sherman alexie and the million dollar question

National Book Award-winner Sherman Alexie is the most well-known, widely-read, and widely-taught Native American author in the United States.

His memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, released in 2017, was on best book of the year lists for NPR, the LA Times, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Entertainment Weekly, among others.

His YA books – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Reservation Blues – are as common as The Giver on middle school reading lists, and his children’s picture book, “Thunder Boy, Junior,” has a spot on my own bookshelf at home. My boys, 3 and 5, love it because it says fart, and I love reading it to them because it’s short and it makes them giggle.

It turns out, Alexie is also one of those guys.

We, The #MeToo Sisterhood, haven’t settled on an official title for those guys yet, but we have a vote scheduled for the next meeting.

(Currently on the ballot: Monster, predator, harasser, dickbeast, fuckstick, hungry hungry dildo, power hater, womanovore, sex bully…)

also this gif

Whatever we end up calling him, he is the kind of guy who checks to make sure he has more power than you do, then feels you up and threatens to ruin your career if you tell.

We knew those guys ran for office and made multi-million-dollar movies and preached at the pulpit and administered health care to young girls. Of course those guys write children’s books, too.

Q: But should we separate the art from the artist?

A: No.

You know, I was gonna write a whole should-we-or-shouldn’t-we, but life’s short, eat dessert first, drink wine with breakfast, and answer the fucking question.

No. I can’t separate the art from the artist. Here’s why:

Did you ever have a conversation with someone you love and ask them how they could possibly vote for Donald Trump, knowning what we know about who he is and how he treats women.

Did you ever hear someone say, “I’m voting for Trump, but I don’t support his treatment of women.”

Did you ever think, “That's cute. Do you also shop at Amazon even though you don't support their destruction of local bookstores? 

Of course your vote supports him. All of him. His goal is to get your votes. 

If you vote and put an asterisk next to the vote and at the bottom of the ballot write, ‘But I don’t like the way you treat the ladies,’ like, do you think the President is going to read that note and be like, ‘Thanks, voter. Noted. I’ll put you on the list of people who voted to put me in charge of Planned Parenthood funding but don’t agree with the way I treat women. I’ll… definitely never look at that list again. Thanks for that vote though. Glad you found a way to feel good about it.’”

Did you ever want to say, “All you’re saying is that women matter less to you than everything else.”

Do you ever not say it, because you know you can’t teach someone how to give a shit. This isn’t an issue of education.

That’s the same conversation we’re having right now. Voters support politicians. Fans support artists.

Art isn’t a monologue. It doesn’t only belong to the artist. Art is a conversation that needs you to participate. The art you choose belongs to you, too.

Paintings are a conversation between the painter and the viewer. Music is a conversation between the musician and the listener.

The thing you have to know about artists, as I wrote recently, is that artists don’t create their pieces to exist on an island. Art is a poke or an extended hand, a slap in the face or a deep kiss. It exists to provoke a response from you.

Once the artist is dead and gone and the painting is still on the wall, we can have that conversation with a painting without necessarily involving the artist. That’s the easiest thing to do.

But that’s not the case with Woody Allen, Chuck Close, Chris Brown, and now, we know, Sherman Alexie. These artists are here, now, talking to you and me.

Should we listen?

We’re asking whether we should judge pieces of art by the personal failings of the artists. We’re talking about Michael Jackson again. We’re talking about Gauguin and his 13-year-old bride. Sorry, brides. There were two of them, plus the old one. Who was 14.

I don’t think the paintings should be ripped off the walls of the Met. I don’t think the books should be burned. Erasing our history is tantamount to silencing the stories of the people who suffered in the creation of that history. The models can only tell their stories through these paintings anymore, and they deserve to be heard, even if we can only hear them through the – ew – strokes of Gauguin’s brush.

But that’s the difference between Gauguin and Chuck Close; Gaugin's legacy is fixed, and the man is fucking dead. So are the kids. We can discuss his predatory manipulation of children and call it what it is without having to actually dole out any consequences. That’s the easiest thing to do.

