Vol 2 No. 20, Oct 18 - Oct 24 2001
WRITING IN THE NUDE
When the Private Becomes All Too Public
by Joelle Fraser
He holds me from behind, his semen on my thighs, the wetness dried tight and thin as faded scars. In June, I read this in front of 150 people, a local TV camera, and my mother. Every time I looked up at the audience, I could see my mother in the third row, her face wide-eyed and glowing--not with pride, but alarm.
With memoir writing, if you do it right--if you tell the truth and do it with a full heart--you'll feel like your fly is constantly undone and everyone's pointing. A memoir requires you to be brutally honest. Otherwise it's like wearing sunglasses over a bruise: everyone knows you're hiding something and feels uncomfortable because of it. And being honest, too, is often the only reason people will forgive the self-indulgence of writing a memoir in the first place.
Through the haze of sex and wine I think of the other women who must have been here before me. I know it's too soon, that he'll disrespect me, that this will cost me. But even more I know the act of sex will bind me to him, that I'll want this again and again. I think to myself: another man's arms.
In front of an audience or alone at my desk, this book makes me feel naked.
This book, my memoir, is about what I've done and who I am, and only some of it is good and beautiful. It's hard not to think about who will read it--neighbors, the boss, the woman who cuts my hair. If a certain ex-boyfriend reads the book it won't take him long to figure out that as we were breaking up, I was screwing around with someone else, someone he never knew about.
My father was the drunk, the gambler, the one who couldn't keep a job, couldn't hold together a marriage. Most of his old friends wouldn't have anything to do with him--or their wives wouldn't let them.
My father died last year. Now I might lose my brother for the things I've written about our father. What I wrote was true and no secret, but my brother thinks it's wrong to talk about it. Most of the time, I don't blame him.
My mother's now a therapist, which came in handy for a while--until she heard the disapproval in a radio interviewer's voice after it came out that I was smoking pot at the age of four, and that at six, I drank beers through a straw. My mother cried herself into hysterics. For her, memoirs are fine in theory; they're supposed to be healing. But then mine started to become public, and it became about her being judged as a mother.
What kept me writing was the belief that secrets make you sick, on a personal level and beyond; and that much of the trouble surrounding us stems from shame and the compulsion to hide it. In my own family, the stigma of alcoholism shamed us all into silence, and in some way, this contributed to my father's drinking himself to death.
And beautiful things can happen. One day, writing at a nearby truck stop, I found myself editing a section about my father's grueling death from cirrhosis of the liver, and it was suddenly clear that it should be in past tense, not present: He can no longer sit upright became He could no longer sit upright. Page after page, with tears running down my face, I painstakingly changed each verb to the past tense. After that, the horrific nightmares I'd been having for months, about my father and his illness, finally stopped. And for the first time, my mother and I are close.
In the end, you write for yourself, and because you have to, and like all the hard choices we make, you learn to live with the consequences. The truth is that everyone has a story, and when woven together they make up the strange and wonderful portrait we call humanity. When I read an honest, well-written memoir, I feel less alone in the world, and sometimes, when things are very hard, that's enough to get me through the night.
Joelle Fraser is the author of Territory of Men, and lives in Portland.
Vol 2 No. 29, Dec 20 - Jan 2 2002
My Favorite Sin
by Joelle Fraser
It was in Portland that I first learned to sin and learned to enjoy it. Maybe it was the endless suck of gray days, allowing us ample time and reason to think up acts of diversion. Huddling in the rain on NW 21st and smoking clove cigarettes, swiping wine from Safeway, flying on acid at the Lincoln High football game, cupping my younger cousin's rubbery penis in my hand under the gaze of his blue, bewildered eyes.
Of course, by the age of 12, I'd long suspected that being a good little girl was a recipe for boring nights where I did all my homework and baked oatmeal cookies. Bad girls, like blondes, seemed to have more fun, and stolen things--whether candy or kisses--offered a thrill I could get nowhere else. Most of my sins had to do with lust. Riding the bus to school in February, I'd see a flash of throat as a boy adjusted his scarf or a band of his belly as he stretched, and I nurtured fantasies, all my thoughts of warmth involving one boy or another from class, even my best friend's boyfriend.
Ironically, my sinful adolescence now seems like the most innocent time in my life. I was looking simply to escape, to learn, or to be loved.
Twenty years later, I've come back to Portland, no longer a child, and what can I say of my sins today? At least this much is true: I'm no longer innocent. The seven deadly sins are old friends, but on a grand scale, my crimes are small and common, and do little damage. Some I get no enjoyment from: white lies told out of weakness, faces turned away from on the street, betrayals of lovers. The sins of omission.
But most of the time, I do like my darker side. Sin can mean a wild weekend or a warm body at night. And I like what happens to me physically when I transgress, even when just thinking about it: the flush, the way my heart tightens. It's almost sexual. I am alive. Each sin grants me some pleasure, no matter what the guilt or pain that so often follows.
There's another reason why I've yet to change my ways. The timeless struggle with sin is what we all share, and it creates compassion and understanding--for whom in this world could cast the first stone?
was a young valet I'd picked up in Reno. I had ten years on him, and that was
part of the turn-on. I liked his bland skin and his voice, the way it sometimes
rode on the edge of cracking.
"One of the first things you learn as an Eldorado valet is the fan," he was saying. "You write 'F' on the ticket if there's a good-looking girl in a dress. Then at the end of the night if you get one of those tickets you know to pull up over the grate. When the girl goes to get in, the air blows her dress up."
He flicked his cigarette out the window, into the dark. Smoking, I could tell, made him feel older and wiser. Cigarettes as props, I thought it was kind of sweet.
"Yeah. One time this girl was talking to us — a cab had dropped her off. She was wild, you could tell. So I told her to walk across the driveway, and she just laughed. I guess she thought we were going to check out her ass or something, her walk. Anyway, she did it."
"Yeah. So when she gets over the grate her skirt goes up and she's wearing nothing under it. And she just starts dancing." He swayed a bit in the seat with his arms up above his head. "She fucking loved it. We were screaming 'Yeaahhh!' from the side."
He was looking at me then, but I kept my eyes ahead.
"I didn't get turned on or anything by it," he said.
Outside, there was nothing but corn fields. Looking closely where the headlights shown, I could see ears of corn low on the stalks.
"So what else," I said. "What's it like, to be a valet at a casino?"
"You want to know about the girls?"
I shrugged and looked at him, casual in his cotton khakis and white T-shirt, arms slim and tan. His eyes shone and his pupils were huge, like he was high, but he wasn't. We'd had some beers by the side of the road after we left Minnesota, washing down sourdough French and some cheddar, leftovers from his brother's party in Minneapolis. But that was almost two hours before.
In the distance a few farmhouses were scattered, dimly lit like stars, seeming to go forever into the blackness. I wondered if I would end up like that, in a silent dark place, a place to hear yourself breathe.
"They're the best tippers," he said.
"The girls. Hookers, dancers, strippers. What's weird is that they all drive nice new American cars. Eagle Talons, Le Barons, Ford Mustangs. They all have something wrong with them, though, a door panel falling off, a big dent. The girls don't care. Usually they got a bag in there stuffed with condoms. Lifestyle condoms."
"They tip well?" I asked.
"Ten, Twenty. Usually ten in, ten out. More if they have a good night. Sometimes they give us a 'bonus' — lifting their shirt or pulling up their dress. In Vegas, you get a little more." He rubbed his hands on his pants, over his thighs. "This one stripper, Lora Renee, she's in every night. The other day she comes into the office — it's two a.m. — and says, 'I just need to get fucked. There's no one who can do it the way I want it.' We just sat there and laughed, like it was nothing, you know."
"Jesus. What did you say?"
"I said, 'Sean here will go with you!'" He laughed and rubbed his thighs some more. "She's actually really attractive, very good looking. She's what you call a high class prostitute."
"Obviously," I said.
Above us, the moon eased itself out of thin clouds like a woman unveiling herself. I thought: Something has begun here, and I would remember later that it was like falling, like shooting down a covered slide, tight and narrow and blind.
"Go on," I said. He looked at me and smiled. He probably thought he was turning me on.
"Oh yeah, I've got lots of stories, shit you wouldn't believe. Just last month one of the valets had a bachelor party, and Lora Renee was one of the dancers. I was working, so I only heard about it. She did this thing, naked — the guys would lie on their backs and she would crawl over them, one at time." He stopped as if to catch himself and looked at me again. "This is kind of explicit, can you handle explicit?"
"Okay, and then she'd sit over their faces, real close, like within half an inch. With Mike though, she actually made contact. He had his tongue up there and was going at it. He thought he was the man! God, the next night she came in and he walked up to her all cocky and said, 'Hi. Remember me?' but she didn't have a clue what he was talking about. Mike was really hit by that."
I didn't have to look at him to imagine his mouth — soft as redfruit, almost infantile, the lower lip with a delicate press in the middle. For a moment, I wanted to pull over and put his face in my hands, to touch the smoothness around his eyes lightly with my thumbs. I wanted to see if it would blanch and then fill up rosily again. Because I can't remember — my skin is thinner, closer to the bone.
"You want me to drive?"
