Sherman Alexie & #MeToo

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAs many teachers do, I teach Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  When confirmed reports of his sexual harassment and other abuses of power became public, I knew I had to talk to my class about it — I taught Absolutely True Diary in my on-line Multicultural Children’s Literature class earlier in the semester.  Thinking that our conversation might be of use to others who are confronting this issue, I’m sharing my initial question, my response to their conversation (which highlights recurring themes), and a quotation from one of the students (shared with her permission).  Because I have to prepare our on-line conversations several weeks in advance, this begins in early March but their responses were only due in late March — and my response followed.


6 March 2018

Because I’m preparing these discussions about three weeks in advance, this will appear as “due” after March Break. And that is in fact when it is due. I don’t feel I can add anything further to our current week. But I also don’t feel that I can ignore this. So I am making this visible now (March 6th) even though you’re not obliged to discuss it until March 27th.

For the past month, those of us in the children’s literature / young adult literature community have known that Sherman Alexie is among those accused of sexual harassment. Last week (Feb. 28), Alexie issued a denial/apology. Yesterday (Mar. 5), three of his accusers went public.

This raises an important question for us — as students, future teachers (some of you), or current teachers (me and some of you).  Should we continue to teach an author who has harmed others?  And that is the question I am posing to you right now.  Should work by Sherman Alexie be on future iterations of this syllabus?  Or ought we instead replace him with, say, a work by another indigenous writer — perhaps Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves —?

This is a hotly debated question, and — from our previous conversations — I know that you will express yourselves with care and consideration for divergent points of view.  Those who argue for often note that those who create great works of art may not lead exemplary Roxane Gay. Photo by Jay Grabiec.lives; their own personal failings are irrelevant to the greatness of their art. And, certainly, as a colleague of mine observed via email, in our English classes we teach many writers who, in their private lives, were horrible human beings.  Those who argue against might say that there is no legacy so important that we can look the other way. As Roxane Gay puts it, “I no longer struggle with artistic legacies. It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art.” She suggests instead that we turn to artistic work created by those “capable of treating others with respect.”   If these are two opposing poles of the debate, there are of course many positions between them.  And there are other ways of exploring possible answers to this question.

As I say, it’s a difficult, messy question.

I have my own answer to it, which I will share after our conversation — and, indeed, which might be changed by our conversation.


Time passed — including March Break — and the students’ conversation unfolded on-line.  It was the most contentious conversation we’ve had this semester, but — to their great credit — they remained civil even when they strongly disagreed.  I then wrote my promised response, which I reproduce below.


30 March 2018

Hi, everyone. Sorry I’ve been a little quieter this week. Have been a bit under the weather. Indeed, your El Deafo discussion (two weeks from now) lacks my second planned video because my voice is still a bit wonky.

Anyway.  To this discussion!

Thanks, as ever, for wrestling with a difficult and painful subject. You may be interested to know that — here on campus — we held a discussion on this subject before March Break.  The English Department blog published a summary of that discussion on Tuesday of this week.

In your discussion, some liken the removal of a book from a course syllabus to censorship. I see the parallel being made, but — as the creator of many syllabi — I would argue that removing a book from a course syllabus is not the same as censorship. The book is not banned. It is still for sale, and still in the library. Also, since I regularly revise my syllabi, I am often taking books off and putting others on. I do this for many reasons, including the never-ending quest to improve the course, the need to stay current (new books keep getting published), and my own need to refresh the syllabus (if I teach the same works over and over, then I risk getting stale).

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow ThievesAnother theme I notice in your discussion is the idea that removing this book would consequently remove Native American literature from our Multicultural Children’s Lit syllabus. It wouldn’t. We could read Erika Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Rain Is Not My Indian Name, or Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House.  Debbie Reese makes some Native YA Lit recommendations in this blog post. There are many Native children’s and YA books to choose from. Indeed, there should be more than one on this syllabus. There isn’t because the class strives to cover as wide a range of identities as it can, which (I realize) risks making this book the “single story” that Adichie warns against.

