"There’s nothing worse than a white liberal who thinks they’re doing the right thing": Sherman Alexie on Hollywood diversity, "The Revenant" and why he's "not the proper kind of Indian"

Acclaimed author Sherman Alexie talks to Salon about writing his first picture book, "Thunder Boy Jr."

Published May 7, 2016 11:30AM (EDT)

Sherman Alexie   (Rob Casey)
Sherman Alexie (Rob Casey)

It’s no secret that the publishing world does not focus enough on books by diverse authors—and it’s even more problematic when it comes to books for kids. The award-winning writer Sherman Alexie (author of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," as well as 23 other books, and a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation) is about to release his first picture book for younger children next week. "Thunder Boy Jr." (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, May 10, $17.99), illustrated by Caldecott Honor winner Yuyi Morales, is a moving story about identity. Thunder Boy Jr. wants to stand out from his dad and have his own name. “I want a name that sounds like me,” Thunder Boy Jr. says. “I want a name that celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” The tale that unfolds is one of a powerful bond between a father and son.

I spoke with Sherman Alexie earlier in the spring about the inspiration behind this book, on not being a “proper kind of Indian,” and why contemporary TV is much better than movies.

How did you come up with the idea for "Thunder Boy Jr."?

Its beginning, its genesis, even though I hadn’t thought of it as a book back then, was my dad’s funeral and seeing the tombstone. I’m Sherman Alexie Jr., so seeing a tombstone with my name on it really just kicked off all sorts of personal shit.

Was that recently?

2003, so no. Thirteen years ago, but it’s been brewing ever since. I’ve written poems about that moment and nothing ever really coalesced in written form. I talked about it on stage during my performances because it’s a really powerful moment, when I get to give shit to men for their patriarchal bullshit, ego, naming their kids after themselves, and that’s when I lecture the young men who don’t have kids yet. Don’t name your fucking son after yourself. All that stuff was in me, the pressure. I mean, being the son of a father who’s pressured anyway, and then to have the same name, it’s madness. So that concept, the pressure of being named after your father, of being so meshed and identified with this man that you have his name, was always with me. Then combined with me being from a tribe, with all the tribal pressures.

Were there also books you were thinking of from childhood?

I hadn’t even thought about it in those terms, but now that you ask that question, my favorite picture book of all time is “The Snowy Day.” The reservation library had a book sale and I bought the one I read when I was 4. I have the copy from my youth now. I had checked it out 50 times. I mean that book is about a kid going out on his own; he spends the whole day alone.

So that really inspired you?

Subconsciously, yeah, a little brown boy on his own.

But that’s what books do for us, right?

Yeah, they can [become] a part of your DNA.

"Thunder Boy Jr." is about traditions. How important are traditions to you?

One thing that really bugs me about Native writing for kids, whether written by non-Natives or Natives, is how corny it is. It’s just the same old talking bears… and maybe there are Indians who live their lives that way or talk that way. I don’t know them. I know a lot of Indians, and no Indian I know talks that way. Like in the other culture, we’ve evolved…. I wasn’t going to have some silly Native book. It was going to be utterly contemporary, but using traditional ideas.

What was it like collaborating with Yuyi Morales?

When they said let’s find an illustrator, I said “Send me a bunch of brown people. Men and women.” So it was Asian, Latino, a bunch of African-Americans, just a bunch of different ethnic folks, because I wanted somebody brown. Who would bring that particular perspective to it? And Yuyi, as soon as I saw her art I knew. It had this playfulness to it, and her boys felt like boys, her drawings. And I since learned she has a son…

Is he an inspiration to her?

Yeah, yeah. And just this energy coming off the page, I felt it, I knew she knew boys. So I picked her. But then I kind of stayed out of the way. She read the text and then went with her stuff and her being a mother, and me being a father, and working mostly independently and came to this middle place, which is the book. So she brought in things… One of my favorite images is the mom by the motorcycle with the flower skirt. That’s her completely. As soon as I saw it I went “That’s so perfect!” There’s stuff I commented on that got changed. But by in large it’s all of her original work.

Had you already written the complete story?

When you hire somebody to do the illustrations, [you] just let them work. I loved her art, so let her be the artist. Also, I’m the beginner. She’s got quite a few books under her belt. I let the illustrator do her wonderful job.