"No," I said. I liked having something to do. Otherwise I might just stare at that endless corn. When we stopped so he could pee, he did it right into the line of the shadowy field, dropping his pants to his ankles and his bare butt was pure and white and seemed to glow. The sight made me edgy, as if he should have asked permission. The corn was taller than him by at least two feet. Paper-thin slashes would cover my body if I ran through it.
He put his hand on my leg. His calluses caught on my tights and he removed it. I thought about what it would be like later, in bed. In Reno, I'd been drunk, looking for the bathroom at the Eldorado, and he showed me the way. He was subbing for another usher, and had to wear a headset. With his snappy tuxedo, it all felt so Secret Service — I couldn't stop giggling. In the elevator, I reached out and touched his chest, tracing down to his waist, where I hooked my middle finger on his belt and gently tugged. His eyes got big. "Let's go — my truck's right out back," he said quickly. I took his hands and placed them on my breasts; I wanted him to know I was in control. We ended up in a small room in the employees' quarters, while my date endured the dinner show downstairs, some gaudy mess with sweaty singers in tight satin costumes. I stayed for as long as I dared.
"Listen, is this too much? I don't want you to get the wrong impression of me."
"It's alright, I had no idea. I thought you just parked people's cars."
"I do park cars. And the money's good, you know," he said. He made himself comfortable, leaned back in his seat. "You wouldn't believe what I can make in about twenty minutes if I'm lucky. Sometimes we give the casino guests limo rides. It's a free service if they're staying in the hotel. So they usually tip real good — getting a free limo ride, right? One time I'm taking some doctor from South Africa to another casino, Silver Legacy. He's a real prick, totally blatant about being a doctor. Tells me, 'Just call me Doc Hollywood.'"
"So I'm playing it up, saying, 'Hey Doc, heard you won ten grand tonight,' and he starts giggling and throwing these twenty-five dollar chips over the divider at me. Just flicks them — they're falling in my lap and bouncing off my neck, off the steering wheel. The more I laugh, the more he throws."
"You're kidding. He sounds like an ass."
"I made $375 on that ride."
"So you like your job."
He was quiet for a while as he got out another cigarette. The match lit up the car interior, revealed the crumbs and stains and wadded up napkins. I waited.
"I'm twenty-two years old and I make about $27,000 a year and I don't do shit. Parking cars. That's what I do."
He groped behind his seat in the dark and came up with a beer. "Want one?"
"No, thanks," I said. It was hard to concentrate, and I didn't need that. To the left, a low, rolling creature — an opossum, maybe, crashed into the corn.
"This is just a job, a stepping stone. I'm going to apply to graduate school, be a physician's assistant. I've got what you might call a bright future," he said.
I smiled briefly. I thought of him in ten years, all softness gone, his eyes knowing. Like me. The fact of his youth exposed the loss of mine.
"Hey," he said, and put his hand on the dash. "You're doing ninety."
"Oh, sorry." I let up on the gas and it felt like life itself had plunged into slow motion. I was all right if I didn't stop.
"So why do these people come to the casino?" The question was stupid and sat there before us. I felt him staring at me, like he wasn't sure what the game was but was willing to play for now. After a moment, I realized I was holding my breath.
"Mo-ney. Gambling. They think they can hit it big. I remember this high roller. He had $50,000 worth of ten dollar coins and he just kept plunking them in the slots all night long — he had three machines, front, right and center. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. The manager sent over a masseuse around four a.m., and she rubbed his shoulders right there where he sat." He drank the rest of the beer, rolled down the window and started to throw it out, but put it behind the seat instead.
He sniffed the air. "Man, what is that smell?" He rolled up the window quickly.
"That would be a pig farm."
"It'll pass. "
"Anyway, it's the phony shit that gets to you. They say, 'Oh that's so and so, he's a steady fifty.' It's all a dog show."
A car, the first in twenty minutes, drove by us in the other direction.
"What about you, do you put on a show?" I said this carefully. He let out a breath and looked out his window. His long smooth fingers drummed his armrest.
"Yeah. But more people stiff me than not. They say, 'I'm sorry. I lost it all.'" He turned in his seat a bit to face me. "You know what? Getting stiffed never used to bother me. Now I get pissed. Sometimes I say, 'What's up with that? You going to stiff me?' At least give me a buck for your integrity, so I don't remember your face, so I don't think you're a prick.'"
He was looking out into the dark fields.
"How can you stand this, this corn? Shit, this is a desert too. All around Reno, it's black like this at night. Reno's all lit up like a fucking pinball machine and then it's black." I didn't say anything — I didn't want to talk about myself or this place.
"So you get stiffed a lot . . . " I said. It was an effort, the casual tone, but I couldn't stop.
"How much further is your house?" He looked straight ahead, and like an old man or someone afraid, he cupped his knees.
"We've got less than an hour," I said, and then, "Tell me a little more."
"Listen, this is my only vacation, flying out to see you this weekend. How about we take a little break?"
"Hey, I'm just interested in your job. Like I said, I had no idea it was so— "
"So sleazy, right? You know, I wonder why I'm here. Why'd you give me your phone number in the first place? You slumming? Chris, at work, he says to me, 'Did you see her hands? She's old, man.' No offense, he thought you were hot just the same. And then I find out you're in Iowa. But I think, I've got family in Minnesota, I can make a weekend."
"Come on, you're here because I wanted to get to know you. It's just a little lonely out here, I guess. Sometimes."
He looked at me while he considered this, and when I glanced back at him, I saw he was watching me the same way his mother did at the party — as if she knew all my secrets and fears and was deciding whether to expose them. Then he started talking fast, his body tense.
"Okay, you want the dirty stuff? Sure. You want to know about the old guy with the sores on his nose, the one with the Camaro who offered me ten bucks to suck him off? You want to know about the woman who passes out at video poker every other day, and how she drools on me as I carry her to the cab? Or how about this: once these six big black guys in a Range Rover pull up and I go around and open the driver's door and say, 'Welcome to the Eldorado.' And the driver just sits there glaring at me. It's like they're all frozen. They just stare. His thighs look big as tree trunks and his head is angled a little bit to the side and he's looking at me like if I say one more word or touch his car one more time he's going to grab my neck and snap it in two. And I can't see his right hand, it's down low and I just know that if I lean forward it's gonna be wrapped around a fuckin' 45.
"So I back up real slow and he's still staring. It's like this staring match and I can't even blink — if I do I'm dead. Then he slams the door and they drive off. You want to know? I wet my pants."
He leaned forward some and he was not looking at me anymore. "Once I pulled this guy off his wife. He was yelling at her as they came out from the casino. Seems she lost all their money at craps, even his secret stash. He's yelling at her, 'You stupid bag! You took my hunnerd! My lucky hunnerd!' Then he slaps her a couple of times. Hard — I mean, she staggered. He was wearing this giant black cowboy hat and it fell off. I run over there and push him against the wall. God, he was just a small, gray-haired guy, all soft like a fat animal. I punched him once and then all of a sudden it's like lightning strikes. I'm down on my hands and knees and hear a woman screaming, and I look around real slow, 'cause I can't move so good, right? And his wife's got her big red shoe in her hand and she's just whacked me on the back of my head with the heel. She's screaming at me to get my goddamned hands off her husband."
I thought about reaching for his hand; it would have been cold and wet from the beer can.
"If it had been a spiked heel, I'd be dead."
We drove quietly for some minutes and then I asked him to tell me some more stories and he looked out the window. It's quiet, too quiet.
"Please, a little more, okay?" I steadied my voice. "Just tell me a little more."
by Joelle Fraser
I call the guard at home on Monday evenings, and he tells me about the prison. It is now November; for months we’ve talked quietly like this, sometimes until midnight. He has information I need, though I don’t tell him why. Not the real reasons. I say I’m working on a writing project, and he accepts this. Through the phone, I can hear the quick inhale of cigarette when he pauses to consider a detail. I imagine he sits before a kitchen window, surveying the dark Nevada desert as he talks of the coming cold. I don’t care why he talks to me, perhaps he’s lonely. And perhaps it’s true, an interview is like a seduction. Tell me more, I say, about the cells. How big are they? What about the food: tell me what they eat.
The Ely Prison guard tells me that every cell has a window to the outdoors, and in the summer, they are air-conditioned. With good behavior, an inmate will get to play ball at certain times, and those with the most privileges can eat in the dining room instead of their cells. He says the guards are fair, that they only use force when necessary. He says that if someone’s been sent to Ely, then he’s done something “big.”I hear him drag on his cigarette, “We get the hard core here, the bad boys.”
He doesn’t know about John “Keoki”Martin in particular. There are over a thousand inmates at Ely Prison, and most of them are on administrative segregation or “lock down, ”a common punishment for fighting or possessing contraband, a toothbrush melted to a point, for example. It would be difficult for him to find anything out about any one individual, he tells me. That would look suspicious. So I combine what he does know with my imagination and invent a life for Keoki, the man who killed my cousin Karyn four years ago, stabbing her 42 times with a 10-inch butcher knife in front of their two small sons, an act that homicide detective Tom Dillard would call the “worst single crime in Las Vegas history.”
