Sherman Alexie or How does #MeToo affect the Texts We Teach?

The recent events surrounding Sherman Alexie, first the accusations and then his kind of admission and sort of apology, started a conversation among a few of us at PALS. When the news broke, I was mostly indifferent. Should I have been surprised? Should I have been upset? Should I have been enraged? Should I have had some sort of pause about it all? Probably. But that wasn’t the case. I was bummed, disappointed.

My Positionality (in the world/in education)

Before I go on, I would like to take a minute to set up my perspective and the elements that influence my response to Alexie.

    • I am not a creative writer, nor am I writer of color. There is a wonderful and painful reflection about Alexie’s betrayal by a writer who identifies as both of those and as a woman. For me, however, Alexie has not had an impact on who I am. This isn’t just Alexie; I do not connect emotionally with any writers or written texts, or any “famous” people.
    • Amending point one: I am not devoid of emotion. There has been the discussion of how literature helps heal trauma. That was not the case for me; it never had that opportunity. Literature always functioned as escapism, a place not only to escape my situation but to escape all my emotions.
    • Based on my research interests, I spent years submerged in both critical race theory and criticism about representation of sexual violence in literary works, and sexual violence more broadly. So when revelations like Alexie’s come to light, I move them through a variety of frameworks to rethink how we understand it all.
    • Amending point three: this informs what I do in the classroom. My initial reaction is not to remove Alexie from the classroom. So now I am wondering, how might students benefit from reading Alexie’s work with this new information about the author?
    • Alexie’s works only makes it onto my syllabus every three years or so, and he is rarely the only Native American writer represented. Since I don’t teach Alexie heavily, not teaching his work doesn’t impact my courses nor does it serve as some sort of protest. This last part I say without judgment. If Alexie is the only Native writer you teach, there is no time like the present to remedy that. For those interested in exploring more Native writers, here is a starting point. (Note: This list is not complete. There are Native writers I teach who are not on it.) Also, we have had multiple posts here on several Early Native American writers, like Handsome Lake and protest literature, poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Haida poets.

When the question was raised among the PALS editors of whether or not we needed to make some sort of statement or amend our posts that include Alexie–Repurposing the Captivity Trope and Bookending the Survey Part 2–or to suggest alternative texts, my initial response, in my head of course because I do have a filter sometimes, was “Why?” I was confused by the discussion. Why wouldn’t we continue to teach Alexie’s works after this revelation?

My indifference isn’t because I don’t care about sexual assault and harassment because I do. It’s because it is such a normalized experience for me as a woman that I really had to take some time to figure out my relationship with authors I teach whose personal histories are deeply problematic. Also, because I am me, I took it to the streets—in academia this is also known as the classroom.

My Students’ Responses

I am currently teaching as a part of the San Diego City College CCAP (College and Career Access Pathways) program which involves teaching college courses at high school campuses, specifically targeting students who are undecided about pursuing college. I had these high school aged college students do some in class writing on a broad prompt to get us started on a discussion that took the entire hour and a half class period:

Should a person’s personal behaviors have an effect on their professional lives/achievement? Why or why not? Explain.

I intentionally kept the prompt extremely vague for two reasons. First, we had just finished a unit on social media use where students were adamantly against the practice of potential colleges and employers creeping on perspective students and employees’ social media accounts. Second, we read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Super Man and Me” just weeks before he was called out for his sexual misconduct.

Of course my students, in all of their good faith in humanity and their buying into the American promise that hard work pays off, answered “no” to the question and followed with seemingly innocuous examples. People partying or getting a little crazy in their personal lives should not take away from their hard work or achievements in their professional lives. Because social media was on their minds, I had anticipated this response. Sexual assault and other crimes did not enter their thoughts on the subject.

I put the NPR article about Alexie up on the projector and read a few of the victims’ statements. My students were shocked and sad. They really liked Alexie’s essay. I changed the prompt to get at the question I have been trying to work through:

Should these revelations about Alexie’s personal behaviors keep me from teaching his creative writing in my classes?

Like me, this took a lot longer for students to process. There were a couple immediate “stop teaching him” answers. I was asked if I knew about his actions before I had them read his essay. Others said if they had known that going in, then they would not have read his work. Another student asked about the time frame, because if he had changed his behavior, then shouldn’t we give him a second chance?