This is your first children’s book. What were the particular challenges to writing in this genre?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that because I knew I’d have to talk about it. The difficulty is that you’re writing the book about 70 percent for the kid and about 30 percent for the adult that’s going to read it to them. How do you write for a kid without being condescending, because they’ll sniff that out immediately? How do you write something that has multiple meanings, that will sustain not only the kid’s interest but the adult’s interest as well? So I think it’s not just the surface that’s difficult, it’s layering in multiple meanings, which is what I wanted to do, which is in any literary work what you try to do. I think that’s what made it so difficult to me, was layering in multiple meanings for multiple audiences.

Did you test it out on your own kids?

My own kids, a lot of kids. My friends’ kids. A lot of watching them…

How did they react?

I tried 20 or 30 ideas before this idea. And one I went really far along with, but I couldn’t unlock it. I still wasn’t sure about this one until I actually performed it at readings of my adult work. I said “Let me read this to you.” Because I thought, if I can get this audience of adults to go for it then maybe there’s something there?

What were their reactions?

Oh, they loved it. The political-social subtext of independence. Part of the subtext is about dealing with authority and they immediately caught all that.

And that’s something every human can relate to.

Yes. I think that’s one of the reasons “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is so popular among kids, because it's about a kid finding himself. But that’s in a dysfunctional, horrible tragic way. So I wanted to write something about a strong family unit. This kid is finding his own identity but he’s being supported, which is important to me. A couple of reviewers have noted that the father gives him the name, instead of the kid picking it on his own. And I went back and forth on that one, writing it, whether the kid would be operating under his own agency. But I thought it’s important to have a strong, empathetic Native father in this book that would see his son in turmoil and do what he could do to address it. And not punish him. In fact…

Allow him to flourish.

Yeah, so a brown father being the kind of father I wanted to be.

I know you’ve participated in the We Need Diverse Books campaign. In your opinion, how has the literary landscape changed in just the last couple of years?

I don’t know the numbers. There’s a lot more talk about it but I don’t really see more books. There’s a lot of talking. I remember the first time I went through with the meetings selling “True Diary,” about 90 percent of the people in there were white, which is fine, but as soon as I met somebody that was brown, they had the edge. Especially when it ended up being my editor Jennifer Hunt. She and I had similar backgrounds — she grew up the only brown kid in a white community, like the characters. So there was a connection immediately and I wonder, to get more diverse books you have to have more diverse editors. I don’t think that’s happening. I have a brown editor again, but I don’t know that that’s the experience of very many brown writers. There’s a fundamental change that I don’t know if that’s happening. But that’s where it needs to begin.

In addition to changing the publishing landscape, how can readers make a difference?

Well, you have to make the conscious decision to read outside of your own experience. And writers have to say it. You have to challenge yourself.

Do you see more people doing that?

Well, I know they do it in the adult world.

Is it more problematic when it comes to kids' books?

I think there tends to be more conservative, and I don’t mean Republican, just conservative attitudes towards kids’ literature and what can or cannot be read by a kid. Your kid or anybody else’s kid. I think one of the unstated reasons why my book is banned so much, is not because of masturbation or sexual references. It’s because of the politics. It gets parents uncomfortable.

A banned book is the sign of a very good book!

Oh, I’m completely happy to be banned. Please ban me. Somebody start a nationwide effort… The thing is the people who are offended by me, are almost always offended by me, because I’m not the “proper kind of Indian.” They expect this noble, talking-animals guy or they expect a certain kind of writer.

They don’t have room for irreverence.

They don’t want the human being who created the work. And I’m a sloppy, inappropriate, crazy, impulsive mess.

And the reading public is so happy for that! (Laughs.) It makes for good art. Hollywood is even worse with representation. What do you think needs to be changed in the movie industry in order to reflect the stories of a variety of Americans?

It’s even deeper than [publishing]. Hollywood are cowards.

I’m also thinking of “The Revenant” being the top movie this year, and the controversy over…

What, the serial killer in space doc? (Laughs.) The mass murderer of Indians that it’s based upon. Leo DiCaprio getting up [to accept his Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, when he gave a speech] about honoring and respecting Natives, well then, why the fuck did you play this guy? Why did you whitewash his past? There’s nothing worse than a white liberal who thinks they’re doing the right thing. And Hollywood is filled with white liberal arrogance.

