pancake restaurant after the Winter Formal school ball, he realizes he does not have enough money to pay for Penelope and for himself. However, he orders a full menu, and stoically assumes: “I figured it was my last meal before my execution, and I was going to have a feast.” (125). Although he has to admit his poverty to his companions later, they appear to be friendly and do not tease him for his financial situation any more.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, The True Diary raised some heated discussions among education experts, teachers and parents whether or not it should be recommended as suggested reading within the curriculum. One of the central aspects of its controversial acceptance is open dealing with the topics like masturbation. In her article School Yanks Book From Class After Complaint, Lauren Duke quotes one of the fathers offended by its contents, stating: “I didn’t feel the book was appropriate for a required reading assignment for a 14-year-old,” he said. “It had a lot of references that I didn’t feel comfortable with.” In this case, parents were successful at having the book left out from the curriculum. Whether this step was a little far-fetched or not is disputable but as the controversial passage is another example of Alexie’s openness and humor, I am going to quote it. Arnold introduces the topic of his appetite for masturbation by a mantra-like statement: “Naked woman + right hand = happy happy joy joy” (26, italics in original), and adds: “Yep, that’s right, I admit that I masturbate. I’m proud of it. I’m good at it. I’m ambidextrous. If there were a Professional Masturbators League, I’d get drafted number one and make millions of dollars.” (26).
The most striking examples of extreme duality in dealing with serious issues humorously appear when Arnold finds himself in despair after two family tragedies which occur throughout the narrative – tragic deaths of his grandmother and sister. The former incident stands as an exemplary demonstration of the main thesis of this chapter. His grandmother dies after she is struck by a drunk driver, which seems paradoxical especially because of the fact that she had never drunk alcohol herself. During the wake ceremony, a strange incident happens. Eccentric Billionaire Ted appears there among two thousand Indians who came to say goodbye to an immensely popular member of their tribe. He tells the surprised audience a hardly believable story of an old powwow dance outfit which he once bought from a stranger and promised himself to search for its real owner. The shocked family cannot believe this. Suddenly, they realize that he is convinced that the outfit belonged to Arnold’s grandmother, and he brings it back to her tribesmen. At this point, the grieving ceremony becomes a weird and in a way funny show. Arnold utters: “I wondered if we were all part of some crazy reality show called When Billionaires Pretend to be Human.” (164, italics in original). His mother then stands up and explains the surprised billionaire that he must have been mistaken for the fact that Grandmother Spirit attended powwows but never as a dancer, and therefore she had never owned a dancing outfit. The following passage then explains much about the laughter coming at the worst times to relieve grief, and to heal common wounds within the Native communities, as I demonstrated on Clyde Hall’s quote in the chapter Where Does the “Stoic Indian” Stereotype Comes From? that laughter has the power to shatter crying which then loses its power over people:
For about two minutes, we all sat quiet. Who knew what to say? And then my mother started laughing. And that set us all off. Two thousand Indians laughed at the same time. We kept laughing. It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard. And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but, dang, we knew how to laugh. When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing. (166)
Apart from Clyde Hall, more observers mention the ability of Native American humor to release pain even in the worst times. Kristina Fagan speaks of humor as a means of coping, and asserts that “humour is shown as offering a sense of relief and an acceptance of circumstance in the face of danger or tragedy” (qtd. in Taylor 26).
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian offers yet another perspective of understanding the Native American writing where humor in accord with the legacy of Trickster serves as a communicator of more serious messages. In her essay Fragments That Rune Up the Shores: Pushing the Bear, Coyote Aesthetics, and Recovered History, Amy J. Elias wonders “how to express […] an American Indian identity when the past is remote, many of the traditional ways have been lost, and one is forced to write in a foreign language while under the yoke of colonialism.” (5). She agrees with Diane Glancy who pursues a theory that we have to get new perspectives on literature which should be understood “not by Western, but by tribal-centered criticism”, and offers her own term for this process, “Coyosmic”, a “literary theory according to Coyote” (5). Thus, we may apply this approach in trying to understand the hidden message in The Absolutely True Diary, which, in my opinion, communicates Alexie’s urge to help a mainstream American reader raised in the white dominant culture get a feel of the Native American lifestyle, and see the obstacles a teenage Indian boy faces in his effort to assimilate with the American lifestyle without losing his indigenous values and tribal ties.
Sherman Alexie uses narrative techniques which resonate with the best tradition of the original Indian storytelling, in his stories he balances on the sharp edge between the comic and the tragic, and recalls the features associated with the legacy of Trickster as making fun of oneself as a loser, or teaching people how to live well through successes and failures of his heroes. Thus we may apply the term coyote aesthetics, which Amy J. Elias connotes especially with Diane Clancy’s writing to describe the process of linking the traditional forms with the postmodern literary expression, also to Alexie’s short story fiction. Elias specifies coyote aesthetics as “a narrative technique of fragmentation that both recuperates a living oral literary tradition based in non-European tropes and serves a specifically Native American postcolonial agenda” (4).