I’ve been following Keoki for months now, traveling to Hawaii and Las Vegas and Ely Prison, where he will probably remain for another 15 years. Using my skills as a journalist, and trying to suppress my emotions, I searched newspaper archives and copied court files thick as logs at $1 per page. I tracked down reluctant D.A.s and public defenders, and learned that this case, in which Keoki pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, has become a legal landmark in Nevada. Because of this case, the plea of temporary insanity is no longer an option for defendants.
Though I’ve written Keoki twice, he’s never answered. Even if he did agree to see me, the warden wouldn’t let me interview him. “I’m researching family history, ”I told Warden McDaniels, when I finally got through, knowing how strange and irrelevant it must sound. He couldn’t understand that I needed to talk to Keoki, to ask him why to his face.
“You will not be allowed to visit inmate MARTIN. It would not be conducive for this type of visit to occur, ”he wrote in a recent letter.
Although the story of Karyn’s killing began years before, in Hawaii, perhaps even when we were still children, it wasn’t until last summer that I decided to tell it. I had finally realized that I could write nothing else. It was the only story I could write, because it was my story as well as hers.
At first, I only told my mother, who was wary. When my father found out, he said, “Let it alone.”They may not want to speak of it. They may be able to push it aside, but for me stories that go untold are like ghosts that haunt the living.
In July, I fly from Reno
over 357 miles of reddish desert, an ocean of craggy sand, rock, and alkaline
dirt. It could be, as it once was, an empty sea floor. And I recall a word,
caliche, the crust of calcium carbonate that forms on the stony soil of arid
regions. On the dunes, trees cover the sand like a closely shaven beard. Houses
cluster, tiny toys in an otherwise empty sandbox. Walker Lake is the only source
of water on our path: I can see the thin wake of a lone white boat.
After an hour, we bank over the city of Las Vegas. The theme-park casinos look ridiculous: Treasure Island, New York New York, the tiny gleaming sphinx, miniature cartoon structures one could crush with a thumb. I wonder what Karyn thought as she flew in. She always loved adventure, but she loved the ocean more. All her life she lived close enough to walk to it, to hear it late at night. Below, the only water is fenced in, thousands of swimming pools squint at the sky. The only green: specks of lawn, smooth curves of golf courses.
Las Vegas has become a prime destination for Hawaii’s residents, advertised as “the place to play.”Hawaiian Airlines, one of seven major carriers with the Honolulu-Vegas route, brings in more than 300 people a day. One might wonder what the attraction is. The Strip is not much more dramatic than Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue. The same young men in shorts thrust coupons in your face: LIVE! NUDE! TO YOUR DOOR! CALL 24 HOURS. The same tourists, wearing new sandals and T-shirts, study their maps behind black sunglasses. But there is the gambling, of course.
It is the heat where Hawaii and Nevada come together and then most starkly part. The relative humidity in Las Vegas in July, at 5 p.m., is only 14%. In Kailua it’s 80%. Dry heat can stress the body, and more moisture is lost than in a humid climate. In the plane, it is cold, the air conditioning too high. I touch my window, it is warm as a bath.
The plane glides down and I wonder why Keoki took Karyn and the boys here. I know she felt oppressed by his family; in Kailua they lived in a 3-bedroom house with almost 10 other adults and children. She could not make a move without it being commented on. Keoki’s small yard-maintenance business was floundering, and Karyn had gotten a job offer from another Supercuts in Las Vegas. In any case, this move was a chance for a new start, a throw of the dice. Maybe, with just the four of them, life could be good.
I arrive at 2 p.m. The temperature reads 110ƒ. As if to close itself off, my skin tightens. For the next three days, I feel swollen with unbroken fever; the lotion I put on evaporates like rain on pavement. The heat assaults even my eyelids, dry and heavy where they meet. When I return to my car and sip my bottled water, it burns my lips, and eventually a small fever blister forms. This is a place that will age you, dry you up like old canvas. To protect their skin, before bed, women here seal in lotion with a layer of Vaseline. This is a heat, perhaps, that could drive a person to drink. Or to kill. I walk by a bush and touch the leaves, and they crumble in my hand.
I keep thinking it could have been me. In some way, it should have been. My father was the drunk, the gambler, the one who couldn’t keep a job, who married and divorced on a regular basis. My mother left him when I was two, running from man to man and city to city, I went to four high schools in four years in three different states. Home to me is the furniture we brought with us from one house to the next, the curve of an armchair, the nasturtiums photograph, now faded to sepia, the wooden Buddha with the missing hand. Money was always scarce. All through her childhood, Karyn lived with both parents and her siblings in the same nice house with a pool. Her father, my uncle, was well known in Honolulu as a good businessman and an excellent golfer, placing well at the Oahu Country Club tournaments. People said of him: “He was a good family man.”Large, ruddy-faced, he had the look of a man who was well- acquainted with the good life. Though he was only handsome from a certain angle, he was quick to smile and laugh and no one could believe it when he died of cancer so young, not yet 45. So when Karyn “went local”and rejected her father’s white world, it didn’t seem right. If anyone had predicted which man’s daughter would get into trouble, they would have picked me.
Reading the newspaper articles, I wonder about the spelling of her name, Karyn, the “y.”I wonder if she chose that spelling in some small spirit of independence, the kind of gesture only a young girl would make. I shortened my name to Jo when I was 14, liking the crispness of it. Like Karyn, I grew up in small towns by the ocean, hung out with young men who were going nowhere, who drove beat-up cars and smoked pot and played the guitar or drums. The kind of guys who hold you with one hand up high, near the shoulder. Guys with tattoos still fresh on smooth skin. Life is simple with them. You know where you stand; the boundaries are clear. Feminine and masculine become markers of possession. There is no ambiguity, and in that life fights are part of the deal. In that world even a black eye can be a badge of some kind: you’re mine. It’s a simple life, and one she must have clung to.
Years later, I would watch a film with a man. There was a scene of what some might call violent passion. I remember thinking, yes, I want it like that, rough so I can reach the stage where control is no longer something to hold on to, but something to let go. But it was more than that. I wanted clarity, too, to know how much a man might want me. The evidence is visual: the clenching of hands, the way he looks at my mouth, the pace of his breath. Such a fine line, a man’s anger. I have not only been careful, this I know, I have been lucky. The men I’ve chosen do not hurt me. One man put his fist through a cabinet, but he lacked the capacity to direct that punch at me.
Well into my twenties, I gravitated toward men who wanted to possess me, because I secretly liked their jealousy. I wanted them to fight over me. Nothing could be more thrilling, it seemed to me. My mother and my aunt were involved with this kind of men during my childhood. My mother still has sinus problems from a broken nose. The yelling, the door-slamming, the drama, all of it was commonplace to me. Once my mother and a man fought in their bedroom. I remember the angry footsteps and cursing, the sound of broken glass. Then silence, and then low laughter. Later that night, they couldn’t stop touching. And when I heard that Karyn had a possessive boyfriend, even a violent one, I thought I understood why she might stay with him.
When my father called and told me she had been stabbed to death, I learned that she was killed on my birthday. I don’t even remember that birthday, the day I turned 27. Perhaps I got some books, a photo album, some bath oil. I want to say I’m sorry, but I don’t know to whom or for what.
Just off Paradise Avenue lies Manhattan Street, a tidy road bordered by apartment complexes. Karyn, Keoki, and their two young sons lived in Sunrise Village, moderately upscale condos, gray trimmed in green, with tile roofs. Small palms dot the property. A fitness center stands empty, and the pool is just big enough to swim laps.
Their existence here must have been tenuous. She worked at Supercuts, where she specialized in short haircuts, she was good at it; over the years in Hawaii, she had built up a clientele who would pay $12 instead of $8 to have her as their stylist. More than once, she won the “most requests”contest for Oahu. “She loved her job, ”Karyn’s sister, Lori, told me. “It was the only time she could be social, could be herself.”
Keoki worked in the kitchen at the Casino Royale. In a deposition, he stated that he worked “from 7 in the evening to 7 in the morning. It was killing me. We never saw each other and I guess we started growing apart. I came home and she would be leaving to her job and I had to watch the kids.”Since the move, he had lost 20 pounds and had been sleeping no more than four hours per day. Under the best of circumstances, he was often drowsy because of the medication he took for a seizure disorder that had been diagnosed in infancy.
Except for their acquaintances at work, Karyn and Keoki had no friends. They liked to drink rum and cokes and Long Island iced teas and smoke pot, the evidence sheet shows that more than seven of the 71 exhibits are photos of marijuana and paraphernalia: Exhibit 36-B: Blue bowl, ash tray and green leafy substance. Offered and Admitted.
From the ground, I look up at Apartment 48 and try to imagine the stairs running with blood, the way her sister described it. “They don’t clean it up for you, ”Lori said. An old man comes out with his dog. He tells me he has only lived here a year and a half. Not wanting to upset him, I don’t ask questions. The woman downstairs looks me over carefully. She remembers what happened and tells me there have been three other deaths in the complex since then, two murders and a suicide. I am not surprised. That day’s Sun had reported that, for the second consecutive year, Nevada ranked number one in the nation for violent crime. I take some photos and move on.
