Archive for March, 2010

Recently, Sherman Alexie was introduced as a Native American writer on The Colbert Report. Since he is Native American and writes fiction that generally focuses on Native American characters, nobody seemed to mind that his race had become part of his job title. But what if he wrote novels about dragons? Would he be described as a Native American fantasy novelist? What if, in addition to being Indian, he was gay, and wrote about gay characters? Naturally, he would have been introduced as a gay Native American writer. Maybe they already have a genre called Gay and Lesbian Native American Fantasy Literature, even for books with broad or universal content that transcends genre. Everything is categorized and labeled — people and literature included.

A few years ago, my boyfriend and I were having dinner with some friends of his who were still in college. I met someone who said he had read my stories in a class he was taking. It turned out that, without my knowledge, my work was being featured in a literary studies course as an example of Native American Literature.

It bothered me that my work had already been dumped into a racial category. Were my stories more valuable because of my ancestry? Were they more interesting? Does a book fit into the Native American genre if at least one character is Native American, or the author is? Isn’t the idea of basing a genre on a race sort of racist? I was also bothered by the possibility that if I protested this label, I might be accused of being ashamed of my heritage. I felt a powerful desire to adopt an alter ego with a mysterious background. People would have to take my work at face value, and I would accept the risk that they would no longer find it interesting.

When we see the author’s portrait on her book jacket, the idea of who she is becomes an invisible frame around every page, dictating the way we read her work and the level of quality we assign to it. The frame pulses with her attractiveness or ugliness, the color of her hair, her gender, and ultimately, her race. Without knowing it, I have already reached the day in which my own words have been heavily steeped in the context of “Who I Am According to the Darkened Bubbles on a Form.” Suddenly, the fact that I am 7/32nds Native American has been deemed relevant — even essential — to the interpretation of my nonfiction and fiction work alike.

I wonder if Sherman Alexie felt any outrage about his introduction on The Colbert Report.  If he did, he said nothing. He had a book to promote, and maybe he didn’t want to waste any time or come off as uptight or argumentative. Maybe he was fine with it. Maybe he had asked to be introduced that way. I hope not. I really do.


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Deep sea thinking


I’ve found a correlation between the amount of time I spend alone and the quality of my writing. Images spring from the air; sentences unwind like long dirt roads carrying impressions of a story in every washboard divot and dead bug. I read blogs and interviews in which my favorite artists — from writers to musicians to film directors — provide similar observations. Whether they’re introverts or not, they say solitude is crucial for creativity.

When I was a kid on summer vacation, I used to lie on my back in the woods behind our house after a long day outside. I watched night fall in increments. In bed that night, images rose in my mind like the backs of whales from a dark ocean.

Today, I read that scientists have discovered life beneath an Antarctic ice sheet. Six-hundred feet below the ice, in the dark and cold where nothing but a few microbes should exist, they found a shrimp-like creature and a jellyfish.

Is long-term solitude the equivalent of an ice sheet trapping ideas below where, deprived of heat and light, they die? Or do our minds adapt? Like deep sea fish, do rare thoughts bathe the terrain in bioluminescent light? Do they illuminate the monstrous curves of a whale skeleton, the open jaws of angler fish, the grotesque and bizarre, and the kind of beauty that thrives in a place where no other creatures could be sustained? It’s worth exploring. Who knows what might emerge from those quiet depths?

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Dirty word



Blog. It sounds like the scientific name for a dead animal floating down a river. A stupid, bloated, greasy hamburger-wrapper slogan of a word. For many writers, the idea of blogging — just hearing that word out loud — is repulsive, if not sacriligious.  But really — will writing lose its place in the upper echelons of artistic expression by sticking it online?

Sure, many blogs are terrible — the same goes for a slightly smaller number of books. And it’s true that bloggers don’t always bother to apply thorough clean-up measures to their posts, but often, their ideas are still interesting, even in a raw state. Much of it is over-wordy. The style is casual, conversational. But that doesn’t make it invalid, disposable, or as vapid — possibly fattening? — as its name might suggest.

