Sherman Alexie is a beloved native writer, filmmaker and poet. He also stands accused of sexual harassment by three women on the record and many more anonymously. KUOW reporter Liz Jones is following the story and sat down with Bill Radke after her first piece on the story published.
The biggest thing that stood out, Jones said, was that people were not surprised. Even when they didn't know the extent of the behavior, these people said that Alexie had a reputation for being cruel. [emphasis added]
But being elevated as the voice of a community meant that he benefited from an uneven power dynamic. The publishing industry is rife with gatekeepers, which can create and uphold a dynamic where abuse of power thrives.
If we truly want this behavior to change, Jones said, those of us in the publishing industry — and media organizations, such as our own — must be intentional about broadening the range of voices we look to in order to tell their communities' stories.
Sherman Alexie having a cruel streak? Nobody even has to meet the man in person to form that impression. Take a poem of Alexie's quoted in a film that might stop being in the film at some point down the road.
misconduct-allegations- against-sherman-alexie-rock- northwest-native-and-arts- communities
In the opening scenes of the documentary film United by Water, writer Sherman Alexie reads his poem ‘Powwow At The End Of The World.’
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall …
The documentary follows the tribal effort to revive an annual gathering at a waterfall along the Columbia River. It’s a tradition that stopped after the Grand Coulee Dam was built in the 1940s.
Derrick LaMere shot and produced the film. He’s a descendent of the Colville Tribe in Northeast Washington and a member of the Rocky Boy Band of the Chippewa Cree in Montana. The film premiered in Spokane last fall.
In an era in which partisans for our two parties in the United States care less about what the man they may have voted for (whether Bill or Donald) did to or does to women, or says about or to women than they do about the things that the candidate they didn't vote for said or did it's hard to see that the partisan politics as usual is concerned in the end with how women have been treated than by the conviction that so long as "our" person gets the policy results we want those other things can be forgiven.
Whatever has transpired with Sherman Alexie's handling of women in his profession it's also not really the time to pretend that these things can't happen in what can be known as Indian country. Some authors have pointed out and proposed that it can be even worse.
Now it looks like Alexie's next pending book is halted, at Alexie's request.
us-news/sherman-alexie-halts- book-release-amid-sexual- harassment-allegations-n855906
At Sherman Alexie’s request, Hachette Book Group halted the paperback release of the Native American writer’s memoir because of numerous sexual harassment allegations, The Associated Press reported .
Alexie’s newest book, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” came out in hardcover in 2017 and was scheduled to go out in paperback until Alexie requested that the publishing company put an indefinite hold on the release. He is the author of the best-selling young-adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," and the writer of the screenplay for "Smoke Signals."
As for the cruel streak alluded to earlier, some of what's reported below suggests that Alexie has had a capacity to be catty and competitive in a way that might not be altogether different in concept from stories told about someone like Robert Frost.
Not all the allegations concerning Alexie brought forward by Native women writers involve sexual harassment or assault. In interviews given to YES! Media, (most on background because Native American women writers still fear Alexie’s power in the industry) many described the ways he sidelined careers.
This included mention of an interview he gave in the Winter 1997 issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures, where he was asked about other Native American writers. “I think Tiffany Midge has a good future,” he told the interviewer John Purdy, “once she stops copying me.” When Purdy noted that Midge had done a good job when he saw them read together a few years earlier, Alexie elaborated on his critique of her work as a second-rate copy of his own.
“She got up and read, and I thought ‘Oh my god, that’s me, that’s my shtick.’”
Midge, Lakota, told YES! Media how hurt she was by these remarks, and members of the Native American literary world repeatedly brought this incident up as one of many examples of how Alexie used his platform for decades to belittle Native American writers and potentially stifle their access to the White publishing world, effectively acting as a gatekeeper
That wasn’t the only run-in Midge had with Alexie. In 1994, after she won a book award for her first poetry collection Outlaws, Renegades and Saints, he told her both that she shouldn’t expect her book to sell and that he’d expected another writer to win the prize, someone whom he’d mentored. For the remainder of the conference, she said, he was aggressive, for example, calling her stuck up in front of other authors.
Was this just a bit of ordinary rough-and-tumble professional rivalry? It is important to remember the power of “yes” to writers.