I would, however, agree with those who note that (and I’m paraphrasing here) monstrous people have made great art, important art, influential art. Faulkner’s “go slow, now” approach to ending Jim Crow was immoral and unjust, but if I were teaching a class on twentieth-century American literature, I would assign Faulkner. If I were teaching a class on twentieth-century Native American Literature, I think I would also assign Alexie — bringing in the full context, the women who have spoken on the record, the women who have spoken off the record, those who defend Alexie and those who accuse him. We could have a more developed version of the conversation we’ve had here.

But I don’t teach a Native American Literature course. I teach a Multicultural Children’s Literature course and I teach a Young Adult Literature course. Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary has been on both of those syllabi. It will not be on either syllabus in the future. There are many reasons why, but here are four.

  1. William Faulkner is dead. Sherman Alexie is alive. If I assign Alexie’s books (and thus mandate that my students buy his books), I am continuing to pay his salary. I would rather pay the salary of a person who has managed to create good art without harming others. Since there are plenty of such people, I will be assigning Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves next time.
  2. The books I assign in both classes go on to become books that future teachers assign: Secondary Education majors take Literature for Adolescents, and I know that this class has some Education majors in it, too. So, in assigning a book, I am in essence recommending that book for tomorrow’s teachers. I am making it part of the children’s literature / YA literature canon, enshrining it in the curricula of tomorrow.
  3. Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women is diametrically opposed to the goal of a class like Multicultural Children’s Literature. As I say in that opening video, the books we read are about increasing understanding, and respecting others. I cannot in good conscience promote the work of a man who does the opposite of what this class aspires to do.
  4. As his denial/apology indicates, Alexie does not understand why his behavior was wrong. If he understood, apologized, made efforts to make amends, well, there would at least be the possibility that I might assign him again in the future. But he doesn’t get it. He says “I genuinely apologize” but also “There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of verbally threatening anybody or their careers.” So, which behaviors are true, then? He says, “I have made poor decisions,” but declines to name what those decisions were, which makes it hard to believe that he is “working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.” If he does not understand why his behavior was wrong, then he cannot learn from his past. You need to know why a mistake is a mistake in order to change.

Because, yes, as some of you have correctly noted, humans are flawed. We make mistakes. We have regrets. We do things we should not do. And we would be naïve to expect our artists, writers, actors, musicians, to be paragons of virtue. But, for me, a pattern of predatory behavior crosses a line.

Though my sense is that not all of you do, I believe the accusers. Why? Many reasons, the first of which (as I say) is that there is a pattern of behavior here. When there’s a pattern, we cannot say, “oh, it was just this one isolated incident.” Also, it’s really really hard to speak publicly about being sexually harassed or assaulted. Women who do get slut-shamed, called liars, blamed for seeking publicity, harassed further, and may face professional consequences. When a woman makes the decision to speak up, she is putting herself at risk. That’s why so many of those men named in the #MeToo movement have gone unnamed until now. Calling out the predatory behavior of powerful men (or women, but it’s usually men) is risky. It’s necessary to call them out, but it requires a level of bravery and emotional strength that not all people have — and nor should they be required to have. Surviving the traumas of harassment and assault takes a lot out of a person. (Big understatement.)

#MeToo

The emotions in this discussion have been more raw than they usually are — which is quite understandable, of course. I mention it here for several reasons, the first of which is that a couple of days have elapsed since the discussion and my response. I wish we could have had this conversation in person because then we could have addressed some of these questions in person. The asynchronous nature of this class means that we could not. But, since we could not, you should know that you all did far better than all of the on-line discussions I’ve seen on this subject. There have been much more contentious posts on recent School Library Journal articles, for example. This discussion never even approached that level of vitriol. Indeed, it was remarkably vitriol free.