On May 8, 1993, as I entered graduate school in Washington, Karyn was getting ready to leave Keoki for good. The evidence sheet lists three photos of her packed suitcase. Although she’d talked of leaving for years, this time she meant it. Keoki had crossed the line: two weeks before, he had struck the older boy, Kimo. The violence would stop with the children, Karyn said. On April 28, she left for her mother’s in Colorado, quickly and without telling anyone. Over the next few days, she talked by phone with Keoki frequently; he pleaded with her to come back, promising things would be different. But she knew it was over, that she would return only to clean up her affairs, give notice at work, and go back to her mother’s with the children. Keoki didn’t quite believe it. A psychiatrist later reported that “as long as they were talking, sleeping together, and arguing [Keoki] had a hope that Karyn would change her mind.”
Back in Las Vegas, Karyn often called her mother and Lori; in the background, they testified later, they could hear Keoki yelling that he would kill her if she left. It was an increasing threat that everyone was beginning to take seriously, except perhaps for Karyn herself. Her mother told her, “For God’s sake, watch your back.”
I last saw Karyn and Keoki at my grandmother’s funeral seven years ago. They stood off to the side, leaning against their rusty pickup. He was slight, dark, what people in Hawaii call a “local, ”a term referring to any mix of ancestry, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Asian, Filipino, Samoan. It was the first time I’d seen him, and I was taken aback. He was skinny, his face impassive. Next to him, Karyn seemed large and white. They were an incongruous pair. I could see no trace of the mischievous teenager I had known, the girl who would pop her bubble gum in my face, who’d taught me to do a back dive, who’d given me a bracelet of shells. I remember the unbidden thought: she had let herself go. She was only three years older than I, but she looked hard and tired. The glance she gave me was both defensive and suspicious, and I steered clear. She had been holding her baby, Kimo, to her chest like a shield. I hadn’t even known she was pregnant.
Karyn and Keoki met when they were 19, on Lanikai Beach Park. Karyn’s sister remembers disliking him on sight: “He was scrawny and shifty-eyed. Controlling. And he wore those disgusting mesh shirts.”
After six months of dating, Karyn moved into his room at his father’s house, where three of Keoki’s siblings, two with families of their own, also lived. In Waimanalo, real local country, although just over the hill from Honolulu, families often extended into the dozens, even hundreds, aunts, uncles, cousins. This was a place a haole, or white person, might want to avoid if he or she were alone, and certainly at night.
When I was in college, my friends and I would drive through this area on our way home from Kailua Beach, and as we slowed through the little town, I always felt conspicuous. Sometimes we might stop at the grocery store for a soda. This was a mildly adventurous thing to do, like crossing a busy street against the light, and we did it in that spirit, casually and yet with all senses on alert. It was an unspoken thing. In these stores you could buy Spam and Chinese crack seed and ahi poke by the pound. The cement floors were always grimy with dust, cool against our bare feet. Resting in the shade of the awning, young kids would sit on the bench, swing their slim brown legs and slide glances at us. For the most part, we were ignored. I knew I was being tolerated, that my presence was unremarkable, possibly amusing or annoying. Although we were haoles, we were also kamaainas, not tourists, which elevated us slightly.
As far as our family was concerned, Karyn had emigrated to another country, with its own laws and even its own language. And so on Easter Sunday and Mother’s Day, we gathered without her. It was never clear if she couldn’t make it or just didn’t want to. But there was always something vaguely shameful about Karyn having “gone local.”My brother talked about her teeth, how they were “bad and yellow.”
“I was shocked, ”he said after seeing her at our grandmother’s funeral. “She was a full-on local.”
My father thinks she decided, on some level, to gravitate toward the local world after she twice failed the entrance exam to Punahou, the best junior and senior high school in Hawaii, and the oldest private school west of the Mississippi. It can cost up to $7, 000 a year; the students are mostly haole and Japanese; 60% go to mainland universities. My father and his brother George, Karyn’s father, went to Punahou, and it was understood that all four of Uncle George’s children would go, too, even though it meant an hour commute each way from Kailua. Karyn’s sister and their younger twin brothers all got in. So did my little brother. Because I had only come back to Hawaii for my senior year, I didn’t apply. I went to the public high school, Roosevelt, a half mile away. There I was detested as a “mainland haole.”I spent my time trying to dodge the Samoan girls who wanted to stuff my head in the toilet. Karyn ended up going to Kailua High, where she fared much better with the locals than I did at Roosevelt. Born and raised in the islands, she knew how to fit in. For example, she knew how to speak Pidgin, something her father forbade her to do at home. He knew there was a time and place for it, on the golf course, at the gas station, but he didn’t want his daughters to speak it anywhere. “Why don’t you go out with the haole boys, ”he’d ask Karyn. Lori said her father was wary of the locals, of what he saw as their possessiveness and their lack of education. She said he meant the “real”locals, the ones who worked blue-collar jobs, because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak Standard American English. Many locals, but certainly not all, lived within a more “traditional”system, in which the man is dominant, the woman obedient. “I don’t want to say he was prejudiced, ”Lori said. “He just wanted the best for us.”
While George was alive, Karyn stayed away from local boys, for the most part, but she wouldn’t stop speaking Pidgin. Pidgin could mean survival, something I knew as well as Karyn. Adopting local ways was the only chance of making it through Roosevelt. I took hula dancing; my brother taught me to surf; I badgered my father into buying me some sundresses and plastic slippers. The key, though, was to speak Pidgin. My nickname was “stupid haole, ”because for weeks I literally couldn’t understand people when they spoke to me. I listened carefully, though, studying the quick, lilting chatter of my classmates and local people on the bus, in the stores. At home, in front of the mirror, I’d try out phrases and intonations, such as “You like stay, ”the stay dropping down two notes, because in Pidgin, questions do not lift in the end to a higher tone, but fall like stones, the last word left with the weight of an assumption. But it always felt false, as if I were trying on shoes that were not just too small, but made for a completely different shape of foot. One day I tested my Pidgin on my father. For years I’d seen him use it to ease tension with a certain local or when he’d tell a joke, slipping between dialects like a slalom skier. I wanted this skill, the evidence of which would prove I belonged here, with my father, in these islands. As we drove down Kalakaua Avenue, I came up with an innocuous question; I casually asked, “You like go to the movies?”According to the rule, I let movies rest low. Even as I said it, it sounded horribly stupid to me. I had blurted it out of context, clumsily switched into a new, false, identity. My face burned. Suddenly I saw myself as my father then saw me: ignorant.
I sat tensely, while my father considered the implications. A future presented itself to him: his daughter, falling into the local world, sleeping with muscled local boys with tattoos of Hawaiian warriors stretched over massive brown backs; going not to the University of Hawaii, but to a beauty school in Kailua, like Karyn; getting married and living in hot, dry Aiea; cooking saimin for dinner and having dozens of cousins, aunties, uncles over for Sunday barbecues on the back patio. Getting fat and slapping around two hapa- haole (half-white) kids.
All this he calculated in seconds. He could have answered my question and said, “Yes, let’s see a matinee, ”which might have been a surrender to that glimpse of the future. But he said only, “So, I see you know how to speak Pidgin.”I shrugged, mortified, and didn’t speak for the rest of the ride. It seemed the worst thing I could do was become like Karyn.
I think she wanted to leave the white world long before the Punahou rejection. She was the middle child, sandwiched between a pretty blonde older sister and her handsome younger brothers, twins no less, so attractive they were final candidates for a Doublemint commercial. Karyn, always overweight, seemed the odd one out even as a child. In one family portrait, when Karyn must have been 11 or 12, her sister stands over the twins, hands comfortably on their shoulders, and Karyn is separated from them by several inches. Against their blondeness and perfect smiles, she looks like a distant relative, a cousin. I doubt Karyn chose to go local in the way one might choose to change her identity, the way I did, unnaturally and desperately. It must have been the easiest course for her, a rhythm she stepped into. In the local world she was a haole, and a local boy with a white girlfriend was granted grudging respect, often outright admiration. Being haole was a complicated identity: it could be dangerous, but it could also be a great advantage. I know I wanted that power. So Karyn was a prize, she was always noticed. If she weren’t educated or pretty, it would not matter nearly so much.
As a teenager, I envied her easy movement in that world, but I wonder now if she was aware that her world was narrowing, like a lens closing in, concealing more and more until only a tiny opening remained. Did she ever think of what was hidden? Was she content with what was left? Did she ever feel as if she had no choice, that it was too late? I’ve often invented lives for her. I knew she loved horses, she could have managed a stable and given riding lessons. She could have owned a small shop and sold scented candles, notepaper, and ceramic bowls. Sometimes, I confused what I imagined to be her dreams with mine. When Karyn was in her early twenties and I was studying journalism at UH, she would come over once a week to wash and set our grandmother’s hair and paint her nails a bright coral. We all tried to contribute something to our grandmother, Colleen took her grocery shopping and out to weekly dinners; Lori and the twins would read to her; I went to church with her now and then; my brother came by just to talk with her, to hold her soft hands with bones so fragile they seemed they would bend. But we never saw her together, except on holidays, and so she became the conduit for the family. I would hear of Karyn through my grandmother, the $20 tip she made at work, the baby’s first words, and she of me, I suppose, in the same way. As the years went by, Karyn visited less and less, and we would avert our eyes from my grandmother’s matted hair. “Have you seen Karyn?”she would ask.
