Issue: Winter 2000
This is a review of a back issue of Ploughshares. The author won our “Free Ploughshares” contest that we hosted earlier this year and agreed to review his/her free issue. This post was written by Julie Nilson. Enjoy!
Like many, I discovered Sherman Alexie through the film Smoke Signals. Wanting more of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph, I picked up Alexie’s Reservation Blues, and then I was hooked.
I was drawn in by the unique voices of Alexie’s characters—you could take out the “he said” and “she said” cues and still know who was speaking. But despite their distinctiveness, many of these characters still struggle with issues of identity as they work through personal and cultural conflicts. In my late twenties, when I “discovered” Sherman Alexie’s writing, I identified with his characters’ attempts to find their places in the world—as members of their cultures and families and also independent from them.
In the Winter 2000 issue of Ploughshares, many of the works are about those whose self-perceptions are at odds with the reality of their identities. Linda, the protagonist of Rebecca Barry’s “Love Him, Petaluma” is an advice columnist who dishes out glib, no-nonsense advice to her readers: “Stay busy,” she advises a letter-writer in an unhealthy relationship. “Once you develop your own interests, you might find it easier to let him go.” Meanwhile, she nurses an obsession with an alcoholic ex, along with her own drinking problem. She copes by surrounding herself with a motley group of fellow drunks-in-denial who love her but also support her bad decisions.
In “The Pillows,” artist George house-sits for recently dumped friend Danny. Although George is dating a married woman and is two months behind on his rent, he decides that Danny’s life is the one that needs fixing. He tries to do that by replacing Danny’s grubby, aged bed pillows; “I can’t imagine a woman getting in a bed with those pillows,” he tells his girlfriend during one of their secret trysts.
Alex Kuo’s “Lipstick” is about a group of Chinese ex-pats planning a march in Washington, DC. As they discuss event logistics, they discuss which spokesperson will make the best impression for the cameras and what type of makeup to wear in order to create the impression that they are “young, energetic, and dedicated to democracy.” Meanwhile, they disparage another Chinese dissident group that is holding a similar event on the same day.
The piece that affected me the most was the introduction, a personal essay by Alexie himself. In it, he discusses his frustrations with the film business and how the demands from movie execs to make his work “more accessible” (translation: less quirky and not so smart) was paralyzing his writing process. He says that it was not only affecting his screenwriting projects, but all of his writing. As he wrote, Alexie says, he would hear the “Hollywood voices” giving him notes on each line of dialogue, each chapter, drowning out his own unique voice.
Clearly, Alexie has recovered from that bout of self-doubt, but as I move back into fiction writing, I found it reassuring to know that even the greats get writer’s block.
Julie Nilson is a corporate freelance writer living in Oak Park, Illinois, rediscovering her love of fiction writing. Between press releases and software manuals, she writes shorts stories and novels and attempts to work up the nerve to submit them for publication.