That said, I recognize there may yet be some frayed nerves and lingering bad feelings. So. If anyone would like to talk with me about this, please let me know. I am willing to set up a Zoom chat for anyone who’d like it — or multiple Zoom chats. And, whether people seek those or not, I ask that you do your best to sustain the professionalism you’ve managed to sustain throughout the term. We do not have to agree with each other, but we do have to make an effort to understand and respect each other.

For the record, I respect the variety of opinions offered here. I’ve given you my response because I promised that I would. But, as I’ve said before, you do not need to agree with my assessment of a book or, in this case, whether to teach the work of a particular author.

For those who want to read more about this, Debbie Reese has a chronicle of the Alexie story as it unfolded (when you click on the link, scroll down).

Finally, if I may, I’d like to close with the wise words of your classmate Maria Vieyra, who (in this discussion) writes:

None of us are epitomes of perfect ethical behavior, morality, or wisdom, but I believe most of us can agree that there should be consequences for predatory sexual behavior because it does indeed hurt people. And monetary costs from boycotting a book are a small form of justice that we are all able to be a part of, and I do not think it is too heavy a price to pay for the sake of the victims and the future.

Well said.

To all of you: Thanks ever so much for taking the time to wrestle with this contentious and difficult issue. I hope that, though your own responses may differ, you all have arrived at a deeper understanding of what’s at stake in either retaining a book or removing it.


So… that was our class discussion. Also, I didn’t mention this in my response above, but most students thought I should continue to teach Alexie.  Five students — all of them women — argued against teaching his work. (18 students participated in the discussion.)

I would not claim to have the “right” answer to the question of whether to teach Alexie. This is just my answer.  I would say, though, that each syllabus is a political document that is built on moral choices.  What we include on a syllabi and what we omit from that syllabi are deeply enmeshed in morality and in politics — which, of course, makes the creation of any syllabus fraught, complicated, and on some level unsatisfying.  (Or, at least, that’s my experience: I am never 100% happy with any syllabus I’ve created.)

Art is always political.  So is teaching.  We cannot pretend otherwise.

11 Comments »

  1. Marah Gubar Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    Your students are so lucky to have you as a teacher, Phil, and you are so lucky to have them! Even though I’m not sure whether I will stop teaching PART-TIME INDIAN in my school story course, you and your students have given me a lot to think about. Yours is the first articulation of the rationale for stopping teaching PART-TIME INDIAN that I have found compelling.

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

    Thanks, Marah! About a month ago, the English department had a discussion on this subject — led by Lisa Tatonetti (English) and April Petillo (American Ethnic Studies). I included the link above, and will include it again here. https://englishkstate.org/2018/03/27/complicated-conversations/

    As I say, I can’t claim to have the best answer here because, as noted, bad people can create great art. But for a Multicultural Children’s Literature course and for a YA Literature course — both of which contain future teachers — there are better choices. Do we want to canonize and, in so doing, send money to such a person (instead of to someone who did not hurt others in creating her/his art)?

  3. Marah Gubar Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

    Yeah, I no longer teach big classes of future teachers, so I think the mental calculus for book selection is different.

  4. Debbie Reese Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 5:30 pm

    Marah and Phil — I initially had positive thoughts about DIARY but it didn’t take long for me to move away from it.

    It made a splash. A big one. But, why? What insight do you think you got from it? When I did Skype visits for professors who were using it, it was/is very clear to me that it affirms stereotypes that students carry. My task was to rebut them. It was, in essence, not that much different than talking students through an analysis of one of the “classic” works that has stereotypical content.

    Native scholars in literature and elsewhere have not had the same warmth to the book–to his work in general–that White audiences have had. His picture book is also deeply problematic for the ways he speaks of naming. When he went to areas nearby reservations and Native elders or families were in attendance, they were shocked by what he said. The accounts of people walking out are many. But the White people in the audience laughed, loved, ate up what he said. It is truly disheartening AND disgusting, too.

