Storytelling is an intricate part of indigenous cultures. It is a method in which cultural history is passed down from generation to generation. In addition, it is also used to address moral questions, offer advice and life lessons. This is true for many cultures and societies including Native Americans. The theme of storytelling is also a found in Sherman Alexies’ short story, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix Arizona”. Told through the use of backstory and third person narrative, it introduces the reader to strained relationships and the quest of self-identity from the Native American perspective. Alexie illustrates to his audience how personal conflicts and broken relationships between loved ones can cause internal struggle for guidance, understanding, and direction. The author encourages others to ask important questions about themselves and others, allowing individuals to gain clarity and insight through self reflection. In this way, the reader is able to identify with the characters and the culture embedded throughout the piece. By observing the strained relationships between the characters and the organizational structure of the work, one can not only learn more about the Native people, but also learn more about themselves.
The story is introduced around one of the main characters, Victor, who receives the news of his father’s passing. The reader is able to sense how the news of his father’s death affected Victor. Although he has not seen or spoken to his father in years, “there was still a genetic pain, which was as real and immediate as a broken bone,” (Alexie 1). By the second page, the reader is introduced to Thomas Builds-The-Fire. Like his father, Victor also has a strained relationship with Thomas. While Victor’s relationship with his father became strained due to abandonment, his relationship with Builds-The-Fire occurred through a drunken fight. Scholars provide further incite to the incident stating that, “Victor and Thomas relationship was strained through puberty” (Ferguson 8). This indicates the struggles that Victor faced in his past. This includes peer-pressure, his father’s neglect, and his need to fit in. It provides guidance, as well as an example, of his loss of self-identity. The backstory suggests how lost identity shaped Victor and his relationships with others.
The reader is introduced to Thomas Builds-The-Fire when Victor, “watched Thomas Builds-The-Fire standing near the magazine rack talking to himself” (Alexis 2). The reader is given Builds-The-Fire’s negative attributes before provided more knowledge regarding his character. He is also “a storyteller”(2) “could fly”(6) and saw “visions”(7). The functional role of Builds-The-Fire is storyteller. At first light, Builds-The-Fire is observed as someone who is crazy or insane. However once this stigma is removed, we see Builds-The-Fire telling a story in which no one is listening. Builds-The-Fire is being himself and playing his critical role. As the storyteller, Thomas is reflecting a theme observed in Native American culture. This is the passing down of Native history through oral stories. Although he plays this role, no one on the reservation will hear him. The stories Builds-The-Fire tells represents Native culture, however in this case it also provides healing. “Not only does Thomas provide friendship for Victor, but he offers a sense of family and heritage to a fellow Native American” (Ferguson 8). Thomas Builds-The-Fire reveals stories that provide clarity, incite, and understanding which lead Victor and the reader on a journey to renewed relationships and self-identity.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire is there to aide Victor during his time of need. The two men are drawn to each other. Somehow, Builds-The-Fire is aware of Victor’s loss and offers to help. He asks to help Victor retrieve his father’s ashes, while Victor still contemplates and works up the courage to have Builds-The-Fire come along. However, as observed through backstory, Victor is struggling for self-identity and loss which directly influence his feelings and behavior towards Builds-The-Fire. “Thomas [is] trying to seize this trip as an opportunity to use stories to transform Victor’s sense of worthlessness into purpose” (Carroll 80). This struggle causes a turning point in his relationships making broken connections into healed ones. He does not want to go on this journey with Thomas Builds-The-Fire because of what others may think. Like the readers first impression of Builds-The-Fire, Victors views him as lucid and full of old tales. Though Victor did not recognize it before, Thomas Builds-The-Fire becomes a major role throughout their journey. Little be known to Victor, deciding to accept assistance from Thomas is going to help build the lost connection between not only he and his father, but his lost relationship with Thomas Builds-The-Fire as well.
