|Photo by James Keyser|
Ian Frazier cut his professional teeth writing humor pieces for The New Yorker. Since the publication of Dating Your Mom in 1986, he has migrated to essay writing on subjects as diverse as Héloise (yes, that Héloise) and Charles Manson’s hideout in Death Valley. He has also authored a gem on the topography and people of Middle America, Great Plains, as well as a detailed history of his lineage in Family. Frazier’s latest book, On the Rez, recounts his experiences visiting Oglala Sioux Indians who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Frazier has an extraordinary gift for detailing people and places. In one scene, he watches a Western on TV with a group of Oglalas, who identify all the Indians by name as they ride screaming across the screen. It’s this sort of weaving of historical and esoteric data that makes Rez a continuously rich and rewarding read. Yet Frazier doesn’t shy away from difficult realities; there are numerous disturbing trips to buy Budweiser in Whiteclay, Nebraska, and too many highways littered with wrecked cars. But the heart and soul of Frazier’s journey through Pine Ridge is the story of SuAnne Big Crow, a teenage basketball hero who led her team, the Lady Thorpes, to the state championship.
In spite of his sometimes overly romantic idolization of Indian culture, On the Rez is an extremely moving account of a remarkable young woman, who lives in the spirit of Crazy Horse.
On the Rez, like your other books, is full of meticulous research — were you a history major at Harvard?
No, I was a General Studies major, but I felt like when I went to college, I did not get educated. I just remember rioters running through the streets, setting trash barrels on fire and having police chasing them with billy clubs. So I didn’t focus on my studies, and I regretted it. Since I’ve been out of college, I’ve constantly been trying to make up for stuff I feel like I somehow should have learned there.
How did you make the transition from Harvard to The New Yorker?
I knew people who worked at The New Yorker, friends of friends. I had a bunch of stuff that I had written for the Harvard Lampoon and I submitted it there, and they called me in for an interview. Not right away, but eventually they gave me a job. They wanted to get more humor in the magazine, because a lot of the guys who had been famous New Yorker humorists were over the horizon by then: Thurber was dead, Frank Sullivan and Perelman were not writing very much. The fact that I wrote humor made me kinda what they were looking for. I was a staff writer with an office at the magazine from 1974 to 1982. Then I moved to Montana, and I continued to be a staff writer until I resigned in 1995.
Your piece “The Frankest Interview Yet” (found in the essay collection Coyote v. Acme) seemed to be full of this undercurrent of anger — was that your last piece for them?
My last piece was about glitter getting stuck to me. I based “Frankest” on a headline I saw in The Enquirer that said, “Roseanne: The Frankest Interview Yet,” and I thought at that point, “How much franker can she get?” And it turned out that I resigned because The New Yorker got Roseanne to edit an issue. It was too ridiculous. I had many reasons to resign before that, but that was kind of a good and funny excuse to leave. I didn’t want to work for Tina Brown anymore. Her justification [for the new editorial style] seemed to be that she was “getting out the cobwebs.” They substituted a different view of what a writer was. It was “get me a rewrite,” the writer as someone waiting at the end of a phone for an assignment . . . but I think the best stories start inside a writer’s imagination. You read someone like Joseph Mitchell, who is writing about the ships that come into New York and what kind of rats are on them — any of his great pieces — and you can’t imagine them as assignments.
Mitchell uses a writing device where he’ll present a long list of, say, the last names of the Mohawks who work as high-steel riveters, or every variety of shellfish in the Fulton Fish Market. You do the same thing in On the Rez, where, for example, you record all the warnings that appear on consumer products or inventory all the garbage in a parking lot.
Lists are a real art form. If you pay attention to them, they can really be great. I’m reading a book right now by Pushkin called The Captain’s Daughter, and a young army officer is in a fort that gets overrun by rebels, and all his stuff is stolen, and his servant presents a list of the stuff that was stolen, and just the list of the shirts and the coats and bed sheets and so on is, like, this perfect picture of a young gentleman’s équipage. If I taught writing, I would teach a course just on “lists.”
After reading your account of SuAnne’s life, I thought, “This is the kind of story Hollywood really goes after.”
It is something Indians know about but other people haven’t paid much attention to, and I couldn’t figure out why. [SuAnne’s story] was in a book by Nathan Aaseng, who wrote a series on Indian heroes. I thought it was just remarkable that these people had this great hero Crazy Horse in the 1870s, and now, 100 years later, they have another hero, and that this culture produced heroes. Also it shows the survival of the culture despite the change in circumstances from buffalo-hunting days when Crazy Horse was alive to reservation days now.
Native American poet and author Sherman Alexie really took On the Rez to task in his review in the Los Angeles Times. To paraphrase the review, he decried your identification with Indian culture, and he felt you were just another white writer presenting an untrue chronicle of observed Indian life.
I don’t think [his criticisms] were enforceable. The idea that you have to be a certain person to write about a certain thing is just — madness lies in that direction. The reverse of it is that it makes books too easy to dismiss. You can look at a book and say, “Oh, that’s an Indian book, for Indians, by Indians.” Or “How can I read that? I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have the background. I’m not an Indian. I don’t know enough about the subject.” The point isn’t what you know, it’s your curiosity. And following [Alexie’s] logic, “You have no right to be interested in this.” Well, how can you not have a right to be interested? [The review] also seems to suggest, “Please know what a bad thing this guy’s doing,” that I can do harm by being interested. And that to me is extremely patronizing. The Indians have survived a lot worse than a writer taking a look at them. The people I write about are incredibly tough and resilient people, and I would never presume to treat them with kid gloves.
Alexie even hated the title.
He said I should call it On Their Reservation. I don’t know, it was kind of strange. I’m actually kind of glad to have pointed out that this taboo, which I think is a silly one, has been imposed. If you are a white man, you can’t write about white women. If you’re a white woman, you can’t write about white men. My point is, I see this exclusionist view of who the writer can be on a certain subject as a way for some writers to make sure that they don’t have to take any real hard criticism.
If there were an overriding sentiment you wanted a reader to take away from On the Rez, what would it be?
I would like it if people finished the book and said, “This is a great place, and it’s of much more significance to America than I thought.” But people have read it in many different ways. People said I was too sympathetic to Indians, I was not sympathetic enough, I was too romantic, I was too unsparing in depicting the drinking and suffering. I’m glad that people take different things from it.
Very early in the book, you say, “Capitalism destroyed communism and now it’s destroying democracy,” but you observe that Pine Ridge stands apart. It existed before, and it will exist afterward.
Right. So if you want to find a way to get through it all, maybe you go back to this common denominator that we had way back in the past. It kind of answers the question you sometimes hear of “Why don’t Indians get with the program?” What program?
ON THE REZ | By IAN FRAZIER |Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 311 pages