Sacred Territory: Studying Fiction by Sherman Alexie and Marjane Satrapi

In an interview with K.E. Semmel, published in the Writer's Chronicle (June 2011), Sherman Alexie explains that most of his fiction taps into his own life experience, but there is one area he considers too sacred to fictionalize.

"...there are certain ceremonies and sacred moments in my tribe life that I don't write about at all," Alexie states. "Most of that is religious.  Religious feeling I certainly write about, but specific ceremonies and songs I don't go near...I've written things about other people, fictionalized, that I've come to regret. So I'm very careful about that now."

Rather than explain this complex statement, Alexie moves onto how a writer can take actual events that occurred, like writing about a father dying when his own father was dying, but during the process of fitting this event into a narrative, the emotional states are changed and that change strips away the autobiographical nature of the event. In creating story, the fiction takes over. While this perspective is very interesting, especially to readers and writers of fiction, I find his reverence for "sacred moments" even more intriguing. The phrase, "...I've come to regret" reveals an ongoing tension that Alexie feels between the sacredness of his tribal roots and his fame as a Great American Novelist.

Each student will conduct an interview this semester as we build our collaborative ethnography. If I had been interviewing Alexie, I would have asked him to explain this statement by asking him more questions to try and get him to move from the general to the specific. During your interviews, try not to overlook opportunities where a general statement can be explored in a more specific way. Journalists often rely on questions that start with: Who, What, How, Where, Why?

Culture and Identity
The theme of our course asks us to look at the bonds between our upbringing—the who, where, when of our youth—and our identity. We will examine pop culture for connections between what we see and hear and how we live. Our literature will help us take a deeper look into how ethnicity, gender and religion shape our lives. Marjane Satrapi reveals 1980s Iran from the perspective of a childhood and Sherman Alexie's character navigates the rutted road between his life on a Washington reservation and becoming the first student to attend high school outside the tribe.

Through these fictional worlds, we will experience how growing up outside the mainstream has its challenges. Everyone walks the line of 'fitting in,' but for those who are bridging two radically different worlds, this process can feel a bit like walking a tight rope. Forming identity along this continuum can be a liberating and empowering experience for some; for others this journey can feel extremely difficult, and even dangerous, to navigate.

This tension is among those that we will explore as we read. As we build the context (and our knowledge) around these novels, we will also read newspaper articles on Arab Spring and current events in Libya and Iran. During our second unit groups will read and report on a variety of non-fiction, including The Ohlone Way, by Malcolm Margolin, Ishi In Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber, Woman Native Other, by Trinh T. Minh-ha and the anthology, Native American Voices, as well as current writings from Native Americans published in Indian Country Magazine and through Social Media.

I will collect articles in my account on Reddit.com and I suggest you do the same and link them to your blogs, so we can build our knowledge on this important topic.

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National Museum of the American Indian 

Native American Ethnography