In every culture, there are characteristics that make up that particular group of people; those characteristics can be everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music, and even traditions. A tradition is a long established custom or belief that has been passed on from generation to generation. Tradition and culture make a huge part of one’s sense of being as it did for Sherman Alexie growing up in an Indian Reservation. This author has managed to explain the nowadays society what they can loose by rejecting traditions and the life that was here before the current community. Sherman Alexie is the contemporary genius of the modern literature (Konigsberg).
Sherman Joseph Alexie Jr. was born on October 7, 1966 in Spokane, WA; he is the son of Sherman Joseph and Lillian Agnes Alexie. He was born a hydrocephalic which in layman’s terms means he had water in the brain. At six months, he underwent a brain operation after which he was not expected to survive (Flanagan). His stories tend to mirror his life experiences. Being born in a family of Indian parents, Sherman Alexie is still considered one of the most popular writers, poets, and filmmakers in the American culture. His readers can relate or imagine most of his material. Considering the information mentioned above, there is no wonder that his stories reflect his life experiences.
In his childhood, Alexie had been suffering from a mental disease. “Upon his birth, he had fluid pressure on the brain and underwent brain surgery at six months. As a result, Alexie was a weak and sickly child until about age seven.” As a teenager, Alexie enrolled in reservation schools, he found his mother’s name written in a textbook assigned to him (Flanagan). While living in the reservation and studying at school there, Alexie dealt with many life challenges. His father was a truck driver suffering from alcohol abuse who was hardly ever at home. That was the reason why later the author was left without a father. Almost the whole his life Alexie was growing up without a man’s hand. He ended up transferring to Washington State University, where his high school sweetheart was enrolled. The young man’s move to Washington is considered to be the biggest step in his future career that changed his life completely. While in Washington, Alexie began concentrating on writing fiction and poetry. Being a Native American, he devoted almost all his works to the problem of Native Americans in the United States of America (Gale Biography in Context). As it was mentioned above, almost in every story, Alexie applies symbols that help him as an author to describe the life of Native Americans. Beyond that, he describes the confrontations between Native Americans and White Men. His collection of short stories became not only the basis of his future movies, but also the sort of his label in the American and world’s literature. The first famous collection of short stories written by Sherman Alexie is the The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. These are stories that give a picture of life in the reservation through short impressionistic scenes recounted by a few different people.
One of Sherman Alexie’s short stories included in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is “This is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. The main characters of this story are Victor and his childhood friend Thomas-Builds-the-Fire. Victor has just lost his father and lives far away in reservation without money; that is why he decides to borrow some. Thomas-Build-the-Fire is the one who is here to help his old friend; as a result, they both travel to Phoenix, Arizona. Recently, the story became a script for the film called Smoke Signals directed also by Alexie. Alexie centers our attention not only on the theme of Native Americans, but also on the relationships between father and son (Bond). Furthermore,“This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” mainly focuses on showing its readers the conflicts not only between the two communities, Native Americans and White men, but also the conflicts that exist inside each community. A mutual understanding between the characters is shown with no relation to each other throughout the story, at the same time, with the same kind of a “father” figure (Alexie). Like any other piece of literature, Sherman Alexie’s story can be considered just as a common story for its readers’ entertainment; although, one should not forget that the author grew up and lived in the Native American community himself. Sherman Alexie depicts struggles in the Native American society through his writings. The main its struggle is the one with time. For example, in “This is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, Alexie emphasizes on the fact that traditions he was raised in are almost dead nowadays. Alexie also focuses his readers’ attention on the love between parents and children; finally, he pays significant attention to the true friendship between main characters. As it was mentioned above, Victor, the main hero of “This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, goes on the trip to Phoenix just to get the father’s ashes and the heritage his father left him. During this trip, both Victor and his sort of “lost” childhood friend Thomas-Builds-The-Fire are trying to come to terms with each other. They have been friends since the age of seven years. Moreover, on their way to Phoenix, Thomas-Builds-The-Fire is telling about many tribes’ traditions. Victor remembers how it was in childhood when Thomas liked to criticize these traditions in a very philosophical way. However, he always did it with respect to them. In “This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, the image of Thomas-Builds-The-Fire is a symbolic one. It is not just a character who helps his friend regardsless of time or relations between them; Thomas is also the kind of a character that symbolizes the whole Indian nation with its difficulties and traditions. Thomas-Builds-The-Fire made a huge contribution to the story. This man also has lost his father long ago; so, he thinks of Victor’s father as of the one he has never had. Thomas, being a storyteller during the whole friends’ trip, has opened Victor’s eyes on his society; he helped Victor not just with money, but also he healed his friend’s soul. With this certain moments and through Tomas’s stories, the author shows his readers that the hope for the better future is still there (Bond).
