Sherman Alexie, Inside Dachau
Sherman Alexie is one of my most favourite writers. When I was a teenager I stumbled across The Summer of Black Widows in a really obscure place – like in a new age/cultural theft section of a book shop. Alexie is Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian (if ever he says “Native American” you can be sure he is poking fun at someone) who now lives in Seattle.
‘Inside Dachau’ is a part of his Summer of Black Widows collection of poetry. This is only the first part, you’d better go read it in its entirety here – it is ace.
1. big lies, small lies
Having lied to our German hosts about our plans
for the day, Diane and I visited Dachau
instead of searching for rare albums in Munich.
Only a dozen visitors walked through the camp
because we were months away from tourist season.
The camp was austere. The museum was simple.
Once there, I had expected to feel simple
emotions: hate, anger, sorrow. That was my plan.
I would write poetry about how the season
of winter found a perfect home in cold Dachau.
I would be a Jewish man who died in the camp.
I would be the ideal metaphor. Munich
would be a short train ride away from hell. Munich
would take the blame. I thought it would all be simple
but there were no easy answers inside the camp.
The poems still took their forms, but my earlier plans
seemed so selfish. What could I say about Dachau
when I had never suffered through any season
inside its walls? Could I imagine a season
of ash and snow, of flames and shallow graves? Munich
is only a short train ride away from Dachau.
[ ED. UPDATE 29/4: Alexie’s Literary Agent tells me I have to cut the poem short here. Which is a bit of a problem, because the the first section of the poem is, certainly in my mind, the most boring. It sets a solid foundation and context that the rest of the poem needs, but in its entirety, it is truly great. I hope you take a few moments to have a proper read. This probably should have been made clearer irrespective of the LA’s advice]
The most recent work of his that I have read is his fictionalized autobiography, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. It is marketed as Young Adult genre, but this is kind of irrelevant. It is silly and angsty and crude and warm and terribly terribly heartbreaking. Of the writing process he told one interviewer:
The material in True Diary was actually first part of a memoir. I’ve been working on a family memoir about my family’s history with war. So I wrote this entire huge section about the first year I spent at the white high school, and it didn’t fit whatsoever, thematically. So I put it aside. I had 450 manuscript pages that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Then a YA editor called me, as she had been calling me over the years, about every six months: “So where’s that YA novel?” She called me on this day that I had printed out those pages, and as I was talking to her, I was looking at my desktop and there was the manuscript, sitting there, and I thought, “Wow! I think that’s a novel.” So it was really sort of a coincidence. And then partly I made it a novel simply because—this is weird to say—nobody would actually believe it as a memoir.
He is not exaggerating. It really did take me a while to shake it off. Here’s a youtube video with a reading, some Q&As, some insensitive laughter and teenage boy jokes.
Below is the trailer for the 1998 film Smoke Signals which Alexie wrote and is directed by Chris Eyre. It is based on ‘This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona’ and other short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Keep your eye out for John Trudell.