There’s no room for error in that, really…

Right. Their liberal intentions are always “pure.” But it’s combined with enormous sums of money and the fear of losing money. So you got white liberalism and the fear of losing money. And it’s a deadly combination for brown-skinned artists in the movie business.

How do we change that?

I don’t know, I don’t know. And the thing is it’s gotten worse in a lot of ways because it’s so hard for any movies to make money now because of the Internet and because of culture changes, that it’s an even a bigger gamble to bet on.

And we also see people of color in stereotypical roles. We don’t see them breaking out of that a lot.

Yeah. I mean TV is a lot better now, TV is enormously better.

What are some examples?

Something like “Scandal.” Even minor roles are better. The Indian dude in “Fargo” [Zahn McClarnon] does a pretty good role. And the great thing is brown people are getting to do the good guys and the bad guys. It’s the wide range of roles. On “Scandal” they get to be the scheming... And brown people get to have sex, they get to have normal sex, which is awesome. So TV is better.

Why do you think TV is better? Why is it happening there and not in Hollywood?

Less money, and also everybody watches TV. I think the TV industry realizes it. Also because it’s been so impossible for anybody of any race to make a movie now and it’s much easier to make TV. I think better minds are in TV. “Breaking Bad” [Vince Gilligan], he would’ve been making movies in the ’70s. That would’ve been “Taxi Driver.” But studios don’t do that anymore and TV will. And the stakes are lower. They are lower to be a success in TV. So you want more brown people, you’ll have to make less money.

I mean, I don’t work in Hollywood. I have in the past. I go on various pissed-off breaks. I knew eventually I’d go on a break that … because they always brought me back. I would quit and then somebody would call me with a project. And nobody’s calling me now. I think we have a mutual break now.

Do you want to work in Hollywood again?

Because they’ve been after “True Diary” since it came out. And I’ve almost signed deals and in the end I couldn’t, it’s too personal. I knew that I would have to fight for every ounce of authenticity.

It’s not really yours once you sign that paper.

No, and what I remember vividly, screenwriter friends of mine had made a movie. It had filmed and they had written it and it was a very personal story. And I was there at the press conference, just accidently, by happenstance. Screenwriters weren’t answering questions, they were in the audience with me. And the director was up on stage and somebody asked him a question about the movie and he proceeded to answer as if he had lived that experience.

So, cultural appropriation!

Life appropriation. Pain appropriation. And I just cannot even imagine having to hear some director answer a question about my life story. So I always, in the end, ended up saying no, and I just said no again recently.

In the book world you have more power!

Yeah, I have enormous power in the book world. I’m one of the few brown people that do. But I mean I’ve been doing this a long time.

Who are some younger writers of color that you are mentoring or you want to see their names everywhere?

There are a bunch of Native poets who are incredible. Sherwin Bitsui, Natalie Diaz, whose star is really rising. She doesn’t need my help at all. Although I’m trying to get her to write fiction. I’m peer-pressuring her.

Who are some of your favorite writers in general?

A lot of the writers I like of color and not of color, are students. I work at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and I’m not going to say any names because they're babies. Some are older than me, but they’re babies in terms of writing. There’s a few that are already ready, so we’re inching along toward a book. But in terms of everybody? What do I have with me? I got Richard Price’s new book. It’s new in paperback, “The Whites.” I’ve always loved his work. I’d love to write a giant, Native urban crime book like he does. Where the Indians are the cops and the criminals. I’ve had ideas over the years and never went through with it.

Do you think you might?

Well, I’m reading “The Whites” for a very specific reason. And I’ve been rereading him. I also have with me a book of poems by Dennis O’Driscoll, a poet who passed away. Beautiful. Published posthumously. It’s funny people thought “after reading all those poems last year, did you stop reading poems?” No. A poet I love is Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Beautiful. My favorite books of all time, Leslie Marmon Silko — “Ceremony.” James Welch’s “Winter in the Blood,” Joy Harjo’s “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window.” Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Emily Dickinson’s collected poems, James Wright’s “The Branch Will Not Break.” “The Great Gatsby.” "Tristram Shandy." What ends up appealing to me most is funny. I need a book with wit, and morbid wit.

By Michele Filgate

Michele Filgate's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Vulture, Capital New York, Time Out New York, The Star Tribune, O: The Oprah Magazine, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation and other publications

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