Sherman Alexie

SHERMAN ALEXIE

by Richard E. Miller

I first met Sherman Alexie, poet, screenwriter, and bestselling author, at an awards banquet in Nashville, Tennessee, a few years ago. Alexie was the featured writer at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English and the room was packed to the walls with secondary school teachers, sporting their NCTE bags and bustling with the energy of teachers playing hooky. Alexie approached the podium, turned to the hushed audience, and then mused on the mystery that he had “come off the rez” and traveled across the country to read to “blue-haired ladies from the Midwest.” There was a pregnant pause while those assembled processed this description and then Alexie spread his arms wide, cracked a smile, and said, “My people!”

For those who know Alexie as the author of the terrifying thiller, Indian Killer, such an opening was unexpected. But, for those teaching in high schools, this greeting was well-earned. As Alexie went on to say, in more colorful language than I can use here, high school teachers across the country have made selections from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The Toughest Indian in the World, and Reservation Blues a regular part of the English curriculum. It was the success of his short stories among this age group that led Alexie’s agent to encourage him to write an extended piece specifically addressed to the young adult reader. Alexie chose the occasion of being invited to the annual meeting of the NCTE to share a draft of his efforts: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What followed was one of the most extraordinary public readings I’ve ever attended. Alexie read the opening chapter, “The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club,” which recounts the birth of the protagonist, Junior, and his early experiences on “the rez” getting beat up and tormented. The prose is searing and poignant and Alexie’s control of the audience could not have been more in evidence. When he finished the chapter, the roar of applause settled into shouts of “More!” and “Encore!” Alexie complied, and generated the same results after reading the next chapter. When the calls subsided, Alexie said, “I can’t read anymore. If I do, I’ll stop laughing and start crying.” I’ve been to concerts where the performers left the audience begging for more—but never a public reading.

And so, getting Alexie to Rutgers quickly became a priority for me. (By the time Alexie visited Rutgers on November 28, 2007, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, had won the National Book Award for young people’s literature.) With the change in venue and in occasion, Alexie shifted his approach. In the afternoon of his visit to Rutgers, I moderated and participated in a public conversation with Alexie, during which time he reflected on his creative practice and challenged the students in the audience to question their pieties about America’s past.

Later that evening, rather than give a reading, Alexie gave a performance that was part standup and part soliloquy, ranging widely across race relations, the history of Indian reservations in the United States, his latest work, Flight, and the transformative value of humor. Working in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Alexie rattled and unsettled with his riffs on race and politics, driving his observations home and then generating laughter to release the tension. A sequel to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is forthcoming.