‘Breaking and Entering’: Sherman Alexie’s urban Indian literature
Farrington, Tom Joseph William
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This thesis reads the fiction and poetry of Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie as predominantly urban Indian literature. The primary experience of the growing majority of American Indians in the twenty-first century consists in the various threats and opportunities presented by urban living, yet contemporary criticism of literature by (and about) American Indians continues to focus on the representations of life for those tribally enrolled American Indians living on reservations, under the jurisdiction of tribal governments. This thesis provides critical responses to Alexie’s contemporary literary representations of those Indians living apart from tribal lands and the communities and traditions contained therein. I argue that Alexie’s multifaceted representations of Indians in the city establish intelligible urban voices that speak across tribal boundaries to those urban Indians variously engaged in creating diverse Indian communities, initiating new urban traditions, and adapting to the anonymities and visibilities that characterise city living. The thesis takes a broadly linear chronological structure, beginning with Alexie’s first published collection of short stories and concluding with his most recent works. Each chapter isolates for examination a distinct aspect of Alexie’s urban Indian literature, so demonstrating a potential new critical methodology for reading urban Indian literatures. I open with a short piece explaining my position as a white, British scholar of the heavily politicised field of American Indian literary studies, before the introductory chapter positions Alexie in the wider body of Indian literatures and establishes the historical grounds for the aims and claims of my research. Chapter one is primarily concerned with the short story ‘Distances’, from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), and the Ghost Dance religion of the late nineteenth century, reading Alexie’s representations of this phenomenon as explorations of the historical and political tensions that divide those Indians living on tribal lands and those living in cities. Chapter two discusses the difficulties of maintaining a tribal identity when negotiating this divide towards the city, analysing the politics of indigenous artistic expression and reception in Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues (1995). Alexie’s second novel, Indian Killer (1996), signals the relocation of his literary aesthetics to the city streets, and chapter three detects and unravels the anti-essentialist impulse in Alexie’s (mis)use of the distinctly urban mystery thriller genre. Grief, death and ritual are explored in chapter four, which focusses on selected stories from Ten Little Indians (2003), and explains Alexie’s characters’ need for new, urban traditions with reference to an ethics of grieving. Chapter five connects the politics of time travel to the representation of trauma in Flight (2007), and addresses Alexie’s representations of violence in Ten Little Indians and The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), proposing that it is the structural violences of daily life, rather than the murder and beatings found throughout his work, that leave lasting impressions on urban Indian subjectivities. My conclusion brings together my approaches to Alexie’s urban Indian literature, and suggests further areas for research.