Life and Works of Sherman Alexie

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The present and the future is something always to be obscured depending on person, place, and time period. To better understand Indian past, we must first examine the figure writing on Indian past, their reason for interpretation, and how they pursued their outcome. Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and was raised at Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian. Alexie was educated through a non-reservational high school and was considered the only Indian in the predominately white school. He also attended Gonzaga University, as well as Washington State University. Alexie originally began his journey to college to become a doctor, yet quickly determined writing suited him more comfortably, and soon began his journey describing the Indian in his eyes through a literary lens. It’s important to mention during Alexie’s time as a college student he encountered an issue with alcoholism which comes to play a great factor in many of his well known, novels and works, including his novel Flight. Flight, one of his works of his that goes to most explain his stock of the Indian past in combination to the present by using humor, and irony to reflect on strong ideas of justice within violence.. Sherman Alexie interprets the Indian past to consider the present, and future. As many Indian writers do interpret the past, they all do in such different ways, the contrast is important to consider. How does the person speaking on the past, have affect how the forward is looked at and approached? When looking at Alexie’s Flight, it may seem with an outside view as a simple story of a young boy going through and identity crisis, in a mix of a drastic fictional view, yet when looking deeper it’s a humorous and ironic interpretation of the surrounding timeline to Indian culture, present and past.

Before diving too deeply into Alexie’s approach to when it came to the past and present, we must first consider the historical periods that Alexie lived through. This will show the importance of how he decided to render Flight. Sherman Alexie greatly grew up within the times of the Red Power movement and grew alongside it’s ascension away from popularity. But most importantly, Alexie focused on the aftermath, where the idea of Indian self-determination occured, with themes poverty, social ills, psychological issues, violence, crime, and drastic issues of misrepresentation. All themes Alexie wrote of he experienced personally as a child growing up. Also important know ist how Alexie chose to look at the past amongst his novels is his controversial take on 9/11. Flight contextualizes 9/11, exposing the rhetoric that accepts violence and shows what can also lead to violence, suggests the complacency of many people within historical cycles when considering betrayal, and forms of conflict. Flight enacts a movement in Alexie’s treatment of humor, moving away from humor as a point of self-growth and possible fellowship toward humor as a rhetoric that approximates violence, isolates individuals, and polarizes communities. Early on in Flight, the character “Zits” suggests his connection of violent impulses almost directly to the events of 9/11: “Yes, that’s my life, a series of cruel bastards and airplane crashes. Twenty little airplane crashes. I am a flaming jet, crashing into each new foster family” (Flight, 11). Zits believes his actions in the light of aggression, whether physical or verbal, are somewhat relatable to the terrorist acts committed during 9/11.

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Sherman Alexie’s theme of Flight, and many of his other works are based on the lives of young Indians, as he himself experienced many of the unfortunate base lines of Indian youth. Therefore he was able to accurately detail many of these themes within the novel. As well as many of his other works, where Alexie greatly attempts to expose what it is to grow up Indian. Flight, as well as Alexie’s other works, fights to show a sort of cultural explanatory narrative, as well as within the idea of self. Zits struggles with his identity and choices, even as he comes upon historical events from “body jumping” that begin to affect him in multiple ways. Alexie takes quite a multifaceted view regarding the violence within US history. Thus denying the possibility of ignoring the complications that come with obscuring the past. For example, while Zits is occupying the mind and body of a Native boy at the Battle of Little Bighorn, he witnesses Native women and children mutilating the dead federal soldiers: “I understand why the soldiers had to be killed, but I don’t understand what is happening to the soldiers now to their bodies” (Flight, 73). Alexie suggests being the person affected by terrorism still does not bring justification to any sort of violence in response. Flight also opens literary doors, making clear what violence was happening on behalf of a particular person or group, implicates that person or group, given guilt simply due to association. An example Alexie uses is the equal complicity through the “Body Jump” of Hank’s wife. Zits says, “I wonder if she knows that Hank helped kill a man a few nights ago. I wonder if she would still love Hank if she knew. I suspect she might. I suspect she sees Hank as her protector, as her children’s protector. Hank makes the world safe” (Flight, 58). Due to her acceptance of Hank’s violent actions, she also shares cause of his violent actions.