I am convinced that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an exceptional showcase of Sherman Alexie’s fiction work. While staying in his typical setting of an individual captured in the reservation versus white world struggle, he touches very sensitive moments of the adolescent life, openly discusses taboo topics as well as countless personal tragedies. What is even more vivid than those issues themselves, is the range of expression modes and their strength. Apart from extensive use of the linguistic means in question of my thesis - humor in all its shades, irony and sarcasm, Alexie chooses to go further, and experiments with new forms and stylistic innovations in his work. While maintaining his standard brief and well-reading style full of surprising conclusions, frequent use of direct speech, and distinctive characters, Alexie appoints the first-person narrator who combines his often-childish observations with frequent use of vulgarisms, and accompanies his narrative with the cartoon drawings integrally connected with the text. This may seem a contradicting mixture but it only underscores the vast possibilities and multiple layers of dichotomies present in the Native American expression.
In my thesis, I have tried to provide a complex analysis of the phenomenon of Indian humor. Having studied the theoretical background and psychology of laughter, I have shown that even humorous discourse can be considered as serious art. From the historical point of view I have traced the roots of the false “stoic Indian” stereotype and an important role of humor - the one of helping release the Native population from the pain caused by the colonizing period, often referred to as holocaust. I have pointed out that laughter forms also strong community bonds and can act even as a spiritual power within the Indian community hierarchy.
Another concern is the possibility of the audience outside the Native American community to understand Indian humor. I have explored the linguistic, cultural, ethnical and historical obstacles complicating the process of deconstructing the nuances of the Native humorous expression, and have come to the conclusion that without being closely acquainted with these elements, it is practically impossible to fully comprehend the humorous message in the Indian writing and storytelling.
As far as the basic concepts of the Indian humor are concerned, my thesis focuses on the legacy of Trickster, which, in its many forms still influences the philosophy of many Native American authors. According to my analysis, the Trickster morals as well as behavior patterns can be traced even in the postmodern novel, and its humorous essence is a crucial element in the Indian literature. I have also studied the concept of duality and found out that the tension between the tragic and the comic forms the characteristic feature of the Indian humorous discourse.
The last part of my thesis demonstrates the usage of humor and irony in the work of Sherman Alexie. I have tried to show that this significant contemporary writer of Indian prose and poetry is through his writing able to synthesize all the aspects of traditional features associated with Native American humor in a modern outfit which not only completely deconstructs the traditional stoic Indian myth but in its place builds a vision. His vision is a belief that humor even in its darker moods can be a good communicator and a connecting and explaining element of mutual cultural understanding between white and aboriginal worlds in post-colonial America.
We can only hope that the bond which a good laugh creates can help heal the wounds from the past where land annexing, broken treaties, and consequent holocaust formed centuries-lasting hatred between the white man and the so-called American Indian.
This Master’s Diploma Thesis focuses on the topic of humor as a significant means of expression in the literature of Native American authors from the beginnings of their oral storytelling tradition up to the works of contemporary writers. It explores the origins of the false “stoic warrior” myth as a stereotypical representation of seriousness, and also the importance of humor as a bonding element in the spiritual as well as communal life of the Native Americans. The thesis mentions the reasons why and how can humor serve as an escape from the often sad reality of the contemporary Indians settling in reservations and urban areas, tries to answer the question whether and to what extent is the Indian humor comprehensible for readers from the mainstream Anglo-American culture, and whether it is meant to be.
Another concern of this thesis is to trace the main historical and cultural concepts of the Indian humor, such as the tradition of various forms of the creation myth figure – the Trickster.
The findings of the theoretical part of this are then demonstrated on the prose works of one of the most significant contemporary Indian authors, Sherman Alexie. I explore vast usage of humor in Alexie’s short story fiction and film works, and study the ironic style through which he approaches taboo topics such as problematic upbringing and life on the edge between the disadvantaged minority culture and the dominant American society, alcoholism, family disintegration, and violence. As a central feature of the contrast between the serious reality of the Indian communities and its description with the use of sarcastic humor is presented the concept of duality.
Tato magisterská diplomová práce se zabývá tématem humoru jako významného výrazového prostředku v literatuře severoamerických indiánských autorů od počátků jejich ústní vypravěčské tradice až po díla současných spisovatelů. Zkoumá původ falešného mýtu o „stoickém válečníkovi“ jakožto stereotypnímu ztělesnění vážnosti i důležitost humoru jako stmelujícího prvku v duchovní oblasti i v každodenním životě severoamerických indiánských komunit. Tato diplomová práce si také všímá důvodů proč a jakým způsobem slouží humor jako únik z často neveselé reality současných Indiánů sídlících v rezervacích i v městských oblastech, pokládá si otázku do jaké míry je indiánský humor srozumitelný pro čtenáře z většinové anglofonní americké kultury, a zda vůbec má být.
Práce se dále podrobně věnuje hlavním historickým a kulturním konceptům indiánského humoru, jako je například tradice různých podob mýtické figury stojící u příběhů stvoření - Trickstera.
Na prozaických dílech patrně nejvýznamnějšího současného indiánského autora Shermana Alexieho pak tato magisterská diplomová práce demonstruje příklady jednotlivých zjištění zmíněných v teoretické části. Ukazuje široký záběr užití humoru v Alexieho dílech povídkových a filmových, a také se zabývá ironickým stylem, kterým autor popisuje mnohdy tabuizovaná sociální témata, jako jsou problematické dospívání a život na pomezí znevýhodněné menšinové kultury a dominantní americké společnosti, alkoholismus, rozvrácené rodinné vztahy a často přítomné násilí. Jako centrální prvek kontrastu mezi vážností témat vyplývajících z reality severoamerických indiánských komunit a jejich pojetí za pomocí sarkastického humoru je pak nastíněn koncept duality.
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