During college I heard rumors from my father. He told me of the endless threats, the beatings, of how Keoki would park outside her work and watch her through the window to make sure she wasn’t “checking out guys”in the parking lot. She wasn’t allowed to wear shorts, and never a bathing suit. At the beach, she’d roll her pants up before going into the water. My father told me of the time Karyn and her Supercuts co-workers locked themselves in the back of the store, while Keoki threw himself at the plate-glass window, again and again, and finally with both hands hurled a giant rock, shattering the window into a thousand pieces. But I’d quickly put it out of my mind. It was as if we were discussing something remarkable but distasteful in the newspaper. As I’d learned all my life, I knew this was another of those problems that is to be whispered about, but to which there is no solution.
But late at night, ashamed almost to admit it even to myself, I’d wonder at the passion of a man who would hurl himself through a window for you. To see a man lose such control, that idea haunted me. I wondered what it would be like. I never thought he would kill her, but then I didn’t see the daily arguments. She didn’t run to my house, as she did to her sister’s, in the middle of the night. I didn’t hear him crashing through the bushes crying, “I love you, Karyn!”I didn’t see any of it, but I take no solace from that now.
This killing had been a long time coming. “The saddest thing, ”Lori told me, “is that it didn’t surprise us.”Our family is thus steeped in shame, for her, for ourselves. This was not a random death, for which we would rightfully feel a deep rage, but one in which we all felt implicated, as if it were not just Karyn and Keoki’s story but our whole family’s. In fact, I’ve often thought of the grammar of the phrase “Karyn’s murder”as if it were somehow something she owned, something that was hers. Other languages lack this implicit accusation; in French you would say, “the murder of Karyn.”But in the end it’s still the same. She’s gone.
Over time, I’ve come to understand the mechanism of shame, which has within it a dark seed of self-recognition. Even when I was young, how could I have envied her life? Did I need love so much? And with the shame comes guilt, for how can you fault another for taking a path you might have taken yourself? Then later, when I saw her with Keoki, what right did I have to disapprove? I wonder where this judgment came from, that he was not good enough for her, that Karyn was not good enough for us.
When Karyn was murdered, our family died, too. We had never been close. There had been too many secrets and wounds, many stemming from events decades old. I thought of our family as a wilderness, with canyons and rivers and mountains. But no one needed a map, because we all knew this country so well, which areas were safe, and which were best not to travel. We could maneuver through any conversation. We gathered for occasional holidays and the children sent school pictures. But when Karyn was killed, we came apart still farther, instead of coming together. I didn’t see my father or brother for several years, and we talked on the phone only once or twice a year. No one spoke at all to Karyn’s family, her mother, sister, and brothers. It was as if they no longer existed. My brother didn’t send any wedding invitations to them: it wasn’t intentional; he just didn’t think of it. Neither my father nor I ever called or wrote them. We’d heard, from neighbors? (I don’t even remember), that the twins and Karyn’s mother had moved to Colorado, and that Lori was now somewhere in Oregon with her husband and children. It was as if the wilderness had grown thicker and was now impassable, and there was no longer any path home.
It took me six months to tell Karyn’s family about my research. I was afraid they would be horrified at worst, resentful at best. On Christmas Day, 1997, I called Lori. She talked for an hour, telling about the 2 a.m. phone call from the police, about the grueling trial, about her years of therapy, the Prozac, the sleepless nights, about how she’d promised Karyn she’d protect her. I talked to Colleen, Karyn’s mother, and listened to her cry. She has custody of Karyn’s boys, who are doing well under her care. But many people prefer not to know about their past, and some ignore it. No one wants to talk about it, Colleen said, and it is clear she is often frustrated. “If you bottle it up, that’s when it does harm.”
Lori and Colleen thanked me profusely for reaching out to them, for ending the silence. I only wish I had done it sooner. Lori said to me, “What if your brother had been murdered and no one called you?
The evening of May 8, Maria Jordan, a police officer with the Clark County School District, was watching TV with her nine-year-old son and two of his friends. Around 7 p.m., she heard a violent banging on the floor above her, coming from Apt. 48. She would testify later that it sounded like two sumo wrestlers. In his opening statement, the Deputy D.A. quoted her as saying it was “very, very violent, and a pounding, pounding noise.”
Jordan was fed up with the months of fighting, which had intensified during the last few days. Putting a coat over her nightgown, she went upstairs to tell them to shut up. When she got there, she heard children screaming and a man’s voice yelling. There was no response to her first series of pounds on the door. After the second, Keoki opened the door. He was covered in blood. He said to her, “I snapped. I screwed up.”
Behind him, through the front door, she could see Karyn lying on her back in the middle of the kitchen floor, a butcher knife sticking from her throat. Jordan ran downstairs, yelled to the boys to get under the bed, and grabbed her off-duty gun. Back upstairs, she leveled the gun at Keoki and told him that she was going to take the children. The two-year-old boy had blood on him and was crying hysterically on the floor. She grabbed the boy and ran downstairs, commanding her son to “get this kid under the bed with you.”She then returned upstairs, pointed the gun at Keoki, who stood motionless, and grabbed the six-month-old boy.
When Keoki was taken by the Metro officers, he told them to “shoot me.”And he told them, “I’m sorry.”
Karyn had been stabbed 42 times: four to the front of her neck, seven to the back of her neck, five to her back, ten to fifteen to her chest. The strikes to the chest cut her larynx, so she could not scream. There were five slashes on her face and mouth. One in her side was delivered with such force that it pulled a portion of her viscera back out through the hole. On her hands and arms were numerous “defensive”wounds.
An expert in forensic evidence testified that Karyn fought for her life, and was first stabbed as she stood. There were at least two, possibly three, attacks, three different series of blows. Based on the position of her body and the blood, she was at one point standing or leaning against a wall with her cheek down facing the wall, and either by her own physical movement or by the action of others, she was rolled onto her back and the knife driven into her neck, where it remained.
I look at these documents and exhibits numbly, feeling sick with it. What I have is a list of photographs, a gallery of her death, spread out on my living-room floor. But I also feel an unnerving sense of relief. Here is the proof. This is like finding the body, perhaps, that has been missing for years, in the war, out at sea, kidnapped. Until it is found, you live with a quiet anxiety, on the edge of minor insanity even, because it is just too unreal to comprehend. This couldn’t have happened in my family; it’s all some kind of sick joke. But then the evidence, documents, transcripts, letters, the evidence you have ordered comes in the mail to your home. The language so simple and clinical, handwritten by a clerk: Exhibit 51-A control sample, blood-like substance. All in black and white. There is the body, you think. Now I can go on. But of course you don’t, not really.
What I know of Keoki is very little, and most of it has come from the court file. I learned that he is five foot nine and 140 pounds, the eldest of six children. He’d lived all his life in Hawaii, until he and Karyn left for Las Vegas in April 1992. Born with mild jaundice and asthma, Keoki spent time in an oxygen tent as an infant. He was colicky until eight months old, and didn’t sit up alone until almost 11 months. He had recurring anemia and air-borne allergies. Medical history indicates that he was clumsy as a child, exhibited “odd behaviors, ”and banged his head on the floor. He began having seizures before he was two, which became much worse during adolescence. For these he took Dilantin, Tegretol, and Phenobarbital. Described as a nervous, hyperactive child, during preschool years he developed motor tics, including eye blinking, shoulder shrugs, and arm jerks, along with gurgling, sniffing, and spitting sounds. He has been diagnosed for several things, including temporal-lobe epilepsy, seizure disorder, agoraphobia, and organic hallucinosis.
Although he was raised around violence, he thought he had a “happy childhood.”His father, whom the psychiatrist described as emotionally distant, used his fists to dole out punishment; when he was three, Keoki was brought to the hospital for an edema on his eyelids and cornea. During the trial, his father said that, when Keoki misbehaved, he would “go bang’em with da car!”Meaning he would try and run him down with his car. Keoki became violent himself. When he was 13, he hit his sister so hard that he was treated for a hand injury. Medical-history reports state that he had been “physically aggressive in the past, as he destroyed walls, doors and pictures.”
Keoki, known as a brat, was favored by his grandparents. He attended Star of the Sea, a private school, about which he was very proud. He liked school until tenth grade, when he started to use drugs and alcohol. It was at this time that his seizures, about which he knew virtually nothing and which embarrassed him deeply, got worse. According to Keoki, these seizures had a “flaring, slashing”quality, which ended quickly and left him stunned and horrified. He says, “It’s like I blink and time goes by.”His IQ, 112 in high school, is now 84, apparently due to the number of seizures he has suffered. His lawyer testified that in 1986, Keoki had a 24-hour electro- encephalogram, in which probes were put around his skull to measure the emission of electrical discharges. During this period, he had 53 abnormal electrical spike-events focused on his left temporal area. Although an occasional spike is probably non-pathogenic, meaning it doesn’t cause epilepsy or convulsion, 52 spikes an hour is very unusual. It shows “epileptiform activity, ”an irritable focus in the brain. A medical handbook states that “violence ends as abruptly as it begins with the perpetrator returning from peaks of rage to calm behavior within an instant. In between outbursts, individuals do not seem angry, irritated or agitated but often show embarrassment and deep remorse.”This behavior contrasts with sociopathic disorder, in which individuals rationalize and justify their violent acts. His lawyer stated to the jury, “I think you will see that [he] is completely at the opposite end of the scale from some sort of conscious murderer or sociopath that the state would have you believe.”