Then the conversation shifted into one that involved understanding sexual assault. Not a single student in the room knew the name Harvey Weinstein or anything about the #Metoo movement. So we pulled up a list of films he has a producer credit on and the list of his accusers. Again, my students were surprised at how many of those names they recognized. This led down the road of how it happened to so many women over such a long period of time. Eventually we discussed the attitudes that dismiss or make light of women’s experiences and how all of it is compounded with race, class, and sexual orientation among other factors. And somehow we ended up talking about the back log of unprocessed rape kits and other logistical elements involving sexual assault.

We went down this long road in order for students to ask the question, “If we stop reading Alexie, does that mean we don’t watch any of Weinstein’s 300+ films?” I offered a few more comparisons for consideration: Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Even though I know my audience, I wasn’t sure if those examples were going to hold up, especially R. Kelly. But my students still listen to R. Kelly and still watch at least short clips from various Bill Cosby shows on Youtube, knowing about the allegations and charges against both of them. Why? Their answers: Because they still find enjoyment or connection with the art.

Do We Still Teach Alexie?

Bringing it back to the educational space, I asked them the question that particularly nags at me. Why Sherman Alexie? Why not others? Who else do we consistently teach despite their problematic behaviors and attitudes?

Ahem. Is it Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Racist? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Rapist? Does Sally Hemings’ posthumous #Metoo count? What about Jefferson’s musings about race in Notes on the State of Virginia? Did I miss the memo about no longer teaching him in early American literature or history courses?

The first time I read parts Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was in a southern history course among texts of white male southern historians. However, that wasn’t the first time I was exposed to the content of it. I first read about Notes in David Walker’s Appeal. And this is the way I teach Jefferson. Since I structure my courses thematically or by genre, teaching texts chronologically doesn’t come into play that much. So I teach Walker and include the excerpts from Jefferson along with it to enable students to see in writing what Walker is calling out. Students get a lot out of seeing this side to Jefferson that is sadly entirely new to them.

In grad school I did a research project for a film pedagogy course that involved D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I strained a muscle from the amount of eye-rolling I did as critic after critic tried to downplay Griffith’s racism. I’ve read Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, and Griffith added his own racist elements to the adaptation, in addition to claiming the film as representational of historical fact. Why is there the need to suggest Griffith wasn’t an awful person in order to acknowledge what he did for cinematography during the time period? Back to the classroom, I would not teach this film in an intro to film studies course. I might pull clips from it when teaching cinematography. I would possibly include it in an upper division film course. I would probably include it in a course that focused on the representation of race in film, along with proper set up and DJ Spooky’s remix Rebirth of a Nation.

Lakota woman

Likewise, I wonder about the importance of teaching Alexie in different ways. In another course, I often teach excerpts from Mary Crowdog/Bravebird’s Lakota Woman, primarily “Aimlessness.” Students LOVE her memoir. The chapter I bring in focuses quite a bit on the sexual assault of Native Women by both Native and white men. Perhaps one approach is pairing Alexie with narratives like Bravebird’s and bringing his sexual misconduct into the conversation of the course. What does it mean that Alexie is writing against power structures as he participates in and uses them himself? How many of his characters try to do that, and to what success? We don’t need to sing endless praise of those whose texts we choose to teach or try to explain away their transgressions in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about still finding merit in them. We can change the way we teach them. And, we can choose not to teach them.

Let’s not forget the presence of sexual assault on college campuses and all the times it has gone ignored or been swept away by the power structures that be. As a college student, I also saw plenty of inappropriate behavior between professors and both undergrad and grad students with respected professors looking the other way as though the power structure at play there didn’t exist or wasn’t a problem. Sherman Alexie who makes it a point of identifying as teacher and mentor in “Superman and Me” also opens up this conversation.

Whether or not we continue to include Alexie on our syllabi is an individual decision. But we should all take a moment to reflect on the personal backgrounds of all the writers we teach and continue to make purposeful decisions in our course designs.

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Misattribution and Repurposing the Captivity Trope: Teaching Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie with Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Randi Tanglen on complicating the discussion of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative through the work of two contemporary Native American poets. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. 