Because of our cheerful impotence, we can shrug and hold both these ideas in our heads quite comfortably:

Gauguin is a pedophile.
Gauguin is sublime.

But Chuck Close is still very much alive, buying coffee with the money you gave him, talking dirty to young girls in the studio you paid for, and he belongs to us. Sherman Alexie is here, now. He is of our time and place. We are the people with whom he converses. We are the holders of his consequences. And we’re still holding them.

Think of it this way:

Compare the way people talk about historical Nazis to the way we talk about those Charlottesville guys.

There is a difference. It’s easy to condemn people who can’t hear you, but it’s also fucking pointless.

We are aware of our responsibility. We just don’t want to be aware. Or responsible.

When we condemn a dead artist who was both talented and shitty, we have the luxury of never having had any real power over him. We don’t have to judge ourselves for giving no fucks about the victims of an artist that we never had the chance to boycott. We never had to make that choice.

We never had to say, explicitly:

I hate what you did to those girls.
I hate it almost as much as I love how your art makes me feel.
So here is my time. Here is my money.
Here are my clicks. Here is my love.
I invite you into my life, and give you the very best chair.
I will not talk about that other stuff.
I will not learn that other stuff’s name.

It’s a whole different ballgame when the artist is present. Because our judgment will cost him. Our boycotts will hurt him. Our decision to refuse to pay the rent of known asshole predators will lead to asshole predators losing their homes and going… somewhere ordinary. With all that talent.

It feels unfair, doesn’t it? It feels mean. We’re lovers, us artsy folk. We aren’t punishers. Just ask the artists we love. Don't ask those other people, just trying to make a name for themselves.

And why should I have to be the one to punish him for what he did? I’m not on his jury. I’m just a music lover. I just like his writing.

But if you don’t hold him accountable, nobody else will.

And as much as you love that song or book, it’s not as much as the moms love the daughters he consumed, shamed, and erased.

Sorry, that was a low blow. All’s fair in love and sex bullies.

I think what you’re really asking is, “Is it okay for me to ignore an abuser’s abuse because he’s also really good at this other thing?”

I can’t answer that question for you. You know what’s okay for you. But no. For me, no. It’s not okay anymore.

I am sick of the unearned grace extended to some people and not others, in the form of excuses they expected us to make for them: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

If he’s accused of rape they say “Nobody’s perfect, he misread the cues, he’s a great guy, really.”

But if she was raped they’ll ask her if she was drinking, if she smiled, if she wore something, if she danced.

“But I thought nobody was perfect,” she asks.

“But you are nobody, so you have to be,” they say.

I am absolutely done engaging in this conversation with someone who gets all flustered and twitterpated when you question whether “human life” versus “book” is a reasonable choice.

The fact that we're even asking ourselves this question demonstrates that we don't see women as fully human. 

They're interchangeable for a book, a poem, a song, a piece of art.  They’re commodities to be traded, pieces moved around the board by the players, not the players themselves.

When you read that poem and it moved you,
I ask myself,
How much did it move you?
Or rather, how many?

(I think we should measure catharsis in units
of women.)

How many women was that poem worth?

How many of that woman’s poems
was that one fucking poem worth?

The worst part is,
I’m trying to come up with a number.
the avenging blogger of the sisterhood.

I’m sorry.
I really loved that poem.

We still don't know the extent of the fucked uppitude surrounding Alexie, but we do know that he suppressed the careers of other Native American women writers. We do know that because of this one guy, we missed a lot of stories, a lot of voices.

I am absolutely fucking done with the idea that artists are specialer than the people whose lives they fucked up on purpose. I cannot stomach the idea of loving someone's work more than a someone.

And yes, of course it costs me something to accept that I cannot love the art without supporting the artist. Fuck, I loved that writer. Fuck, I loved that actor. Fuck, he moved me, even if all he did was make me feel proud of my own ability to be moved.

But no. 

No, not in our time, not in our place. Not until... what? Some kind of rehabilitation? That's a whole other blog post. Possibly even two.

Bottom line: Artists create art for a living. Their occupation is a choice they make, just like the choices of how they treat people. And their choice of occupation does not exempt them from following the same rules of society that the rest of us non-artists still have to follow. I expect consequences. Sherman Alexie should, too.