It was during one of his seizures, according to the defense, that Keoki murdered Karyn. The plea was not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity. Jack Jurasky, M.D., examined Keoki for the prosecution and said it was the “heat of passion”and not “psychosis or temporal lobe epilepsy”that provoked the murder: “When her abandonment of him became a reality in his mind, he could not cope with that and under the stress and frustration and threat of a major loss he was unable to contain himself.”
Keoki is now 34. He will be in prison for another 15 years at least. His mother, who has written the governors of Hawaii and Nevada, as well as President Clinton, wants him transferred to a medical facility, or at least to a prison in Hawaii where his family can visit him. At present, he takes 400 mg of Tegretol to control seizures. His mother is afraid he’ll commit suicide. In a letter to Keoki’s public defender, she said, “His blood test sometimes shows that he is not receiving enough oxygen. For inmate safety reasons because of numerous stabbings going on at Ely Prison, all the inmates have been on lockdown for months. Keoki requires medical attention, fresh air, exercise. He is a good son and we love him very much!”Nevertheless, Keoki will remain at Ely. A reply from Hawaii’s department of public safety states that Hawaii “is experiencing a major problem with prison overcrowding. Therefore, we are in no position to enter into such an exchange program with the State of Nevada.”
Highway 50 cuts across Nevada’s middle like an erratic slash. Most travelers take the more convenient Interstate 80, a few hours north. Entering the two- lane highway just east of Reno, the sign proclaims it “The Loneliest Road in America.”After only an hour, I was inclined to agree. One can drive a 60-mile stretch without sight of another car, and across the vast desert there is only the occasional house nestled against the low rise of the Toiyabe Range. Mines can be seen far off, looking futuristic and unnatural, postmodern structures rising from dust and rock. The richness of this land is found below the surface: the rhyolite, garnet, silver, copper, and gypsum.
Signs of life, because they are so few, pulled my attention and I stared, grateful that I was not alone. Forty-five miles past the last crop of buildings, I saw a black horse. Later still, two dead cows.
This drive across Nevada to Ely State Prison takes almost seven hours. Ely, one of the three most secure maximum-security prisons in the country, is also the most remote, 245 miles from, take your pick, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Twin Falls, Idaho. Fortunately for the staff, the guard told me, both spouses can work at the prison, something usually prohibited at other prisons. Still, employee turnover is 60%. In the town of Ely, which local folks say is “the big middle of nowhere, ”two mines have shut down recently, making the town’s dependence on the prison even more significant. At the Jailhouse Lounge, where you can play super-loose slots after a 99¢ breakfast of ham and eggs, the plucky waitress told me she’s grateful for the prison. “It’s brought a lot of jobs here. And no one can escape from it.”
From Highway 50, I drove west on 93 a short bit to 490, which took me about nine miles out to the prison, located in Steptoe Valley. There the highways ends, and, beyond and around, only desert remains. About a mile before the prison, the road cuts through a narrow canyon, with walls 200 feet high, like a natural gate, an entrance to a world where only a select few are welcome, a world surrounded by rolling razor wire and 15-foot-high concrete walls. Even if it were possible, a prisoner who escaped from Ely would do well to head east rather than try to make it across Nevada. After heavy rain in the mountains, there are creeks, and, in some places, hot springs. But in the main this is a dry place, with only eight inches of annual precipitation. The creatures who survive here like it that way: the Northern sagebrush lizard, the Panamint rattlesnake, the coyote, the raven.
I walked into the gatehouse, with its plastic chairs, like some waiting room in which the news is always bad, and picked up some brochures and fact sheets. It was important to me to go the distance, to exhaust all avenues. It felt as if I had at last come close enough to Keoki. The weight of his guilt or innocence, whether he was mentally ill or temporarily insane, no longer mattered to me. It’s not for me to forgive or judge, although it’s also not for me to forget.
As I drove away, I saw a swath of rain over Battle Mountain. It evaporated long before it hit the earth.
Joelle Fraser is currently waiting on tables at Pacific Blues Cafè in Yountville, before heading back for a final year in the Nonfiction M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa. This is her first essay in print. Some of the names have been changed. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sherman Alexie's Interview
On a rare sunny Seattle day, Sherman Alexie's manager offered me my choice of soda or bottled water and gave me a tour of Alexie's three-room office, a good-looking rooftop space with a deck that overlooks the tony community of Bellevue. Some worlds may contrast more starkly with Alexie's boyhood home on the Coeur d' Alene Indian Reservation, but not many.
Alexie arrived late, comfortable in cotton, hair pulled back in a loose pony- tail. As we introduced ourselves his smile hid a sense of weary obligation—this poet, fiction writer and filmmaker has many projects to promote. Though he became quite friendly after a few questions, at first his manner seemed to suggest, "Let's get to it."
JF: You 're called "the future of American fiction" by The New Yorker.
SA: It's because they needed a brown guy. They had five of us I think. A guy asked me how do you feel about there being so few white men on the (1996) Granta list. I said there were 11 out of 20: how could that be 'few'? And 16 overall were white! I got all sorts of grief for being on the Granta list by the way. Like I didn't belong on it—
JF: You only had Reservation Blues then. What about the response to The New Yorker list?
SA: Everybody's really happy with it.
JF: You've earned your place?
SA: Yeah I guess. I'm an important brown guy now. (Laughs). Being different helps. I'm not going to deny that it helps a lot. I mean the work has to be good, but the fact that I'm different makes it more attractive to magazines.
JF: So you grant that?
SA: Oh yeah. I'm a firm believer in affirmative action—nobody unqualified ever gets a job through affirmative action. Maybe less qualified, but not unqualified. Certainly I might get on lists or get opportunities because I'm different, because I'm Indian.
JF: And it doesn't bother you?
SA: No! Hell no! Reparation. (Laughs). Nobody white is getting anything because they're white. It doesn't happen in the literary world, never, never once has a white guy gotten more because he's white. But then you have that cabal of New York writers, young good-looking New York literary boys, and they have their own sense of entitlement. I'm not anywhere near that stuff.
JF: How did people react to your story in The New Yorker, "The Toughest Indian in the World?"
SA: When I wrote it I honestly didn't think about the reaction people would have to it. It's funny—it really brings up the homophobia in people. When a straight guy like me writes about a homoerotic experience in the first person with a narrator who is very similar to me—I could see people dying to ask me if it was autobiographical. They always ask in regard to everything else, but no one's asked me about that story. In the Seattle paper here, the critic called it a "graphic act of homosexuality" and I thought "graphic?" There's nothing graphic about it at all. It was three sentences. He talked about me being a "literary rabble-rouser" again.
JF: Someone else called you a similar name—the young rouser, the young something from Seattle—
SA: Oh yeah—Larry McMurtry. Rambler. "The Young Rambler from Seattle." Yeah I liked that one. It made me feel like I was in a bar brawl.
JF: You've said of writers who aren't Indian, like McMurtry, that they shouldn't write about Indians.
SA: Not exactly.
JF: Clarify that.
SA: At the beginning it was probably that but it's changed. People can write whatever they want—people accuse me of censorship when I say these things. But what I really want to say is that we should be talking about these books, written about Indians by non-lndians, honestly and accurately. I mean, they're outsider books. They're colonial books. Barbara Kingsolver's novels are colonial literature. Larry McMurtry's books are colonial literature. These are books by members of the privileged, of the powerful, writing about the culture that has been colonized. This is no different than Nadine Gordimer, who's a colonial writer, and she would call herself that.
So I think this illusion of democracy in the country—it's the best country in the world—but this illusion allows artists to believe that it isn't a colony. When it still is. The United States and South Africa: the only difference is about 50 years, not even that much. And people forget that. So when McMurtry does what he does, he thinks he's being democratic, but he's actually being colonial. I wish we could talk about the literature in those terms, beyond the quality of it, but actually talking about in terms of "hey this person doesn't know this—it's completely a work of imagination."
JF: How does this compare to, say, occupying the other gender?
SA: (Laughs). Oh that's the same thing.
JF: You've done that, and written from a white person's view, too.
SA: Well, I know a lot more about being white—because I have to, I live in the white world. A white person doesn't live in the Indian world. I have to be white every day.
JF: What about your female characters?
SA: I'm not a woman. (Laughs). Never was. I think often my characters, outside of Spokane Indian guys, are often a little bit thin because I have a difficult time getting into them and getting to know them. My white people often end up being sort of "cardboardy"—which is thematically all right—but it isn't necessarily my original purpose. I just get uncomfortable writing about them.
JF: Really. Is that something you're trying to develop and work on?
SA: Yeah, I'm trying to become a better writer. I think in the end I'll get closer to that. And about women's experience—I'm better than most male writers. They see the Madonna-whore—it's incredible: these progressive, liberal intelligent, highly-educated men are writing complex, diverse, wonderful male characters in the same book where the female characters are like women in a 3 a.m. movie on Showtime.
JF: You've said having come from a matriarchal culture gives you more insight.