During the travel, Builds-The-Fire explores a series of different memories and flashbacks. This format relates back to the Native American culture of oration. It is noted that the story outline and use of backstory, “relates to the traditional storytelling methodology and a reflection of the ancient traditions of aboriginal literature (Tabur-Jogi 25). These memories serve to better explain the relationship and the history between the once close friends. Builds-The-Fire’s flashbacks reflect the person who Victor once was. The stories told describe the earlier times when they were close friends, happy and content. Builds-The-Fire also gives Victor personal stories and memories he has of Victor’s father. In this way, Builds-The-Fire is able to renew Victors relationship with his father by telling his stories. In the midst of remembering who he once was, Victor is understanding his own conflict with his self-identity and his role in the community. This need for community and identity was addressed early in the story when the narrator states, “Victor felt a sudden need for tradition” (Alexie 3). Through backstory, or rather storytelling, Victor finds his identity through Native American traditions.
Victor and Thomas Builds-The-Fire embark on their journey to retrieve his father’s ashes. On their return trip the men notice the emptiness of their surroundings. There is an eerie absence of life down the silent road in Nevada. The two finally spot a jackrabbit, the only life found in the desolate place. Builds-The-Fire accidently kills it. The two men stop at the side of the road and observe it, taking time to reflect on its life. In sadden humor, both men decide “it was suicide” (5). The moment reshaped their relationship and created unity between the two men. They both felt sympathy and remorse towards killing the only living thing observed on their journey. It also, “further contributes to the characterization of [Thomas] as a strange and funny story teller”. Although unintentional, it provides an example of the impact of their journey. It gives finality to an old relationship that Victor and Thomas Builds-The-Fire once had. In this way, the two men were united not only through their past friendship and Victor’s father; they are also united through their shared experience. This is an experience that will provide the storyteller a new story to tell all the while the revelation helps Victor better understand his role in society.
Victor and Builds-The-Fire return home and as they begin to go their separate ways “they both searched for words to end the journey” (Alexie 10). The father was a figure for both Victor and Thomas Builds-The-Fire. As Thomas shared stories of the father to him, Victor gave him half of his father’s ashes. This simple act of kindness further extends their ongoing story. Victor and Builds-The-Fire agree to a renewed friendship through simple acts of kindness observed both in the community and self-identity. This handing over of the ashes provides literal and figurative symbolism of their bond, reassuring them both to remain connected as friends. Thomas Builds-The-Fire is assured to remain the same. He will continued to be labeled as crazy because he is a storyteller. Yet, through their renewed kinship Victor will now respectfully listen. They return from their journey with better understanding and self acceptance of Native American identity and a healed relationship with each other.
By the end of the story, Victor manages to renew both relationships. In a delicate fashion, Alexie rebuilds Victor’s relationship through a sequence of short stories told at random and out of order. Within the first two pages of this piece the reader is taken on a journey bouncing from today, to the past, in order to fix a broken puzzle. It also shows that although Victor has not heard from his father, the pain of losing him struck a nerve that played a pivotal role in his inner conflict. The conflict is the relationship that he and his father did not have. In this way, “Alexies’, intent on reinventing the paradigm presents characters who are modern representatives of Indians” (Miles 24). The story illustrates the interpretation and greater impact that can be caused by lack of human connection and companionship. Our friendships with others, whether friends or family, help make up who we are and play a very important role on how we communicate and further connect with our society, our own communities, as well as how we may feel about ourselves.
Alexie, Sherman. “This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar Roberts. Ed. Robert Zweig. 5th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. 129-136. Print.
Carroll, Katheleen. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: A Performance-Based Approach to Native American Literature. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. 38(1) Spring, 2005. Pp. 74-84
Ferguson, Anson. “Developing homosocial and homoerotic themes in the work of Sherman Alexie”. Lehigh Unversity. Theses and Dissertations. Paper 385.
Miles, John. Not Corn Pollen or Eagle Feathers: Native American Stereotypes and
Identity in Sherman Alexie’s Fiction.” (Under the direction of Dr. Thomas Lisk).
Dromnes, Tanja. “Storytelling-In Our Minds and in the Classroom. A narratological and Didactic
Analysis of Sherman Alexie”. University of Tromso. Spring 2010. Theses. Master’s Degree Programme.
Tabur-Jogi, Helena. “Stereotypical Self-Images of Native Americans in the Novel Reservation
Blues, and Short Story Collections The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heave, and The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie. Master’s Thesis. Tartu. 2004.