    I’ve got a chapter by chapter analysis of DIARY in the works. In the meantime, look for Gloria Bird’s essay from the 90s and one that Professor Elizabeth Cook Lynn did two days ago. Both are at the bottom of my post. Also scroll up and follow the link to the article that Jacqueline Keeler did at YES Magazine.

    I must say, my heart is aching and my soul is raging as I read and think about the students who want to use it. They best be ready to hear from parents of Native students they may have in their classes. And they best be aware that assaults on Native women are sky high. Their decisions to use that book anyway are a snub in the face of Native survivors. Their decision says their love of Alexie’s words matter more than the trust any parents imparts on a teacher when they send their children to school child. Why do we have to do this to Native families? And there’s harm done, too, to non-Native ones who think Alexie is telling truths. FFS. Some people think Native people don’t like him because he tells “the dark side” of our lives. That’s bullshit. We don’t like him because he says that those of us who don’t have alcoholism in our families are in denial. He insists that we all have it. Research studies and our own personal experiences tell us that is just not true! In one of her articles at Booklist, Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote about how deeply he has persuaded librarians about truths (not) about Native life on reservations or elsewhere.

    Obviously, I’m ranting right now, but we’ve been dealt way too many blows from American society. When will that stop?

  5. Philip Nel Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

    Hi, Debbie: My colleague Lisa Tatonetti makes the excellent point that Absolutely True Diary can be read as multicultural Native lit for White readers: Junior leaves the rez, works hard at a White school, where his initially racist classmates come to like him (and who have problems of their own)… and where, due to that hard work, he succeeds! The book’s solution to the structural oppression… is to leave the rez, and work hard. The book doesn’t ignore problems on the rez, but ultimately allows its protagonist to simply leave. That approach worked for Alexie, but it doesn’t work for most. So, in this sense, the book is a bit of a Native fantasy for White readers.

    And I think she has a point. Indeed, your account of White readers’ affection for the book would seem to support her reading — which I have paraphrased above, and possibly embellished. So, please attribute any flaws in the above to me and not to Lisa.

    I think Alexie’s novel made a big splash because it affirms stereotypes but also treats its protagonist with sympathy (inviting readers to identify with Junior). Indeed, I think its ideological inconsistency allows people to ignore its contradictions and embrace what affirms their beliefs. As Kenneth Kidd pointed out on FB, there’s gay-baiting in the novel: he’s right. But the grandma character — hailed as wise and compassionate — affirms same-sex relationships. So, it’s easy to say, well, the novel affirms’ grandma’s political stance… and ignore evidence to the contrary.

    I think it also did well because, for all its darkness, it has a sense of humor. It’s also aphoristic — rather like Alexie’s own Twitter feed was. (He seems to be off Twitter now, but he used to Tweet aphoristic observations.) Its aphoristic tendencies make it feel wise.

    None of this excuses Alexie’s abuse of power, nor the problems in the book itself. But I think these may be some reasons why it caught on.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve just read the YES article. Will check out the ones by Gloria Bird and Elizabeth Cook Lynn — though I see that (at present) your blog links both Bird and Cook to the Bird article. (Could I trouble you for a link to the Lynn?)

    Thanks for posting.

  6. Laura Jimenez Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

    I’m floored by your entire post. You are not being critical of yourself or the text. Let’s leave Alexie, the sexual predator, out the equations for a moment.
    Let’s discuss the text as seen by people who are not White and Male and straight. I had to teach it when I was in grad school about 10 years ago. I found it sexist and homophobic and I thought it was pandering to the story White people are used to hearing. The students, almost all White, loved it and the reasons? They loved it because they “connected”, “related”, and “understood” the book. I was sick and took it upon myself to find better books to represent THE native american story.
    Why haven’t you?
    You say you COULD have, but why didn’t you? 7 years ago? 5 years ago? 3 years? Why did you continue to learn about the importance of authentic representations for mis- and under represented communities and yet, you continued to use a novel that represents women so poorly and shames LGBTQ people?
    You made a choice. I don’t understand it.