To relate to someone is a beautiful thing. To write something that people can relate to is an art. Whether you do it on a typewriter or a glowing screen shouldn’t matter. If you then go on to post it to the internet, don’t be too hard on yourself. Call it online journaling, if you’d like.

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I’m T.  My roommate, R, and I thought it would be a good idea for me to write a letter so that you know what went on in this house before you moved in. You’re probably renters (the plural is also an assumption). You have found this letter stuffed into a hole in the fake wood-paneling in the basement, among other little scraps of paper. That hole was there when we moved in. When R found the little pieces of notebook paper, he wouldn’t look at them.  He thought they might be cryptic messages written in blood, or suicide notes. How do you like the cowboy wallpaper down here, by the way? Isn’t it terrifying? Anyway, I had to take the papers out. Nothing was written on them. They had probably been stuffed in there to serve as insulation. But they gave us an idea. We wanted to put a note of our own inside, so that if you’re brave enough, and the hole hasn’t been patched up, you can find a pretty non-scary letter that provides an impression of the house in which you have chosen to carry out the more private processes of your lives.

I am writing this letter about five months before R and I plan to move. We were happy here. As far as we know, there are no ghosts. You can probably make some up if you want. It would be easy to do. We’ve always thought that someone had died here–probably on the main level, in the blue or yellow room.

The yellow room still smells like patchouli oil from the hippie hygiene habits of one of the former tenants, who we knew from college. God, I hate that smell, don’t you? Try to leave the door open. The hippie and his schizophrenic roommate are also responsible for the pillows arranged in the attic like an opium den, and for the rabbit skeletons you may find under rocks in the backyard. We removed the little stone altar under the tree by the fence because it was creepy. Before we lived here, dishes had been thrown at walls, weed confections exchanged, imaginary dead people seen crawling over the ceiling (by the schizophrenic). We also know that a man and child stayed in this house in the nineties. We found a bank statement with the man’s name on it and a crayon drawing in a drawer in the dining room, below the spice cabinet.

Our spice cabinet is always full of Creole seasoning, cinnamon, cocoa, and various red powders for deer chili.  I put garlic in everything.  I take responsibility for this odor alone.

It gets cold in the winter. The last two years, we sealed the windows with plastic. The landlady will probably make us dismantle them before we go, but you should know that it really helps with the heating bill.

Last summer, we planted sunflowers along the fence by the alleyway. Two giant trees–one in the front yard, and one out back–were removed by the landlady, so there’s less shade now, but the living room is flooded with light all day long. The basement stays cool and dark. R likes it down there. Last winter, we skinned a deer head on the picnic table in the backyard, and I touched one of its blue, spongy pupils to see what it was like. (The deer was dead, of course.) R spends most of his time in the garage, where he had a wood lathe, a welder, a motorcycle (which he built), and a little TV where he watches Full Metal Jacket while he works. He lit his work-table on fire once. He was fine.

In the summer, the landlady might ask you to dedicate one hour each day to weeding. You don’t have to.

Possibly, the rental company or the landlady will find this before you do, but that’s okay. We’ll leave some good vibes. This place can be a little scary when you first move in. Put some rugs on the floor and use the tile in the basement for roller-disco parties or shuffleboard. We had a lot of fun here. We were both twenty-two when we moved in, fresh out of college and boring as hell. R cooked a lot of eggs in our three-year stay. I’ll guess ten-thousand. We voted, but probably should have cared more. I guess we knew we’d be leaving soon, and we’re not that interested in politics, anyway. If forced to define our political views, I’d say that we’re both pretty liberal. I hope that doesn’t ruin it for you.

We really just want to say: Welcome. This is your house now. You’ll have your own stories to tell, maybe even better than ours.

So long, unknown readers. We hope you will fill this place with color, and hang many pots and pans in the kitchen. We keep a painted owl statue with golden feet on one of the shelves between the windows, and my great-grandma’s orange flower-pot on the other. It’s not a bad place to live. And in case you’re schizophrenic—we didn’t mean to offend. I’m sure you don’t self-medicate with hallucinogens and sacrifice rabbits in your backyard.

Isn’t the bathroom in the basement a riot?

Love, R & T. (We’re both really good-looking, in case you wanted to know that.)

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