“Ten Little Indians” and the American Experience

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Trying to write something about “the ethnic experience of America” is as misleading as trying to write about any wider experience is. The truth is that within every group of people there is a vast variety of experience, a cornucopia of difference and sameness, artificially united by a shared skin color and a “culture”–whatever that means.

Alexie is perhaps the foremost American Indian novelist, and his short story collection “Ten Little Indians” did a fantastic job unpacking and examining the experience of diversity of experience. His characters are urbanites, whose roots stretch back to the Spokane reservation but whose lives rarely touch it. They are often educated, liberal, and smart. And they are American Indians, in a post-colonial, post-conquering society. What does that mean for the individual?

The answers tend to be laden with uproarious humor–at one point, a character remarks that the funniest ethnic groups he’s ever met are Jews and Indians. The Indian he’s talking to says it must have something to do with genocide.

There are no simple answers to these questions of the conflict between the individual and the community, between the person, the reality of culture, and the nature of stereotypes. And when there are no simple answers, perhaps the most important thing to do is tell a story. And this Alexie does, with grace and brilliance.

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