The difference is that fellow writers and art models don’t have an HR department to disappoint them with inaction.

Art isn’t the crown or a letter signed by the cardinal or those passes from Casablanca guaranteed to get you out no matter what. It’s a fucking job. Artists sell their art. That’s how they survive.

When you buy the art of a person whom you know is in the habit of fucking up other people’s lives, you’re paying them to continue to fuck up other people’s lives. Just like voting for Trump is a vote for sexual assault of women.

Just… you know… that’s what you’re doing. 

I’m not judging you for it. Truly. I know it's complicated. I just won’t do it anymore. And that's why.

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  1. Great, great post, Katie. Thank you for helping me get some clarity. I really appreciate your take on this and I agree with you.

  2. This!! I've BEEN saying this - it makes me crazy when people are like "Oh but Chris Brown is just so talented."

    ... But there's one aspect of this that I think gets much more complicated, and which I think is worth carving out: art created/developed/supported by a sex bully but featuring women who want their story to be told. Related to Gaugin, I guess, but I'm thinking more specifically about, for example, Salma Hayek in Frida. He was terrible to her during the making of it, he did awful things - but my understanding of it is that she wouldn't want people to stop watching the movie because of it. I think, particularly when someone has been exploited, I want to listen to what *they* say we should do with the resulting art.

  3. Really like your post.It is right on the mark.I loved reading Sherman Alexie and had him on a pedastal...he seemed so charming, funny,intelligent and PC.But now I see he has abused and bullied women with his power of being a celebrity.Targeting young Native American women writers who are especially vulnerable for encouragement and support is despicable. He has turned into a bully like the ones he has written about.Sadly,his comment about how he could f someone if he wanted to is exactly bragging like Trump did that you can do anything with women if you are a celebrity....over and over again women are violated and discarded.I am sick of it and angry.We need to not financially support these people because that helps create and empower us to change.

  4. Yes. Thank you for pointing me back to your post. All of this. All of the art we have ever had is part of a massive conversation about human beings and what our lives mean. And Gauguin's brides would have died nameless and unknown if they had been given to other men, but because he painted them we have to reckon with their lives and his. And what that work means will keep changing as we keep expanding the definition of who is a human being.

    I guess I just wish the TLDR was: "yes we should keep consuming the art of toxic men if that's all we have" because for a long time, it was all we had. Now we finally have enough art that we can talk about toxic men and explicitly tie those qualities to their art.

  5. Most of these women wanted to use Alexie to Advance their writing careers. They are not innocent. They were thinking how they could use an established writer to further their own careers. They need to own that. That they were willing to use sex and their bodies to manipulate someone else.

    He flirted, he had a few one night stands. So the fuck what! He’s already stated he never abused anyone. He’s admitted he has “harmed” some women but that doesn’t mean he did anything illegal.

    How much of this is racism that is being leveled at him? He is no Harvey Weinstein.

    I grew up with Native Americans in NW Portland, and they really do prefer being called “Indians” but I saw the racism directed at them every day. And I saw how they often simply retreated! Even when they had done nothing wrong.

    Sherman Alexie loves women. He adored his mother and was devastated when she died. So he flirted and had some one night stands! So what! That doesn’t make him a predator!

    I think it’s reprehensible that people have gone after him like crazed villagers with torches and pitchforks. Are we going to have the PC police now policing our intimate relationships, or our sexual practices??

    He flirted and he had some one night stands, so what! That’s not cause enough to destroy his career.

    I will never throw out my Sherman Alexie books. Only a fool would.

    Sometimes the tone of the #MeToo movement feels like a witch hunt. And as far as I’m concerned, this is one of those times.

  6. How sad that these comments require “approval.” That tells me everything I need to know about the author.

    1. Hi Theresa, comments only require approval if they're submittied more than 2 weeks after the blog post has been published, and I typically allow all comments unless they're abusive. The only reason I have it set that way is so that I'll know if someone has a question or comment that requires a response on a post that I'm no longer checking on regularly.