January 27, 2020 in Analysis
The Problem of Cultural Identity in War Dances by Sherman Alexie

War Dances by Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award Winner, is a collection of delightful stories in which the author focused on psychological problems of the modern Americans, so the main line can be defined as searching a meaning of life in the post-modern or even post-human world. It is also important for the author to understand the world and human place in it (apparently in most cases this is Alexie’s alter ego), particularly in the context of religion, nation, and history. Therefore, the unusual combination of both stories and poems follows the reader to different issues of cultural identity. The author’s imagination and subtle sense of people’s life follows to the question of knowing each other: how do people know each other? Is there a common ground for being human today? This essay suggests that the problem of cultural identity explicates a return to ethnic roots, family values, and an absurd confusion of someone in the modern society. Fittingly, Alexie creates certain moral dilemmas, when the cultural identity assembles or disassembles according to the character’s willpower or weakness.

The identities represent separate selves in conflict with dominative mainstream culture. For instance, it perfectly reflects in the poem Food Chain, where the anonymous voice asks for someone to bury him in an anthill. This request sounds as some another level of absurd, but it reflects a very real context. The worlds “set the ants on fire” refers to the ancient Indian ritual of incineration, thus Alexie as a partially Indian wants to return to his roots, a real cultural ground. Then this theme refers in Salt, one of the most powerful stories in this collection, where the theme of Indian culture is also reshaped in light of Alexie’s experience of being different from others. Additionally, the story of a traveler salesman in The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless echoes in the story about another traveler in On Airplanes. Actually, there is no such problem to switch off between prose and poem, so it creates the whole monologue with different images and locations.

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The stories create a massive intertext, the unfinished story of the journey as a metaphor for the search self in the world. From the first starting poem Limited it becomes known that the author wants to understand what actually is happened in this world, is there certain logic or not. He asks: “Don’t give me that face / Unless you’re going to do / Something about it. / Come on, though guy, / What are you going to do?”. The character is wondering why the man is trying to hit a stray dog, because there is no serious motive for such cruel action. Alexie looks at the world as a child, but also do not understand how to find a right way for being happy or even peaceful there. Hence, this naïve perspective cannot distinguish the real from unreal, so Alexie shows again and again the shift between fiction and reality. The reader immediately identifies with the narrator, and ultimately wants to protect the innocent dog. It is a sort of little super-hero action in the world without heroes. Then the mood changed in the second poem that presents the contrast character.

The same problem of loosing identity in the modern world is represented in other stories. In the first novel Breaking and Entering the author tells how mass information changes (mostly in a negative way) the cultural identity. One day George Wilson hears noise in the basement and decides to oppose the robber. As a result of the fight, he kills him: “He was young and scared and made an irrational decision. Or maybe it wasn’t irrational at all”. Moreover, this boy was innocent (one more parallel with the first poem that creates the ethical basis for other echoes as well). Wilson has done terrible things (including someone’s son he has killed) that finally ruined in half his cultural identity. The instant choice determines his self in his eyes and in the eyes of his wife. However, the author poses the question: is there the choice before doing or not some things? Whether the person can always control her or his destiny?

On the one hand, Wilson had had the choice before he killed, but he actually did not want to use it. On the other, this crime has determined Wilson’s identity in this fatal way. As the story’s three African American victims and the irrationally victimized George enter a “pain contest” in the Wilson’s imagination, he determines that it is not even guilt or blame that runs the world but shame. Shame is that part of the cultural identity that separates the self into two parts: the first departs from social norms, and the second one is trying to associate with the preferred identity. However, Wilson tries to ignore this: “Nothing happened, of course. Nothing ever really happens, you know. Life is infinitesimal and incremental and inconsequential”. Actually, this model is one more proof of how to hard accept the real nature of things.

The understanding of someone’s internal conflict is the main motive, which reveals to the theme of cultural identity. The characters are trying all the time to recognize how they operate and perform, choosing between right and wrong actions. The title story War Dances deals not only with individuals expressed with their disease or Indian stereotyping each other as blanket donors, observing how interview questions frame the exploration of identity. The narrator tries to authentically recreate the stories of his father and grandfather, even if he intentionally conceals his current health crisis for their sons. With special attention to form, the main character uses poetic and catalog genres to represent his father. For instance, there is a part Battle Fatigue, where the narrator has started “to research a book about family’s history”. It is actually a recorded interview on iPod, so it is literally embodied as a flaw of replicas. Consequently, for Alexie the cultural identity cannot exist without family, so the father’s and grandfather’s stories, recorded interviews, some other stories are simply the methods of reconstruction the same question of self.

Therefore, Alexie combined stories and poems in the collection, presenting them in both traditional and innovative manner. According to the type of story, the author chooses the certain technique of narrative. Alexie tells delight stories in order evoke memories and moral dilemmas that the reader may have missed. There is also a question of loosing identity, so the characters try to reshape the memory, recollect the stories from their relatives or even rebuild the reality in their imagination in order to save the self. One more important thing that Alexie is always mention that in the case of identity it is hard to understand a real border between what is real and what is not. In this case the stories are reminded the classical examples of absurd literature, especially Kafka. However, for Alexie the most important thing is how to save the roots in his Indian identity, thus his prose called as ‘Native American’. The only way of conserving the identity is to tell story, as his belongings did from generation to generation, so he tried the same thing in his War Dances.


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