“When you’re a writer from a minority background,” queer Greek Australian novelist Peter Polites and associate director of the Sweatshop collective—a group of writers from migrant and marginalized backgrounds—told NeoKosmos, “sometimes you need permission to write.”
And Sherman Alexie, at a very crucial point in his life, received that permission, that all important “yes.” There was a point in his life, his career could have taken a very different turn.
In a 2012 interview with Time Magazine’s editor at large, Belinda Luscombe, Alexie credited getting published in a poetry magazine for helping him stop drinking. “Yeah,” Alexie agreed, “you probably should offer every alcoholic desiring to get sober large book contracts! I woke up after a tremendous bender, and the acceptance for my first book of poems was in the mailbox. And, I thought, I think that’s telling me something.”
Luscombe probed further, asking Alexie whether his father, a brilliant young man who was periodically homeless and died of alcoholism, had had early success like his son might his life taken a different turn? Alexie agreed. Yes, that would have made all the difference to him.
If Sherman Alexie had not gotten that letter in the mail that day, we might never have any of his novels or his films or poems today. Consider the cost, then, of his refusal to give encouragement to other Native American writers, to have actively discouraged them. What books have we been denied over the past 25 years? What would the Native American literary landscape look like today if he had given that “yes” permission to more writers?
And despite his fall from grace, many in the Native American community are still fearful of his influence, which has now been passed on to a pair of his proteges: Terese Marie Mailhot is a gifted, young First Nations memoirist from Canada, whose recently released book Heart Berries (Counterpoint) includes a gushing introduction by her mentor, Alexie. His introduction has been—up to this point—widely quoted in reviews of her book. And Tommy Orange, Cheyenne and Arapaho, whose highly anticipated novel There There is forthcoming from Penguin Books.
A clue to the power of Sherman Alexie’s “yes”—and the inverse power of his scorn—can be seen in the rapturous reception the mainstream has given both books — highly unusual for Indian Country authors. Mailhot’s is a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and she appeared on The Daily Show a few days after the NPR revelations were published. Alexie is the only Native American writer to have been featured on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Neither Alexie’s publisher Little Brown nor his agent Nancy Stauffer Cahoon have responded to requests for comment.
The New York Times’ review of Mailhot’s book declared: “‘Heart Berries’ Shatters a Pattern of Silence.” But really, has there been silence by Native women writers, or has the industry simply not been listening?
“Publishers and agents and book critics,” Elissa Washuta told KUOW, a public radio station in Seattle, “can all look at this and see that for so long one writer has had a disproportionate amount of their attention to the exclusion of other native writers.”
Midge described in a written statement to YES! Media how recent events have made her wrestle with her own feelings about her treatment by Alexie:
“It is not a comfort by any means, to know I’m not alone in my experiences. Several people are alluding to similar treatment—worse treatment and abuses in fact—in regards with Alexie. Yet, to know that I have not been alone, is in fact, a kind of validation, and a necessary balm to my own self-incriminating interior script. Maybe I was defeated and undermined all those years ago. Maybe his bullying did in fact negatively impact my trajectory and potential success. I know I’ve spent years playing those encounters and others through my head, endlessly. I always blamed myself for the abuse and transgressions. I wasn’t smart enough. Or talented, or cool enough. I must have deserved to be mocked and maligned. I’ve made a million excuses.”
Will Mailhot keep Alexie’s introduction in her book? For now, she refuses to comment on her mentor.
What makes these reports seem damning, if they're true, is that for an author like Alexie to invoke rage or anger against an injustice on behalf of a race whose women he treats in a cavalier and even abusive manner blunts the basis for the moral outrage.
There may be a lot of silence not just because voices are silenced but because, as a writer once told me about the institutional press, the institutional press only takes itself seriously. To put this all another way, we could ask a question about a literary or artistic event, if it wasn't monetized did it "really" happen as far as members or institutions of the press concerned? Maybe, if it's newsworthy enough. I do wonder if what we see is silencing of voices or something that's more discouraging, that it's not so much that people are silenced categorically as that they have never said things that those who have gatekeeping powers find compelling enough to listen to to begin with. Active suppression may not even be the majority of what we see, which the article will get to in a bit, the matter of branding being a variable that can overpower others.
