Worried About Surveillance? Welcome to the Indian World, Says Sherman Alexie

The original version of this post appeared on the PEN American Center website.

This week, author Sherman Alexie joined PEN American Center and the American Library Association in a Google Hangout on Air to celebrate Banned Books Week in the United States. Alexie is perhaps best known for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, an autobiographical story that follows a young Native American student as he leaves his reservation to enroll in a white school. The National Book Award-winning novel has the dubious honor of being one of the most frequently banned and challenged books in the US every year since its publication in 2007.

credit: Tulane Public Relations

Sherman Alexie. Photo by Tulane Public Relations, republished with permission.

Alexie is not just a fiction writer but also an accomplished poet and screenwriter who spoke eloquently—and hilariously—about a wide range of subjects, including censorship, sex, poverty, Native American culture, and civil liberties. He was especially concerned about the June 2013 revelations of the extent of US government surveillance, and he was equally troubled by the use of our personal information by global corporations. Surveillance has always been present for Native Americans and minorities in the US, he argues, and the NSA's spying program is only exposing the majority of the country to what others have long experienced:

When you start talking about a surveillance state, certainly on an overall level I get worried and suspicious about it. But I also think, “Welcome to the Indian world!” All of a sudden all these white folks are feeling a slight taste of what it is to be black, living where they're being watched and judged and potentially a suspect. But of course the government has been spying on us. I was not shocked by the report. In fact, I was shocked that it wasn't bigger.

Internet culture and internet technology have made it so much easier to spy on us and we willingly participate in it. We sign up with these places. Google scares me and I'm on Google. Facebook scares me. I get worried when capitalistic interests are the ones who contain all of our speech. These are giant corporations whose primary motivation is money, which it should be, but when you're talking about economic interests, you're talking about people who may not necessarily be loyal to their customers. So I worry about all of it. I worry that the world's largest bookseller is in court trying to become the repository for the CIA's online records. Do you really want to be buying your books from the same place that stores the CIA's records? For me, it's becoming one global thing which is going to control all of us. I turn into a leftist, paranoid conspiracy theorist and it makes me paranoid. It makes me feel like an Indian although I am already an Indian.

The full video of the Google Hangout on Air with Sherman Alexie is available here at PEN.org. You can listen to Alexie speak about surveillance at minute 32.

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