What Lies Beneath the Skin: Entangled Narratives of Indigeneity, Islamophobia, and Whitening in Sherman Alexie’s Flight
In this paper, I will explore the relationship among the narratives of indigeneity, Islamophobia, and whitening in Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel Flight—to raise questions about the book’s reception, ethics, and form. The novel’s opening line presents a fifteen-year-old narrator saying to his audience, “Call me Zits” (1). Zits is not the boy’s real name, of course, but a self-disparaging moniker that defines the narrator entirely by the “forty-seven” pimples that dot his skin. Indeed, skin is the definitional factor for almost all of Flight’s characters; it is the site at which the novel’s heavy emphasis on racialized phenotypes comes to the fore. Zits attributes his acne to genetics: his American Indian father had a similarly “ruined complexion,” and Zits calls himself “ugly”—“ashamed” of his Indian-raced face (Alexie 4). In contrast, Zits finds his white mother “gorgeous,” and he refers to Flight’s other characters as “good-looking,” “pretty,” “beautiful,” and “very handsome” (Alexie 21, 29, 40–41, 58, 86, 93, 158). At one point, Zits describes a boy with “blue eyes and blond hair” and explicitly admits, “I want to be him” (Alexie 158). The only nonwhite character in Flight whom Zits calls “beautiful” is a “brown-skinned” Muslim Ethiopian man named Abbad, yet such a positive description is soon thwarted by the fact that Abbad hijacks an airplane and crashes it into the buildings of downtown Chicago, killing nine people (Alexie 109–10, 126). Once more, dark skin serves as a marker of inferiority—this time alongside a negatively stereotypical portrayal of a marginalized religious identity—in a book by an author widely understood as “progressive.” The very last words of Flight show its protagonist in the midst of a self-whitening process that makes him “happy” (180). Once Zits receives an acne scrub to rid his Indian-raced face of its acne, he undergoes a change in both skin and name: “My real name is Michael,” he says. “Please, call me Michael” (Alexie 181). To my knowledge, no critics of the novel have discussed Zits’s aspirations to whiteness—a theme that matters all the more when we consider Alexie’s status as the most popular and mainstream of Native American writers today. What does it mean for a minority writer to author a post-9/11 work whose singular Muslim character is a terrorist and whose protagonist looks highly upon his self- whitening? Is Flight performing this Islamophobia and whitening—or is it merely putting such constructs on display for its readers to critique?
Weaving the Silence of the Archives: A Creative Presentation on the Similar Historical Experiences of Cherokees and Filipinos under U.S. Rule
Tria Andrews (Cherokee)
In conversation with Ethnic American literature that addresses themes of cultural dislocation and the potential kinship between colonized peoples, my presentation is a creative collection of hybrid texts. I hope to broaden and contribute to literature addressing intersectionalities and parallels by focusing on my Filipina and Cherokee cultural roots and the similar historical experiences of assimilation and resistance of both groups under U.S. rule. This presentation of creative writing will sketch, compare, and historicize 20th century U.S. colonial curriculum in Filipino and Native American secondary education while weaving my own familial histories and experiences. Archival research, interviews, and observation, further inspire the themes and subject matter of this presentation. Questions that will be articulated are: how are hybridity, fragmentation, and intersectionality representative of violence and the incomplete project of colonialism? How will a comparative, poly-vocal, and intentionally fragmented text contribute to a better understanding of these marginalized histories? How does the weaving of ideas and cultural concepts contribute to new knowledges?