“The Indian Who Bombed Berlin”: German Encounters in Ralph Salisbury’s Work – Modulating Modern Precariousness
Ralph Salisbury's canon is laced with encounters with Germans and Germany, serving to lend his stories and autobiography, So Far, So Good (2013), a transnational edginess in connection with his self-identification as Native American. At times the Germans are presented as the dangerously inimical Other, although the jeopardy and alienation are generally undercut by Salisbury's or his narrators' realizations of inclusive human kinship. Salisbury spent extended time in Germany in many capacities, including Fulbright Fellow (1983, 2004, 2005) and networking sojourner, and writes of his experiences there, ranging from dealing with a formidable East German guard at Checkpont Charlie to joy in teaching enthusiastic students Native American literature. In the autobiography Salisbury refers to the many German American neighbors and the Wessels family of his mother's first husband - themselves dealing with issues of otherness in patriotic America - in (in)direct confrontation with his alcohol-troubled and frequently violent "English-Cherokee-Shawnee father (So Far, So Good 5). In the semi-autobiographical tall tale "The Chicken Affliction and a Man of God," Salisbury changes his Irish American mother's heritage to German American descent for the boy-focalizer's mother, re-dressing - in Faulkneresque Southern modernist manner - his underlying boyhood trauma with humorous-grotesque exaggerations when the young narrator's staunch mother futilely attempts to protect the boy from his abusive father. Salisbury shows literary kinship with other modernist writers in the short story "Silver Mercedes and Big Blue Buick: An Indian War"; a Babbitt-like shoe-store owner, who could possibly have felt at home in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, conducts a Hemingway-flavored gender battle with his Sioux German-descended wife, as well as a perilous driving contest with a skilled Mercedes driver on narrow Bavarian roads. In the short story titled "The Indian Who Bombed Berlin," a Native American exchange professor in an ancient German city recalls his callous wartime destruction of enemy "cathedrals and homes" (202) in Germany, but finds himself costantly, transculturally, and ironically readjusting his lines of affiliation during a riotous demonstration by students of color. Modulating modernism to produce a "Cherokee modern" approach, Salisbury's complex instrumentalization of Native American and German stereotypes and the accompanying issues of precariousness, alterity, agency, and reinforcement of Indigenous presence can be compared to and contrasted with strategies employed by two Anishinaabe authors in different genres and literary modes: Gerald Vizenor's in Blue Ravens: Historical Novel (2014) and Drew Hayden Taylor's in The Berlin Blues, a 2007 play.
Copyright (c) 2020 Cathy Covell Waegner
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