While Sherman Alexie’s novel Flight takes a very realistic and highly truthful, raw look at the lives of young indians, it can be seen that his ironic approach to the history as possibly insensitive, and distasteful to the literature he’s attempting to convey. It’s almost as if his rendering of the jumping past and present within Flight, is almost a fictional tale due to the specific language he uses in describing such important historical moments. Quite bluntly within the tale, the character of “Zits”, tells the stories he experienced in such a humorous view, it seems that the history is obscured, or that Alexie is making a joke of the young boy. While Zits has an ironic tone throughout the novel, he was also betrayed numerously, by his own family, his foster family’s, and the ‘self-named’ Justice (the white boy who encourages Zits violent impulses). His foster parents, in particular, betray him in ways that suggest terrorist tendencies such as 9/11, once again. Early in the novel, Zits speaks of an incident with a foster father who initially warm to Zits, even buys Zits a remote-controlled airplane. However, soon after losing several airplane races to Zits, the man intentionally crashes the plane into a tree. Zits admits, “I was scared and sad. But I couldn’t show it. I’d always been punished for showing emotion. It’s best to stay as remote as those airplanes” (Flight, 10). Zits responds to the level of betrayal by taking stock emotionally, a personal tactic at odds with the expansive historical treatment that Alexie develops throughout the novel. Flight suggests that violence is best understood—and perhaps can be diminished or even avoided—by examining the historical circumstances that provide context for the individual act. To focus too much on the immediate, individualized choice in isolation is to ignore larger causes, a mistake that potentially leads to more betrayal and violence.

Considering Alexie as somewhat of a historical figure or implement himself, which comes almost directly from how he’s looked at the past from his own perspective, in which he directly writes on in Flight, as the “body jumps”. Zits experiences many different pasts. It may be fair to say that humor became a mask to hide behind, a potentially self-destructive substitute for the emotional openness and the attendant vulnerability that lead to healthy human connections in a diversive, chaotic world. Zits pictures himself as a suicidal hijacker disrupting the people and institutions that he blames for his alienation. He uses violence to react to the emotional pain of being an Indian foster child caught in a dysfunctional bureaucracy. When he guns down the patrons of a Seattle bank, his actions match his violent rhetoric. His act of domestic terrorism targets the colonizer’s institution of wealth and power, but this symbolic act has real consequences. In Flight, though, Alexie’s treatment of humor seems to shift from constructive to potentially destructive. Zits himself is fully aware of his violent use of humor. When he relates an anecdote about a psychiatrist who told him that he was trying to fill an emotional absence, Zits replies, “And do you know what I said to him? ‘You can stick your head up your hairy puss-filled absence.’ Ha, ha, ha, ha. Isn’t that funny? I threw a pun in his face. Of course, it was a violent pun, so maybe that doctor was right about me” (Flight, 7). In another situation, Zits calls a kid a “fag”: “I don’t care if he’s a fag. I just know that fag is a powerful insult” (Flight, 21). Alexie leaves no doubt that words can damage people emotionally, contributing to the cycle of violence.

In Flight, neither humor nor violence can mitigate fear or provide protection, and Alexie constructs his text to demonstrate how humor can undermine the best efforts of its practitioners. In some instances, Zits loses control over his use of humor. For example, before realizing that he occupies the body of the FBI agent, Hank, Zits becomes angry at FBI agent, Art, for playfully pushing him: “‘That’s police brutality!’ I shout. The cop just laughs. I’ve always been good at making cops laugh. But I’m not trying to be funny this time” (Flight, 39)). Usually humor allows Zits to control a situation by detaching himself from it, but his violent act has propelled him into a new body and outlook.. Art laughs because he thinks Hank is using humor to bond, but Zits mostly uses humor to disconnect from others. Humor has lost its efficacy, failing to counterbalance the trauma. A community traumatized by terrorism cannot retreat into the type of humor that Gruber labels “integral humor” (42), which elicits pure joy rather than serving a political or moral purpose. Zits experiences a similar failure of humor when Art tells him it is 1975: “I laugh. But Art is not kidding. He’s telling the truth. Oh, my God!” (Flight, 47)). In these situations, humor and laughter fail to release Zits, instead embroiling him in violent conflict over which he has no control. Terrorism has disrupted his world and hindered his ability to define himself in his standard view.

To this end, Alexie invites readers to understand violence and terrorism through others’ eyes and to interpret individual events within a broad historical context. Flight argues that 9/11 is no more the violent project of a few individuals than the Battle of Little Bighorn was the fault of General Custer alone. Violence, like humor, depends upon context, and Flight invites readers to confront their own capacity for violence and to rethink categorical assumptions. DeLillo writes, “We have to take the shock and horror as it is. But living language is not diminished. The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us” (Flight, 39). Alexie writes to understand better the damage that terrorism has done to individuals and nations, but he does not limit his examination to one day. In Flight, Alexie reminds readers of a history of violence that precludes simplistic contemporary responses to terrorism. Serving as a counter-force to the repercussions of politicians, terrorists and historical figures. Flight exposes the rhetoric and deception that sanction forms of violence and sense of Justice oddly portrayed through a ironic or humoral way.

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Life and Works of Sherman Alexie. (2021, Aug 31). Retrieved from

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