    Laura

  7. Philip Nel Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 10:28 pm

    Hi, Laura:

    Thanks for your comment. Arnold’s grandmother “had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.” She says, “Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks” (155). Alexie’s narrator sets her up as universally admired moral authority: “My grandmother’s greatest gift was tolerance” (155); “Everybody loved her; she loved everybody” (156). I read that as an explicitly anti-homophobic comment.

    But you’re right, and so is Kenneth Kidd, who pointed to the homophobia in a brief comment on Facebook, a few hours ago. There is gay-baiting in the book. And as I said in response to him on Facebook, I should have mentioned that here. Also, as I say in response to Debbie, above, I think the book’s ideological inconsistency allows people to ignore its contradictions and embrace what affirms their beliefs. That, at least, is what I did. I thought: “ah, we’re supposed to view the earlier gay-baiting critically — the grandmother is here to guide us toward that reading.” But I concede to being mistaken about that.

    I would say precisely the same thing about the book and sexism. It both is sexist and criticizes sexism. I chose to focus on the latter for similar reasons — I read it as displaying a teenage boy’s sexism in part so it could call him out for that sexism. But I now see this as another example of that inconsistency.

    When I’ve taught the novel, I’ve also brought in that question about (if I may quote you) “pandering to the story White people are used to hearing.” To give credit where it’s due, the source of that question (for me) is my colleague Lisa Tatonetti, who has written about Alexie. So, we did talk about that very question in class this year and in previous years.

    As you suggest in your comment, I should have replaced the book before now. Why didn’t I? I didn’t see. Why didn’t I see? As I know you (and other readers of this blog) know, unearned privilege tends to make itself invisible to those who have it. And I have ALL of that privilege: upper-middle-class, straight, White, cisgendered, able-bodied male. (And I’m sure I’ve left some out.) I work to make myself aware of that privilege, and to oppose it, to call it out. But I also fail. This, quite obviously, is a moment of failure.

    As I write these words, I am also looking at the back cover of my hardcover copy of the novel, where I see laudatory blurbs from Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel, Cecil Castellucci, and others. The front cover has the National Book Award sticker. It’s quite possible that those endorsements swathed the book in an impermeable glow that I failed to see through. I don’t cite that as an excuse — I’m just reflecting, as I look at the book, and think about my first experience with it.

    Thanks for your comment, and for the conversation. It’s helpful to have an opportunity to reflect like this. Through such conversations, I learn and (let us hope) make better choices in the future.

  8. Sarah H Said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 11:02 pm

    Reading this summary, I wonder whether, as the instructor, you would teach this the same way again. My impression is that the answer is yes, but I hope not. On the surface, it may seem that this approach of having students “debate both sides,” and then offering your own dispassionate opinion is both fair and open-minded. But what you refer to as an especially “contentious” debate among students, I as a survivor in your class would have experienced as traumatic. And, this does not even begin to address the histories and experiences of Native women that Debbie discusses above.

    I’m reminded of two recent homework assignments my nephew brought home from his 5th-grade classroom. In the first, he was asked to argue for or against the Washington team name. In the second, he was asked to debate the pros and cons of the Columbus Day holiday. (We went to the teacher about both.) Some might see these assignments as impartial exercises that reinforce the value of debating multiple points of view. Others recognize them, in their very presentation of “two sides,” as partial dismissals of Native people’s humanity.

    I’m sure there are many reading this who will say, “but there are many opinions on whether people should stop teaching this book. It’s important that students look at all sides.” Or they might argue the importance of letting students first air their own views before the instructor steps in. But, I think this approach allows you to evade your position as a white man with power leading this discussion. You aren’t neutral. (Neither am I.) If you truly believe that teachers should not be including this book in their curricula, for all of the reasons you’ve stated — is that reflected in the pedagogical approach taken here? If you’d taken a different approach in forming this lesson, would so many students have continued to argue for keeping the book? And, exactly whose lives, voices, and experiences are considered up for debate?

