Sherman Alexie: How Storytelling Can Create Social Change

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American author Sherman Alexie poses during the Book Fair America in Paris,France on the 17th of October 2004.
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Click on the audio player above to hear the full interview.

Long before author Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us of the unpaid debts of American history in "Between the World and Me,” his best-selling book that came out this summer, Sherman Alexie spoke of a reckoning of violence that awaited America if it ever tried to truly understand its history.

Both authors frequently make the case that America’s predatory history has consumed people in its sprint to national greatness. Alexie argues that these people and their scars are not causal landmarks from some neat historical trail, but are the moral debts that society must acknowledge.

“This shared history of violence continues to have its effects,” says Alexie. “I think a lot of people want to deny that something that happened 100 years ago or 300 years ago still has long-lasting effects, and still changes, alters and mutates the way that we relate to each other.”

Alexie explains that the so-called “American machine” has taken a toll on Native Americans and other minority groups.

“You hear people say, ‘I didn’t do anything. I’m not responsible for something 100 years ago,’” he says. “But the fact is, we are all responsible for it and we all deal with the legacy of it. So when you see a cop shooting on YouTube or stats about the incarceration rate about African Americans or Native Americans, when you see all of this stuff it is because it happened 100 years ago and continues to happen. Nothing has stopped—it has changed, it has diminished, it has magnified, and it has gotten more specific.”

He continues: “The way that the country deals with its African American and Native American populations remains basically the same—we are still oppressed, we’re still subjected to racism, we’re still living in poverty, living in threat of violence from institutions, and still dealing with a white power structure that diminishes us on a daily basis.”

Alexie says that the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri did open up a dialogue about race in America. A dialogue that’s evolved into a “screaming match,” he adds.

“On some level, there’s something intellectual and positive going on,” he says. “But the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy in fact points to the fact that there’s still this really dark underbelly to the American population that is focused on racial animosity, or that it is in fact fueled by racial animosity.”

As America becomes a more diverse country, some argue that such racial tension is inevitable. Alexie agrees, but also says that American systems need to change.

“The power structure itself is still as white as it ever was,” he says. “You can talk about the demographics of the United States changing, but the demographics of the power structure of the United States aren’t changing as dramatically. About half of the children under age five in the United States are non-white now. So the country is going to be 60 or 70 percent browned skinned in a generation, but if the power structure doesn’t change to match that, we’re going to be more and more of an apartheid looking system.”

Coates argues that in order to change power structures, black and brown Americans must resist the “fairy tales” of history and the familiar narrative that the United States is some moral nation on a hill. While Alexie does reject the traditional American story, he also believes in the power of the narrative.

“I think that’s another difference between Coates and I—I’m a storyteller,” he says. “I firmly believe in the power of stories to change the world, and I firmly believe in the power of one story to change one life at a time. I see it all the time with my work.”

Alexie has worked to change young minds. In 2007, his young adult novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," sold 1.5 million copies and won a National Book Award, and his new illustrated children’s book, “Thunder Boy, Jr.,” tells the story of a little boy making sense of his father's legacy.

“With my young adult novel, [I’ve been] going into all sorts of diverse communities and speaking to a wide range of people,” he says. “Not only am I telling a Native American story and having people from vastly different backgrounds relate to a Native American in that way, but they’re also seeing themselves in that character’s story. It’s really about seeing vastly different people as mirrors and recognizing, ‘Oh wait a second—this person and I have a common journey.’ I have to believe in that, which is why I wrote the picture book.”

Even children cannot escape the burden of history, but empowering them with the freedom to be imaginative provides them with the opportunity to dream of a better future, Alexie says.

“I have to believe in it because I did it,” he says. “I left an oppressive reservation system in pursuit of bigger ideas. And while a lot of Native Americans would see me as somehow fleeing Native Americanness, I didn’t. I actually fled a place where white culture was completely defining me as a reservation Indian, limiting my possibilities. Now in this storytelling life of mine, I’m a nomad. I’m an old-school storyteller wandering the Earth.”