Concocting Terrorism off the Reservation: Liberal Orientalism in Sherman Alexie's Post-9/11 Fiction

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Author: Steven Salaita
Editor: Jelena Krstovic
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,812 words

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[(essay date summer 2010) In the following essay, Salaita examines Alexie's presentation of Muslim and Arab characters in two novels written in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks--Flight and Ten Little Indians--in the context of how they incorporate contemporary reactions to American multiculturalism and of Alexie's own perspective as a member of an ethnic minority.]

Sherman Alexie is arguably the most visible Native writer today (among those, to be more specific, who participate in or are associated with the category of "Native American literature"). A prolific novelist, poet, screenwriter, essayist, and short story writer, Alexie commands large audiences (and honoraria) wherever he reads or speaks, and all of his recent books have become bestsellers. Given his exalted status in the American cultural zeitgeist, Alexie has been the subject of much discussion among literary critics, book reviewers, and cultural commentators, conferring to Alexie both a direct and emblematic role in conversations about American literary multiculturalism. Alexie is something of an exemplar of a new epoch of American literature, then, one in which an ossified national identity has been decentered and replaced with a postmodern internationalism. In this essay I want to explore his representation of Arab and Muslim characters in the framework of what I call liberal Orientalism, which, roughly defined, is a representation of Islam and the East more broadly rooted in the liberal principles of American multiculturalism. Unlike the unmodified Orientalism, liberal Orientalism is not an attempt to invent or oversee but a mode of representation, one in which moral questions arise from a nexus of issues central to the United States' relationship with the Muslim World. It is a form of Orientalism that is used liberally and one that is deeply engaged with the idea of a liberal society.

In Alexie's recent fiction, Muslims are always metonymical of tacit intimations about America as a fundamentally good multicultural experiment whose conflicting mores are problematic but not ruinous, unlike the external violence that has afflicted the United States. Muslims occupy this metonymy without participating in the multicultural experiment; they are too busy supplementing it by inflicting the violence. In this sense, they act as a catalyst for a type of American self-examination that transcends unicultural participation; this self-examination encompasses the anxieties of military and colonial violence as it is deployed in response to forms of terroristic violence that contravene the anguished principles of liberal democracy. Some basic questions allow us to look at the presence of liberal Orientalism in Alexie's post-9/11 fiction: Why are his modern-day terrorists inevitably Ethiopian or Muslim? Why does he confine acts of Muslim terrorism to a fantastical reproduction of the oversexed Muslim male? And why do Muslim taxi drivers in Alexie's work seem to care so much whether or not their passengers are Jewish? I will examine these issues through critique of Alexie's short story collection Ten Little Indians and his novel Flight.

In her introduction to the edited collection Shades of the Planet, which painstakingly explores America's new...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420112447