SA: I think it helps. And I give my stuff to the women around me. 'Does this work?' I spend my whole life around women—I should know something. If I don't know it, I ask. It has to be a conscious effort. It's too easy to fall back on stereotypes and myths, and I think that's what most writers do about Indians and what most men do when they write about women.
JF: So you're conscious of it.
SA: I'm conscious of the fact that I mythologize. (Laughs). I'm still a caveman. I just like to think of myself as a sensitive caveman.
JF: Going back to your growth as a writer, as you develop and gain facility—you're getting better technically, for example—do you fear that you'll lose some of that tension that comes from being a struggling new writer?
SA: My friend Donna, who helps me edit, we talk about this. When I first started, my grammar was atrocious, but she said that often people don't care when so-called "unprivileged people's" grammar is atrocious because it's part of the "voice." And they account for it in that way.
JF: In fact readers might think it's "appropriate."
SA: When in fact it's just bad grammar. It's the result of a poor education. But I'm better now. Most of my sentence fragments now are intentional. (Laughs).
JF: What did your parents expect you to be?
SA: Oh God. Alive. In their fondest hopes. I'm the first member of my family—that's extended—who's graduated from college. No one else has since. I was a very bright kid; I was a little prodigy in all sorts of ways. There were friends and family telling me I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Nobody predicted I would be doing this, including me.
JF: So you didn't have a sense of yourself as a writer until college?
SA: Right. I wrote and I loved reading, and brown guys—you're supposed to be Jesus, saving the world with law or medicine.
JF: And with writing can you save the world?
SA: You can do more than a doctor or a lawyer can. If I were a doctor nobody would be inviting me to talk to reservations. I'd be a different person. Writers can influence more people.
JF: Can poetry change the direction of society?
SA: I don't know. A lot of people are reading my poems and other people's poems because of me. This 55-year-old white guy at a reading said, 'I never got poems, I hated them, and then I read your book and liked them, and now I'm reading all sorts of poems.' And that's great. If l can be a doorway . . .
JF: Paula Gunn Allen says of Native Americans, "We are the land." What do you think of that?
SA: I don't buy it. For one thing, environmentalism is a luxury. Just like being a vegetarian is a luxury. When you have to worry about eating—you're not going to be worried about where the food's coming from, or who made your shoes. Poverty, whether planned or not planned, is a way of making environmentalism moot. Even this discussion is a luxury .
JF: This interview.
SA: You and me—doing this. Besides, Indians have no monopoly on environmentalism. That's one of the great myths. But we were subsistence livers. They're two different things. Environmentalism is a conscious choice and subsistence is the absence of choice. We had to use everything to survive. And now that we've been assimilated and colonized and we have luxuries and excesses, we're just as wasteful as other people.
JF: But the myth persists with contemporary Indians.
SA: Part of it is that we had a land-based theology, but all theologies are land-based. Christianity is land-based in its beginnings. I think in some ways Indians embrace it because it's a cultural or racial self-esteem issue. We're trying to find something positive that differentiates us from the dominant culture. And the best way to do that—because the US is so industrial and so wasteful—is to say, 'OK we're environmentalists' and that separates us. When in fact, we're just a part of the US as well, and the wastefulness. The average everyday Indian—he's not an environmentalist—he could give a shit. Just like the average white American. I grew up with my aunts and uncles and cousins throwing their cans out the window.
JF: How does this tie in with literature?
SA: You throw in a couple of birds and four directions and corn pollen and it's Native American literature, when it has nothing to do with the day-to-day lives of Indians. I want my literature to concern the daily lives of Indians. I think most Native American literature is so obsessed with nature that I don't think it has any useful purpose. It has more to do with the lyric tradition of European Americans than it does with indigenous cultures. So when an Indian writes a poem about a tree, I think: 'It's already been done!' And those white guys are going to do it better than you. Nobody can write about a tree like a white guy.
JF: Now why is that?
SA: I don't know. They've been doing it longer.
JF: I'd like to see what you'd write about a tree.
SA: I'm not even interested! I'm interested in people. I think most native literature is concerned with place because they tell us to be. That's the myth. I think it's detrimental. I think most Native American literature is unreadable by the vast majority of Native Americans.
JF: It's not reaching the people.
SA: If it's not tribal, if it's not accessible to Indians, then how can it be Native American literature? I think about it all the time. Tonight I'll look up from the reading and 95% of the people in the crowd will be white. There's something wrong with my not reaching Indians.
JF: But there's the ratio of whites to Indians.
SA: Yeah. But I factor that in and realize there still should be more Indians. I always think that. Generally speaking Indians don't read books. It's not a book culture. That's why I'm trying to make movies. Indians go to movies; Indians own VCRs.
JF: And maybe they'll read your books after.
SA: I'm trying to do that—sneak up on them.
JF: This is what your purpose is—to reach Indian people?
SA: It's selfish in the sense that we haven't had our Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman; we haven't had our Shakespeare or Denis Johnson or James Wright. We haven't written a book that can compare to the best white novel. But they're out there. There's a kid out there, some boy or girl who will be that great writer, and hopefully they'll see what I do and get inspired by that.
JF: There are many celebrated Indian writers—
SA: But we haven't written anything even close to Faulkner or Hemingway or Jane Austen. Not yet. Of course, white people are about 30, 40 generations ahead in terms of writing. It'll happen. I meet young people all the time, email a lot of kids. The percentage of Indian kids doing some sort of artistic work is much higher than in the general population—painting, drawing, dancing, singing. The creation of art is still an everyday part of our culture, unlike the dominant culture, where art is sort of peripheral. It's not a big leap from a kid who dances to a kid who writes poems. It's the same impulse. It just needs a little push.
JF: What about writing programs, teaching? You don't teach college students, but do you have opinions on MFA programs, on artists' colonies?
SA: I think the summer stuff is just the place where writers go to get laid. You can't teach anything in a week or two.
JF: What about a writing program like Iowa?
SA: Yeah, that's fine. That's dedicated internship. But a summer thing? I've done two, both for friends. People do them because they need the money, and/or to get laid—because they will. Dedicated writers don't go—they're in MFA programs or they already have books. These people who attend the conferences and colonies are very privileged, mostly women, groupie types. They exist so ugly white guys get laid. (Laughs) .
JF: Ouch. You don't mind this going out?
SA: No! It's true! Only in rock music and the literary world do you see so many ugly white guys with beautiful women. That says a lot about the women, their character. They're attracted to more than surface.
JF: Will you ever get an academic position?
SA: I hope not. I don't want a real job of any variety. I don't want to have to get up in the morning, that's what it comes down to. Work is not the issue; I don't want the structure.
JF: Is it hard for you to switch hats, from poetry to screenplays to fiction? Some people might say you're trying to find your genre.
SA: It's all the same. It's just telling stories. It's not like I think about it separately.
JF: True, Smoke Signals is based on your poems and stories. And then there's your comedy . . .
SA: Yes—you've seen me read: it's funny. There's always been a stand-up element. Now I'm doing real stand-up, and it's amazing the freedom I got when I called it stand-up. I talked about things I would never talk about in a literary world. I can do anything I want, and I get the same amount of laughter when I do stand-up. What I hope to do is bring literary humor to my comedy fans instead of more dick jokes (although I tell my share of dick jokes)—and I want to bring more comedy to the poetry fans.
JF: Is there anyone else doing that?
SA: I don't know. A really good stand-up comic is a poet; it's about the use of language. It can be really poetic. And I like politically conscious comedy.
JF: Like whom?
SA: Bill Hicks, I don't know if you've ever heard of him.
SA: Well, you can have this one. (He gets a CD from a shelf). And Chris Rock. Dennis Miller—smart as hell.
JF: So what's the future for you?
SA: I don't know. I know I'll keep writing poems. That's the constant. I don't know about novels. They're hard. It takes so much concentrated effort. When I'm writing a novel it's pretty much all I can do. I get bored. It takes months. I wrote Res Blues in about 4 months, Indian Killer in about 6. Movies do the same thing. Smoke Signals was 14 months, and that's quick. It's all-encompassing. It feels like I'm going to end up writing poems, short stories and screenplays. I'll continue to work for studios, honestly because it's enormous sums of money and I'll use one project to finance the other. Some people teach; I write screenplays. One's a lot more lucrative.
JF: What about memoir?
SA: In the end you are sort of responsible to the truth, and I like to lie. (Laughs). I'm 33, and as much as I talked about it, it doesn't matter whether you're 25 or 45, not a whole lot has gone on; the journey I'm on is pretty young. And I've rarely read a memoir that wasn't masturbatory. In a sense, you're always mythologizing your life; it's always an effort to make yourself epic. At least in fiction you can lie and sort of justify your delusion about your "epicness." But when you're writing a memoir, you're trying to make your life epic and it's not—nobody's life is. You know that book, Drinking, A Love Story? The whole time I'm thinking, "But you kept your job!"
JF: You've been sober for years, but in college, how did drinking affect your writing?
SA: I would wake up with stories on the typewriter and not remember writing them.
JF: Did your writing change when you got sober?
SA: I write less about alcohol, less and less and less. You 're an addict—so of course you write about the thing you love most. I loved alcohol the most, loved it more than anybody or anything. That's what I wrote about. And it certainly accounted for some great writing. But it accounted for two or three years of good writing—it would never account for 20 years of good writing. I would have turned into Charles Bukowski. He wrote 10,000 poems and 10 of them were great.
