Saturday, October 31, 2009

Leveraging positive ethnic stereotypes

The first story of Ten Little Indians –a collection of Sherman Alexie’s stories – is about Corliss, a spunky, independent college-going Spokane Indian teenager. Unlike other sophomores Corliss lives alone. She does not want to share her place with another Indian because “she’d soon be taking in the roommate’s cousin, little brother, half uncle, and long-lost dog, and none of them would contribute anything toward the rent other than wispy apologies. Indians were used to sharing and called it tribalism, but Corliss suspected it was yet another failed form of communism.”

Corliss also does not want a white roommate. Why? Because Corliss is well aware of her native identity and the effect it has on mainstream society. She wants to retain the allure of her identity so she can benefit from it. Here’s a long -- and funny -- excerpt where Alexie takes us through Corliss' rationale:
White people, no matter how smart, were too romantic about Indians. White people looked at Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the full moon, newborn babies, and Indians with the same goofy sentimentalism. Being a smart Indian, Corliss had always taken advantage of this romanticism, but that didn’t mean she wanted to share the refrigerator with it. If white folks assumed she was serene and spiritual and wise simply because she was an Indian, and thought she was special based on those mistaken assumptions, then Corliss saw no reason to contradict them. The world is a competitive place, and a poor Indian girl needs all the advantages she can get. So if George Bush, a man possessed of no remarkable distinctions other than being the son of a former U.S. president, could also become president, then Corliss figured she could certainly benefit from positive ethnic stereotypes and not feel any guilt about it. For five centuries, Indians were slaughtered because they were Indians, so if Corliss received a free coffee now and again from the local free-range lesbian Indiophile, who could possibly find the wrong in that? In the twenty-first century, any Indian with a decent vocabulary wielded enormous social power, but only if she was a stoic who rarely spoke. If she lived with a white person, Corliss knew she’d quickly be seen as ordinary, because she was ordinary. It’s tough to share a bathroom with an Indian and continue to romanticize her. If word got around that Corliss was ordinary, even boring, she feared she’d lose her power and magic. She knew there would come a day when white folks finally understood that Indians are every bit as relentlessly boring, selfish, and smelly as they are, and that would be a wonderful day for human rights but a terrible day for Corliss.
Alexie is brilliant here: through Corliss’s character, he’s brought to fore a host of issues: identity, what it means at the individual level, the sense of entitlement it may bring; the stereotyping of minorities but also the reverse stereotyping of the majority (which is essentially what Corliss is doing); and -- though this is more subtle -- the touchy question of reparations.


Alex Engwete said...

Sherman Alexie is indeed a powerful writer. The tribalism of Indians is very close to that of Africans... This is powerful writing that stays in your mind, long after closing the book. Do you think Alexie might get the Nobel one day, like Toni Morrison?

Hari said...

Actually, Alex, this was the first Alexie book I've picked up, so I can't say whether he is consistently good. But if his stories are like the one I've excerpted from, then the Nobel might be a good bet (though, as we all know, competition for the Nobel is pretty stiff and you attract attention only if there's strong political story that goes with your achievements!)

Ruth said...

If I had a Nobel vote he would.