But think of the billions of people on the earth, each with stories to tell and then we can have some understanding of how and why editors and publishers will tend to feel that if they're going to sink the time, money and attention into publishing something they might have to at least break even or believe very, very strongly in what they are intending to publish. This may be the point at which the power of what can be colloquially and technically thought of as a "brand" kicks in. Publishers who might not be willing to run with a possibly contentious or challenging book for a complete unknown would be willing to do so far a star. In Native American literature that star has been, for better and worse, Sherman Alexie, who I have regarded as a gifted short-story teller but unfortunately not more than a competent poet. Back to the YES magazine article.
“Why then are there not more Sherman Alexies?” Time magazine’s Luscombe eagerly asked Alexie in the 2012 interview.
“I don’t know,” he responded, “When I first started writing, there were around 30 Native writers publishing with major houses, university presses, prestigious small presses publishing actively. And now, very little. And people say, well it’s racism in the publishing industry. I think you’re kidding. Publishers would die if a manuscript came flying into their offices that reminded them of me or Louise Erdrich. They would be dancing, but it just hasn’t happened, and I don't know why.”
The truth is, though, that publishers weren’t dancing when they first received Erdrich’s first novel Love Medicine in 1984. It drew no interest from agents or publishers. Her late ex-husband, Michael Dorris, a successful writer and professor, had to pretend to be her agent to get publishers to read it at all.
And the publishing industry is, if anything, more difficult to break into today with the rise of Amazon and competition from free online content.
“People who are not within our network are operating at a terrible disadvantage,” Vicky Smith, a Kirkus Reviews editor told the blog Open Book. “An agent friend of mine told me that she gives a piece of slush [an unsolicited manuscript] 60 seconds, no more. That’s an awfully high barrier for an unknown to leap. My guess is that people who know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody might get 90 or even 120 seconds, which might make all the difference.” [emphasis added]
Besides lacking connections, there is also the issue of the disparity of wealth, and the cushion wealth provides to help young people pursue extremely speculative careers like writing. Native Americans have some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment.
What does all this mean for Indian Country, that for so long Alexie has had the token status and singular voice on behalf of an entire people.
In the March 2016 issue of College & Undergraduate Libraries, editor Eric Jennings wrote in his column, “I saw Sherman Alexie speak, and one of the things that stuck with me is that there’s always some truth to a stereotype. He was talking specifically about how the stereotype for many Native Americans is that they are alcoholics. And, in fact, most of his family members are alcoholics. He even went on record as saying that the whole race is filled with alcoholics and that pretending that alcoholism is a stereotype among Native Americans is a form of denial.”
In her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature Debbie Reese, a former American Indian Studies professor at the University of Illinois enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, refuted this with recent research showing alcoholism rates for Native Americans are the same as that of the white population. The study also found Native Americans have higher rates of abstinence.
Once again, reliance on a singular perspective and narrative has its limits.
Reliance on a singular perspective and narrative not only has limits, those limits can mean the difference between a legitimately big story and a publication like Rolling Stone having to pay millions in damages because the singular narrative they ran with came under scrutiny.
As I've been noting over the last few years here at the blog high art tends to require high finance of some kind and while vocational art in a more craft or artisanal form is certainly possible these modes of artistic activity aren't as, well, high in their social standing or prestige.
Which isn't to say Alexie has been a particularly "big" star. Even if we cast about non-randomly for another non-white but male writer it's not like Sherman Alexie is a Coates who wrapped up a Black Panther storyline for Marvel Comics and is giving us a Captain America storyline later this year.
But when people feel or believe their views within a society are marginal enough that they look for a star or a champion to articulate their cause they're doing what people have done in every age. We make stars of those who may even often be cruel but we may convince ourselves that that cruelty is on behalf of a good cause, our cause. But what stars can do is they can tend to impute their own temptations or vices to others in fairly sweeping ways, in ways that may in the end tell us that those vices are not entirely overcome in the star who imputes his or her vices to others.
Yeah, that's shifting gears to another guy who had rock star status of a niche kind here in the Pacific Northwest. Here's hoping that Alexie is able to have more serious self-examination of himself than that other person may have managed.