Sherman Alexie: I Write to Fill The Absence...
It was another rainy Wordstock morning (what can you expect in Portland in November?), and I made my way from the Backwords Press booth at the Portland Art Museum to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall a couple blocks away. In the lobby I bumped into some old friends of mine. “Have you seen him read before?” they asked. When I said I hadn’t they were full of excitement. I was told it would be outstanding, and more than anything I should be prepared to laugh.
I was seeing Sherman Alexie in conversation with Dave Miller for OPB’s Think Out Loud. It was the one interview that I was most excited to see. As I settled into my seat, I could feel a hum of energy in the air despite the fact that it was only ten in the morning. Alexie was there to talk about his then-newest book, a children’s picture book, called Thunder Boy Jr. And from the moment of his introduction to the minute Dave Miller had to wind down the conversation, it was an absolute joy. By far one of the best literary events I’ve ever attended.
Recently I began reading Alexie’s short story collection, Blasphemy, and decided to revisit that interview through OPB’s podcast. It was just as delightful as I remember. Alexie reads the book with a range of character voices and describes the pictures in detail for the radio audience. He also discusses topics like home and place, the value and impact of a name, and tells the story of being hugged by eighty 3rd and 4th graders. Mixed in are cracks and punchlines about everything from vegan Prius drivers to politics to the possibility of a Portland co-op grocery store psychoanalyst.
Sherman Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian. He grew up on the Spokane
Indian reservation, in the small town of Wellpinit, Washington. He attended the “white high school” in Reardon, WA, and studied writing at Washington State University, before eventually settling in Seattle. He’s published 26 books and won countless awards – including the PEN/Faulkner, PEN/Malamud, and a PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction. He’s something of a Pacific NW literary celebrity.
I’m not sure when or how I first discovered Alexie’s work. My first read was his 1992 short story/poetry hybrid, The Business of Fancydancing. I was instantly hooked. I quickly made my way through his short story collections, Ten Little Indians, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and The Toughest Indian in the World. I also picked up two of his novels, Indian Killer, and Reservation Blues. The writing is direct and concise, yet somehow philosophical and poetic. I’ve often pulled out my notebook to jot down quotes.
Thunderboy Jr. is Alexie’s first picture book, though he also won a National Book
Award for his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Listening to the podcast was a stark contrast to making my way through Blasphemy. The first line of the first story (“Cry, Cry, Cry”) goes: “Forget crack, my cousin, Junior, said, meth is the new war dancer.”
In a 2012 New York Times review of Blasphemy Jess Row writes: “The stories in ‘Blasphemy,’ Alexie’s collection of new and selected work, begin and nearly always end by reaffirming the brokenness, the dissonance and alienation of contemporary Native American life, usually delivered in withering punch lines…”
In an interview summary for Morning Edition the NPR Staff review Thunder Boy Jr. as “…a sweet little book that has none of the dark humor of Alexie's National Book Award-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian… In fact, Alexie says that as he wrote Thunder Boy Jr., he wondered what it would have been like to grow up, as he puts it, with an ‘alternative father.’”
All of Alexie’s work orbits around reservation life – whether the characters live on “the rez” or have moved away. Common themes include the prevalence of poverty, alcoholism, and domestic abuse in modern Native culture. But he also harnesses the closeness of family and the fullness of love. He discusses his own relationship with the Reservation with Miller in the OPB interview:
That’s who I was born to be, was somebody who needed to leave…The only reason anybody has ever heard of me - Native or non-Native - is because I left my reservation. So in fact, it was the very leaving that made me the storyteller I am.
On the reservation I was Junior, and then when I left the reservation I went to the white high school I instantly became Sherman… in the moment it was really so obviously a split, that even when it was happening I realized ‘Oh man, I just became two people.’
And it’s almost as if Alexie has become two authors – one that captures the harsh realities of rez life, and another that captures the beauty and complications of childhood, innocence, and adolescence. But even that limits the variety of his work. Poetry, novels, short stories, YA, screenplays, a picture book, and this year a memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, which I am excited to read (there’s currently a long hold list at the library). Alexie is quite simply a writer through and through.
As I re-visited the podcast, I recalled that rainy day at Wordstock. My friends were right. He was outstanding. I learned, I related, and I certainly laughed. Toward the end of the interview he tells Dave Miller: “I write to fill the absence I felt growing up…Every book is about a sense of loss. Something I didn’t have. Something I couldn’t do. Somebody I couldn’t be.” And that universality is where it falls into place. Whether gritty short story, or happy picture book, Alexie captures truth and life and longing in whatever form it may be.