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The main things that are described in “This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” between thr lines are culture and character. Moreover, as it was mentioned previously, the symbolic image of culture is quite fascinating. It is shown not only through Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, but also from the descriptions of nature and Indians’ behavior that the author gives his readers. Sherman Alexie is trying to create the image of the Spokane Reservation where he has been living in the descriptions of the Reservation he has shown in the story. Sometimes, the author is describing both culture and character aspect in a humorous and sometimes in a tragic way. As it was said above, the symbolic aspect of a character is also an important part of the image described in the story. Both characters have not an easy life. Both of them have their tragedies and suffered their losses. They have a hard past; the fact that both Victor and Thomas-Builds-The-Fire have not been communicating since their childhood played a big part in their lives. Thomas is annoying, critical, yet respectful to traditions man, while Victor is also a good man, but with troubled fate. Thomas has been always scaring their community with his stories, while Victory has been just living his life. Thomas is the one who represents Indian spirit with its traditions, and Victor at first rejects his true nature. Moreover, there was one moment in their past when Victor, while being drunk, attacked Thomas-Builds-The-Fire. However, this was in the past, and all is left of that incident are just memories. In the present, however, both characters are on the trip to Phoenix. While being far away from their reservation, Victor and Thomas-Builds-The-Fire reunite as two old friends. Men are apologizing for their past actions towards each other; they are discussing their life after the moment they have stopped being best friends. Moreover, Thomas-Builds-The-Fire is telling Victor that after their sort of “break up”, he has an encounter with Victor’s father. He asked Thomas to look after Victor and help him whenever he will need it. At the end of their journey, both Thomas and Victor decide to throw Victor’s father’s ashes in the Spokane Falls, but Thomas thinks that it will not bury Victor’s father after all. He is sure that Victor’s father will arise from ashes even after being buried in the Falls. Both of them expect very different results from burying father’s ashes. Thomas thinks that Victor’s father will arise as a salmon, which symbolizes someone smart, the one who remembers everything and who will take care after his son despite death and destination his spirit will need to manage. The relationships between Thomas-Builds-The-Fire and Victor changed during their journey. Victor finds out that this journey has changed him in all meanings; he starts to believe and respect traditions. Both men understand what the real friendship is, and as long as they are together in their life, nothing can be difficult for them. After all, Victor makes a decision to throw his father’s ashes. He thinks that it is time to let his past go and let his father rest in peace. Both comrades see that their friendship is the most important thing in their life; moreover, after this journey, they both start sharing the same view on different things including their traditions and the way the relationships between them should be. The journey they both took to Phoenix, Arizona, taught them that it is important to have at least someone with whom you could share stories, experiences; so, there is be always the someone who would listen to you no matter what happens (Alexie).
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Despite thte feelings Victor had to his father before his death and every fight they had in their past, Sherman Alexie is showing his readers the whole variety of feelings that one can experience when his close person passes away. Melancholy, anger, despair, pain, loss – yet it is not the whole list of feelings. The list is always different from person to person, but the feeling of the respect or forgiveness stays always the same. This is what has happened in “This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” with the main protagonist. Despite fights and understatements that Victor has had with his father, the feeling of guilt makes him return to Phoenix and at least show obeisance to his father for the last time. Therefore, there is no wonder that he wants to share his grief and guilt with his childhood friend but not with just some neighbors, who after all, even do not care about Victor’s loss. Although at the beginning of the story, the friends differently perceive death and life, in the end, it seems that Victor comes to understanding what Thomas is trying to show him. After all, Victor even says Thomas that he will do from now on the same things he does. Moreover, in the end of “This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, Victor promises his friend that he will always stop once he sees his friend and will always listen to his stories (Bond).
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In his “This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, Sherman Alexie is not only showing his readers the real meaning of relationships, especially those inside family or the relationships in the old friendship, he also is trying to show the nowadays society how important is the native culture with its customs and social norms and how it can affect the relationships between two people. The author is trying to pay readers’ attention to the moments when two characters, for example, remember their bonds and get some mutual understanding after all these years or the moments of compassion and forgiveness. “This is what It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” is not just some simple short story, it is a masterpiece that discloses the problematic situation of Indian society to Alexie’s readers and shows everyone the real talent of the author. It seems almost surreal how far Alexie has gone, almost like rags to riches type of story. He is a very successful author, with a beautiful wife and children. He has become whom he is today because of his short stories and the meaning he has put in them. Sherman Alexie is a great writer, an example in the world’s literature for all the future generations of writers.