9780312111519I often teach Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Indian captivity narrative The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in early American and American frontier literature classes. The narrative tells of Puritan Mary Rowlandson’s six-week captivity with the Narragansett and Wampanoag people of New England during King Phillip’s War in 1676. Very popular with British and colonial audiences alike, it went through four editions in its first year of publication and 23 editions by 1828. Today Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is heavily anthologized and regularly taught in a wide range of American literature courses as an example of Puritan spiritual autobiography and the Indian captivity narrative form. In my classes, I teach Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to demonstrate how the captivity trope and its anti-Indian rhetoric have been deployed in American literature and culture to justify the perceived rightness of usually white-provoked wars and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

PALS contributor Corinna Cook recently discussed how she asks student to consider the ways in which “Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins.” So in order to illustrate what captivity narratives scholar Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola calls the “the complicated nexus of politics, cultures, identities, and ethnicities at the heart” of any captivity experience and its various depictions, I make it a priority to teach Native representations of and responses to the trope of captivity when I teach white accounts of Indian captivity. To that end, I teach two Native rejoinders to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative after my classes have read it: Louise Erdrich’s (Chippewa) 1984 poem “Captivity” and Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane Coeur D’Alene) 1993 poem of the same title.

Both poems suggest that Rowlandson did not leave her captivity experience with the absolute certainty about white cultural superiority that the captivity trope tries to reinforce and thereby subvert the political purpose and cultural meaning of the colonialist captivity trope.

The Misattribution

Both poems open with an epigraphic misattribution that might prevent students from initially seeing the powerful ways in which both poems repurpose the captivity trope. With the exception of a few changed words, Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems both begin with the same epigraphic quote ascribed to Rowlandson:

He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.

The epigraph goes on to credit the quote to “the narrative of the captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken prisoner by the Wampanoag when Lancaster, Massachusetts was destroyed, in the year 1676.” My students, familiar with Rowlandson’s narrative, point out that this quote addresses some of Rowlandson’s most accentuated concerns: food and sexual vulnerability.

However, when students go back to look for the epigraphic quote that spurs the dramatic situation of both poems, they realize that it cannot be found anywhere in Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. This is because the epigraphic quote actually comes from the more obscure 1736 captivity narrative of a different Puritan captive named John Gyles, who wasn’t necessarily afraid of “loving” his Maliseet captors, but rather their French Jesuit allies. Although to a present-day audience these words may seem laced with erotic implications, the most literal meaning is that Gyles feared a priest would convert him to Catholicism.

Although it could be that Erdrich and Alexie (who seems to be writing in response to both Rowlandson and Erdrich) purposefully included the misattribution, students sometimes grapple with the inaccuracy. Once they know the origin of the epigraph, I asked the students to consider the following questions for class discussion and essay prompts:

  • Do you think the incorrect citation was intentional or an oversight by the poets?
  • What is the poetic effect of this “misattribution”?
  • What does this specific epigraph bring to each poem that would otherwise be lost?
  • Is there a quote from Rowlandson’s narrative that would serve as a more effective epigraph?
  • How does the epigraph help us see something new about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative?
  • How does the epigraph contribute to the cultural work of each poem?
Erdrich’s Use of “Captivity”

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Through John Gyles’s misattributed epigraph, Erdrich’s “Captivity” picks up on Rowlandson’s simultaneous desire for intimacy with and the fear of contamination by a Native other. Throughout the poem, a speaker in the voice of Rowlandson revisits scenes of her captivity, describing her repulsion to her captives’ culture, yet her attraction to the specific individuals within it. Early on, the speaker is able to “recognize [the] face” of her master, and is able to “distinguis[h] it from the othe[r]” “pitch devils.” Students usually note that even in the early lines of the poem, by discerning the sound of her master’s voice, the speaker engages the process of individualizing and, thereby, humanizing, her master. Immediately after this recognition, though, the speaker admits that “There were times I feared I understood/his language,” or, as students regularly point out, that the speaker fears identification and intimacy with her master and his culture.