  9. Philip Nel Said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 11:51 am

    Dear Sarah H,

    Thanks for your note. To answer your question of whether I would teach this in the same way again, as noted above, I won’t be teaching the novel at all. So, no, I would not.

    A little context for you and any others who may stumble upon this conversation. I assigned the book and designed this lesson before #MeToo caught up with Alexie. Since this was an on-line class, I created the Alexie unit back in January (so it could go live two weeks later), and then taught it in early February. When the news of Alexie’s abuses broke in early March, I thought: “I need to talk with my students about this. It would be irresponsible not to. They need to know.” So, I wrote the prompt as an extra (but required) discussion for the final week of March.

    It’s not getting mentioned in the comments here, but Absolutely True Diary has been a common text for multicultural children’s literature classes for over a decade. When designing the multicultural children’s literature class in 2016 (I first taught it last spring), I sought the advice of scholars who I respected — and who I still respect. All had taught a multicultural children’s literature class. They very kindly shared their syllabi with me. Absolutely True Diary was on three of the four syllabi that I looked at. (It might have been on all four. I cannot find the fourth syllabus: it was on-line & I lack the URL. But it was certainly on three.)

    As I say above, I will not be teaching the novel in the future — for the reasons cited above, in the original post, and for the reasons expressed by others (and me) in the comments following that original post.

    Although I now see why you would make the “two sides” allegation, I do not do that in the class. In teaching this novel, I explicitly addressed the persistence of racist mascots, including talking about efforts to change our local high school’s Indian mascot. We also looked at racist representations of Native Americans in children’s literature — via an excerpt from Peter Pan and an excerpt from The Indian in the Cupboard. People’s humanity is not up for debate. Ever.

    Thanks for writing.

  10. Debbie Reese Said,

    April 8, 2018 @ 5:23 am

    If you had asked me in 2014 when you were working on that syllabus (I’m not going to be humble at the moment: I am probably the most known Native scholar studying children’s books) I would have said not to use it. I taught it when it first came out but didn’t continue because of the homophobia and because I’d read Elizabeth Bird’s article (and tks for asking about the link to Cook Lynn’s article; that’s fixed now). Obviously, the people you asked were fine with DIARY. And obviously, you were, too, given that it has been on your syllabus for 3 or 4 years, now.

    There are problems in DIARY. This is an entirely different issue from the sexual harassment. If the harassment had not come up, you’d still be using it. That is an important, here, because my guess is that people don’t see those problems. That is important to think about because you are one of the leading scholars in children’s literature. And yet… am I right? If it weren’t for the sexual harassment, you’d keep using it?

    For several years now I have written at my site, that he’d become the single story (you refer to Adichie’s video), and I recommended other books that people could teach instead. In 2014, I had this:
    https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2014/02/some-thoughts-on-ya-lit-and-american.html

    By 2016, I had grown increasingly wary of his work and its impact on non-Native readers. When I saw him insisting that Native people were in denial about alcoholism, I wrote this:
    https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2016/03/eric-jennings-sherman-alexie-and.html

    And then of course, when news broke about sexual harassment, I wrote my Open Letter. I’m glad you pointed your students to that letter and the Timeline, but there’s more to consider and unless you do, I think you may be at risk of perpetuating stereotypes without even realizing you’re doing it.

  11. Philip Nel Said,

    April 8, 2018 @ 8:26 am

    Hi, Debbie:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    As noted in the above post, I’m not teaching Alexie’s novel anymore. My original blog post (in the letter-to-my-students part) also links to your 2014 post of recommendations. Thanks for writing that post — very helpful.

    Thanks for the link to your 2016 post about Alexie’s comments on alcoholism. I’d missed that, and will go take a look.

    Best wishes,

    Phil

Leave a Comment