Friday, November 19, 2010

Blood Memory...

I was revisiting some of my notes from class and this article came to mind. It is an interview with the "native American" author, Sherman Alexie in which some very interesting points are raised. Here is a section I found useful. Especially pertinent are the ideas of collective trauma, blood memory, and the Holocaust connection.

AN: I find the concept of "collective trauma" particularly useful concerning the suffering that many of your characters are experiencing. Many of them suffer from not only personal losses and grievances--absent fathers, poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, etc.--but also from a cultural loss and a collective trauma, which include experiences of racism and stereotyping. Their losses and grievances affect their behavior and their lives on many levels. In my view, your fiction explores how such trauma both damages and creates community and identity alike. Both identity and community are, of course, condemned to ongoing dysfunction. Do you think that suffering is part of what constitutes Indianness? Perhaps in a somewhat comparable way by which we have come to associate African American identity with slavery, or Jewish identity with the Holocaust? If so, how does this relation differ from, e.g., the relation between African Americans and suffering, or Jews and suffering?

SA: Yes! The phrase I've also used is "blood memory." I think the strongest parallel in my mind has always been the Jewish people and the Holocaust. Certainly, their oppression has been constant for 1900 years longer, but the fact is that you cannot separate our identity from our pain. At some point it becomes primarily our identity. The whole idea of authenticity--"How Indian are you?"--is the most direct result of the fact that we don't know what an American Indian identity is. There is no measure anymore. There is no way of knowing, except perhaps through our pain. And so, we're lost. We're always wandering.

AN: Like the lost tribes of Israel?

SA: Yes. It's so amazing that the indigenous people of the United States have become the most immigrant group. The process is slowly changing. My generation and the next generation--we are immigrants! I am an immigrant into the United States, and now my children are fully assimilated.

AN: A scholar by the name of Kai Erikson has put a social dimension into the term "trauma." He talks about "traumatized communities" in the sense of damages to the tissues that hold human groups together as well as to the dominant spirit of a group, which is a fitting concept when we talk about "collective trauma" or "blood memory."

SA: Yes it is. Some day they're going to find it, but I feel that it is true that pain is carried in the DNA. And because it is carried in the DNA, pain can mutate through generations. One of the most obvious proofs for that is child abuse. Kids who get abused so often grow up and become abusers.

AN: Many of your characters--Victor and Junior in The Lone Ranger and Reservation Blues, John Smith in Indian Killer, Harlan in Ten Little Indians, to mention a few--are struggling with their experiences of what it means to be an Indian, and what they are told it means to be an Indian. At times, they seem at a loss as to what Indian identity really IS. Is their struggle linked with the fact that Indian identity has often been reduced to stereotype? In other words, do you think that the long-term reduction of the Indian to stereotype in American culture has resulted in a collective crisis of identity for many Indians today?

A world of story-smoke: a conversation with Sherman Alexie.


Scott Abbott said...

This ties in to something I've been thinking. If the Nazis so abused the idea/word of Volk/Folk that it's impossible to use it after the war, then what kind of identity can a German have. We have collective identities through our Volk. And now it's just supposed to be gone?

The reverse side of the Holocaust is the damage experienced by the people who perpetrated it. It was their fault, of course, but they also suffer a severe set of consequences, including a loss of positive identity.