And even though the speaker had “told myself that I would starve/before I took food from his hands,” when her master offers her the meat of an unborn fawn she eats it and finds it to be, “so tender/the bones like the stems of flower.” Students always pick up on these lines because they reference one of the most memorable moments in the captivity narrative. Rowlandson states that she would never eat the “filthy trash” offered by her captors, but a few weeks later finds the meat of a fawn “very good.” The next stanza of the poem intimates that Rowlandson had a sexual encounter with her master, after which the “birds mocked” her and the “shadows gaped and roared”—evidence that God was displeased. But as she becomes more accustomed to her captors’ culture, the speaker realizes that her master doesn’t notice these signs of a Puritan God’s displeasure, and eventually she too, figures that God might not punish her for whatever intimacy developed between her and her master.

When Erdrich’s Rowlandson confesses that “Rescued, I see no truth in things,” students see the connection to the end of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she admits, “I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together: but now it is other wayes with me,” the only indication of uncertainty or doubt in Rowlandson’s account of her Indian captivity.  Students often conclude that Erdrich’s “misattibution” of Gyle’s words must have been intentional. By revealing the interchangeable nature of captivity texts, the poem is able to expose the instability of white cultural identity represented by the trope of captivity.

Alexie’s Malleable Mary Rowlandson
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via Wikipedia

Alexie continues with Erdrich’s appropriation of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative by  responding to her “Captivity” poem with his own of the same title. Since the poem similarly opens with the same quote from Gyles but attributed to Rowlandson, it enters an intriguing intertextual conversation with Erdrich, Rowlandson, and even Gyles, which leads to rich classroom discussion. The speaker in Alexie’s prose poem tells and retells a variety of captivity scenarios that transport versions of Mary Rowlandson into present day reservation life. In the first stanza of Alexie’s poem, the daughter of a white Indian agent runs out of the reservation classroom, “waving her arms wildly at real and imagined enemies.” Echoing the same language as Erdich’s shared epigraph, the speaker wonders, “Was she afraid of loving us all?” Students often associate this line with the white fear of intimacy with a Native other embodied in Rowlandson’s narrative and revealed in Erdich’s poem. By maintaining Erdich’s original use of John Gyle’s words, Alexie offers commentary on the power and malleability of cultural tropes; the speaker at one point reminds the reader that “The best weapons are stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.” The poem moves Mary Rowlandson from the seventeenth century into the twentieth—she is the scared new white girl at a reservation school, the only survivor of a car crash on the reservation, a woman drinking coffee at the reservation 7-11. As students come to realize through class discussion, Alexie’s modern Mary Rowlandsons aren’t captive of a Native other, but rather of the pernicious limitations of the colonialist captivity trope.

In each of the poem’s fourteen stanzas, Alexie makes Rowlandson herself a cultural trope, a representation of white contradictory and ambivalent responses to and fear of Native people and cultures in Rowlandson’s day and our own. Some students even wonder if a “white boy…who spent the summer on the reservation” is a reference to John Gyles, which the students see as an intertextual clue that Erdrich and Alexie were both conscious of the misattribution. The speaker reports that “It was on July 4th that we kidnapped him and kept him captive in a chicken coop for hours.”Bringing so many iterations of Mary Rowlandson and even John Gyles types into the present day emphasizes the historical nimbleness of the colonialist captivity trope, but also the power to change it. Alexie’s speaker asks: “Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?” Linking these words to the epigraph, students wonder if that Native voice will ask the white captive to “love him.”

Implications and Resources
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via Slabcity Gang on Flickr

When considering the goal of both poets to highlight the long-term impact of European colonization on Native cultures, the epigraphic quote shouldn’t be written off as a “misattribution” or poetic flaw. This limits students’ capacity to interpret the works. Rather the poems are commenting on the historical and on-going use of the captivity narrative to promote assumptions of white cultural superiority and the instabilities inherent in those assumptions. Teaching Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems in conversation with Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative allows students to recognize the subversive re-salvaging of the colonialist trope of captivity. For many students, this diminishes some of the power of Rowlandson’s ethnocentric, anti-Indian rhetoric and they are able to engage more deeply with the narrative itself and consider its present-day implications.

Resources:

Ben-Zvi, Yael. “Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of ‘Captivity.’Studies in American Indian Literature, 2012.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. U of Michigan P, 1999.

Bio:

Randi-Tanglen6

Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”