JF: Frost said a poem is a momentary stay against confusion. Do you feel like that's true?
SA: (Laughs). That would mean that at some point in my life I didn't feel confused. He said that with more clarity than I've ever had. I'm trying to think—I was writing the other night, I wrote this poem called "One Stick Song," one I really like at the moment. It relates to stick game, a gambling game. And I can tell you the story of that and we'll see what it means. I was at my uncle's wake. I don't know how other wakes work—
JF: Swedish wakes are wild, everyone's drunk.
SA: OK there you go, similar. (Laughs). It's a good time. Someone was talking about this song he'd sing—"one stick song." You see, you lose sticks in this gambling game, like chips or whatever. You're down to one stick. And you're going to lose if you lose it, so this is your most powerful song. You're desperate. But I hadn't heard the phrase "one stick song" in years, and as soon as I heard it I thought, oh my God, that's everything I've been doing. "One stick song" is a desperate celebration, a desperate attempt to save yourself: putting everything you have into one song. I looked around the room, thinking, 'what are these people's one stick songs? What would it be—what is their one stick, what is the one thing they have left?'
JF: Was that poem meant to be an elegy for the uncle?
SA: It ended up being an elegy for all the family members I've lost.
JF: I just heard Mark Doty give a talk on the elegy, about how it can be applied not only to people but to any loss, and why it needs to both memorialize and make meaning of loss. To what extent do you think you're doing the work of the elegy?
SA: I recently wrote about a man from the reservation who drowned in a mud puddle. He was drunk, alone. How am I supposed to make meaning out of that? And yet I try. That's, in fact, what I'm here to do. You might say that now that man did not die alone.
JF: In your poem, "Capital Punishment," the refrain is "I am not a witness"—but it seems like you are.
SA: I guess a witness is all I am. I think as a writer, you're pretty removed. As much as I talk about tribe or belonging—you don't, really. Writing is a very selfish, individualistic pursuit. So in that sense I'm a witness because I'm not participating.
JF: And literally, you're in Seattle and you're a witness on your old life on the reservation, on the other side of the state.
SA: Yes, I'm not there. And I'm not in the writing world; I'm outside a lot of circles.
JF: Whom do you connect with?
SA: With young people—one of the things I like to do is watch MTV, even though I don't like much of the music, I try to pay attention to what's in their lives.
JF: What's your take on TV?
SA: They've been screaming about the death of literacy for years, but I think TV is the Gutenberg press. I think TV is the only thing that keeps us vaguely in democracy even if it's in the hands of the corporate culture. If you're an artist you write in your time. Moaning about the fact that maybe people read more books a hundred years ago—that's not true. I think the same percentage has always read.
JF: So you're not worried about the culture. You're not worried about video games—
SA: No. Not at all. (Laughs).
JF: A lot of people are, it seems. ..
SA: People also thought Elvis Presley was the end of the world. (Laughs).
JF: You do use a lot of pop cultural references in your work.
SA: It's the cultural currency. Superman means something different to me than it does to a white guy from Ames, Iowa or New York City or L.A. It's a way for us to sit at the same table. I use pop culture like most poets use Latin. (Laughs). They want to find out how smart they are—or, they think they're being "universal."
JF: You said once that universality is a misnomer, that it's really a Western sense of the word.
SA: Well, when people say universal they mean white people get it.
JF: What about Smoke Signals' universal themes of grief, and loss and coming to terms with death?
SA: That's an appropriate way to talk about it, saying universal themes. But some people call the whole work universal. That's wrong. And even if there are universal themes, it's within a very specific experience and character. And that's what made it good. It was promoted as the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans to ever receive distribution, and reviewers would fall all over themselves trying to discount that, saying 'that doesn't really matter. Who cares.' Of course if matters. It matters, and it's good, and it is what it is precisely because of that specificity. So "universal" is often a way to negate the particularity of a project, of an art. I hate that term; it's insulting. I don't want to be universal.
JF: But do you want to touch people who will say, "I've felt that too"?
SA: Yeah, but the thing is, people always told me their story. They didn't say, 'This made me feel like 100 other people.' The creation is specific and the response is specific. Good art is specific. Godzilla is universal. A piece of shit like that plays allover the world. Then you know you got a problem.
JF: Along those lines, I'm wondering about a seeming paradox. You often say during readings and talks that you want to honor your culture's privacy, and yet your work is so public. It seems like you protect it and expose it at the same time. There's a tension created.
SA: Yes, of course there is. One of the ways I've dealt with it is that I don't write about anything sacred. I don't write about any ceremonies; I don't use any Indian songs.
JF: True. You mention sweat lodges but only obliquely. I'm thinking of the image of the old woman in the poem who emerges from the sweat lodge.
SA: Yes, I'm outside the sweat lodge. In Reservation Blues I'm in it and I realized I didn't like it. I approach my writing the same way I approach my life. It's what I've been taught and how I behave with regard to my spirituality.
JF: How do you draw the line as to what is off limits?
SA: My tribe drew that line for me a long time ago. It's not written down, but I know it. If you're Catholic you wouldn't tell anybody about the confessional. I feel a heavy personal responsibility, and I accept it, and I honor it. It's part of the beauty of my culture. I've been called fascist a couple of times, at panels. I've censored myself. I've written things that I have since known to be wrong.
JF: What kind of things . . . I guess you can't say.
SA: (Laughs). All I can say is that I've written about cultural events inappropriately.
JF: How did you know?
SA: The people involved told me. After considering it, I realized they were right. In a few instances. Not every instance, but in a few. I can't take them out of what they're in, but I'm not going to republish them, or perform them in public, no anthologizing: they've died for me. There are Indian writers who write about things they aren't supposed to. They know. They'll pay for it. I'm a firm believer in what people call 'karma.' Even some of the writing I really admire, like Leslie Silko's Ceremony, steps on all sorts of sacred toes. I wouldn't go near that kind of writing. I'd be afraid of the repercussions. I write about a drunk in a bar, or a guy who plays basketball.
JF: So the only flak you get is from individuals who say, "I think you're making fun of me." Do you try to soothe things over?
SA: Some people are unsoothable. But I'm a nice enough guy, and I think people know that. If I weren't pissing people off I wouldn't be doing my job. I just want to piss off the right people. I try not to pick on the people who have less power than I. It's one of the guidelines of my life. And if I have, then I feel badly about it. I try to make amends.
JF: You're only in your early thirties—and you have 12 books and two screenplays behind you. What was it like to have written so much so young and yet feel like you need to be a better writer? Do you feel like some work came out too soon?
SA: Everything, everything! Reservation Blues—ooh, ooh. I'm working on the screenplay now, and I see where I could be so much better. What I could have done. I can tell you what happened. In Reservation Blues, the original impulse was that I can't sing, and I wanted to write a novel about somebody who could. Everyone wants to be a rock star. You get to date supermodels (it's a joke!). With Indian Killer it was because I was sitting at Washington State with frat guys in the back row who I wanted to kill. And I would fantasize about murder.
JF: What were they doing that made you want to kill them?
SA: Just being white. Just drunk on their privilege, essentially. Showing up late, disrupting the class in all sorts of small ways that all added up to my thinking, 'I want to kill them.’
JF: So you write books about people you want to be.
SA: Umm. Do I want to be a murderer? (Laughs). I don't think so, but we all want to kill somebody. It's fantasy. Well I guess then my next novel's about my love affair with Helen Hunt (Laughs) .
JF: One of the things you said is that poetry equals anger and imagination. Do you feel like a lot of the power of your earlier work came from being a younger man full of passion and anger, and do you ever worry about that lessening as you get older and things get easier for you? That is, are you still angry , and has it changed if you are?
SA: I could respond to that in two ways: the richest black man in the country still has a hard time getting a taxi in New York at midnight. But for me, personal success or personal privilege—I have a tremendous amount of it now—I mean I have my own damned office. How many writers have that? Just to manage my life I had to hire somebody. And I'm rich. Not by Steve Forbes standards, but by Indian standards I'm the Indian Steve Forbes. I bought a TV last night because I wanted one for the office.
JF: Are you still amazed by that?
SA: Oh yeah. I just laugh. When I had no money, and a great book came out, I couldn't get it. I had to wait. I love the idea that I have hardcover books here and at home that I haven't read yet. That's how I view that I'm rich. I have hardcover books I may never read. (Laughs) .
But even though I have success and privilege, my cousins don't. My tribe doesn't. I still get phone calls in the middle of the night—about deaths and car wrecks. I've lost uncles and cousins to violence or to slow deaths by neglect and abuse and poverty. I could try to walk away from that, to separate, but I don't. Every time I drive downtown Seattle I see dozens of homeless Indians. I would be callous beyond belief not to feel that, not to know I have cousins who are homeless in cities out there. So even if it's not happening to me directly, it's certainly happening to my family, and I have to pick up the phone. I'm incredibly privileged when I'm sitting at a typewriter, but once I get up and out of that role, I'm an Indian.
There is also this text "American Seduction: Portrait of a Prison Town" which won the $1,000 Special Award in Nonfiction. The award is sponsored by the San Francisco Foundation and administered by Intersection for the Arts. It can be read here.