Issue 83 |
Winter 2000

About Sherman Alexie: A Profile

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, grew up on a reservation surrounded by poverty, alcoholism, and disease, and, against the odds, emerged to become a scintillating, multifaceted author, voted by both
The New Yorker and
Granta as one of the best American writers under forty. In less than nine years, he has produced three novels, nine books of poetry, and two collections of short stories. Yet it's a wonder he has found any time to write at all, much less been so prolific, given his schedule and activity. He seems to be on tour continuously, revered for his lively performances -- an oratorical virtuosity that has won him the Taos Poetry Circus World Heavyweight Championship for the last three years. In addition, Alexie is a stand-up comedian, a songwriter, a screenwriter and producer (notably of the acclaim­ed film
Smoke Signals), and has served on the Presidential Panel for the National Dialogue on Race and on the board of directors for the American Indian College Fund.

His work carries the weight of five centuries of colonization, retelling the American Indian struggle to survive, painting a clear, compelling, and often painful portrait of modern Indian life. Never one to mince words, he has become a controversial figure, criticized by Indians and non-Indians alike. "I've come to the realization that many people have been reading literary fiction for the same reason they read mainstream fiction," he says. "For entertainment and a form of escape. I don't want to write books that provide people with that. I want books that challenge, anger, and possibly offend."

Alexie was born on October 7, 1966, with hydrocephalus, a life-threatening condition marked by an abnormally large amount of cerebrospinal fluid in the cranial cavity. At six months, he had to undergo brain surgery. His doctors didn't expect him to survive the operation, and they said that even if he did, he would be severely retarded. Yet Alexie did survive, with his mental faculties not only intact, but also quite advanced. He learned to read by age two, and was polishing off tomes like
The Grapes of Wrath by kindergarten (though he only understood the last chapter).

He grew up in Wellpinit, a town on the 156,000-acre Spokane Indian reservation in eastern Washington, where he was, frankly, "miserable." His father, an alcoholic, often disappeared from home for days at a time. His mother sewed quilts and clerked at the Wellpinit Trading Post to support her six children. As a boy, Alexie was teased mercilessly by the other reservation kids, who called him "The Globe." The hydrocephalus had left him with an enlarged skull, and he suffered from seizures and bed-wetting throughout his childhood. His precociousness didn't help his popularity, nor did his government-issued, horn-rimmed glasses. He found solace at the Wellpinit School Library, where he read every book on the shelf by the time he was twelve.

In order to obtain the required credits for college, he chose to go to high school in Reardan, thirty miles off the reservation, where most of the students were white. There, he flourished, becoming a star player (and the only Indian) on the school's basketball team (ironically called the Reardan Indians), as well as the team captain, class president, and a member of the championship debate team. He graduated with honors and received a scholarship to Gonzaga University in Spokane in 1985, but living among the wealthy white students made Alexie feel acutely like a second-class citizen, and he began to drink for the first time in his life. He mocked inebriated frat boys with names like Vomiting Eagle, Asleep-in-the-Bathroom, but Alexie was in no better shape himself, experiencing frequent blackouts. In 1987, he dropped out of college, moved to Seattle, and got a job busing tables at Hoagie's Corner, near the University of Washington.

On the night of his twenty-first birthday, Alexie -- drunk, as usual -- was robbed at knifepoint. He had sunk low enough. He gave up drinking for good and reenrolled as a student, this time at Washington State University. By now, he had abandoned his original dream of becoming a pediatrician (fainting three times in an anatomy class hadn't been very encouraging), and, on a whim, he signed up for a poetry class, hoping to write sonnets to impress girls. He had no idea that his professor, Alex Kuo, would radically rechart the path of his life.

Kuo had Alexie read
Songs from This Earth on Turtle's Back, an anthology of Native American poetry edited by Joseph Bruchac. A few days later, Alexie handed in his first assignment -- a poem about life on the reservation. Kuo immediately recognized Alexie's talent and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he should become a writer. Alexie went on a tear, cranking out poems and stories. One year after graduating from Washington State, he published two books of poetry:
I Would Steal Horses (Slipstream) and
The Business of Fancydancing (Hanging Loose Press).

Soon, booksellers across the Pacific Northwest were recommending
The Business of Fancydancing to their customers. For his first reading, held at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company in 1992, Alexie gave an impromptu stand-up performance. Arriving minutes before showtime, dressed in an old coat and carrying a bottle inside a brown bag, he stood at the back of the store and hollered, "Where's that IN-jun poet?" then lurched his way toward the podium. After shedding his disguise, he began reciting his work from memory, without a book or manuscript, as he still does today at readings.

"I've met so many writers who are so damn boring with their readings, people who would otherwise be very entertaining at a dinner party," Alexie says. "I didn't want to be like that. I also became increasingly aware that my audience was made up of white faces. It bugged me that there weren't more brown faces. Then I realized that books weren't going to do it. I needed to broaden things, working in art forms that were more accessible to Indians."

Although poetry remained an abiding love (he published four additional volumes in the next two years), Alexie began concentrating more on his fiction. In 1993, his first collection of short stories
, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Atlantic Monthly Press), was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Two years later, his first novel,
Reservation Blues, won the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award.

The novel begins with legendary bluesman Robert Johnson arriving at a Spokane reservation crossroads and bestowing his guitar to young Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas and his rock 'n' roll band then careen through a roller coaster of triumphs and misadventures in the music business. Like most of Alexie's work,
Reservation Blues sparkles with black humor and lyricism, and its roots are in the Native American traditions of mythology and story-telling.

Thomas repeated stories constantly. All the other Indians on the reservation heard those stories so often that the words crept into dreams. An Indian telling his friends about a dream he had was halfway through the telling before everyone realized it was actually one of Thomas's stealth stories. . . .

Thomas Builds-the-Fire's stories climbed into your clothes like sand, gave you itches that could not be scratched. If you repeated even a sentence from one of those stories, your throat was never the same again. Those stories hung in your clothes and your hair like smoke, and no amount of laundry soap or shampoo washed them out. Victor and Junior often tried to beat those stories out of Thomas, tied him down and taped his mouth shut. They pretended to be friendly and sweet-talk Thomas into temporary silences, made promises about beautiful Indian women and cases of Diet Pepsi. But none of that stopped Thomas, who talked and talked.

Alexie chose to go in a different direction with his second novel,
Indian Killer, a murder mystery about a serial killer who scalps white men in Seattle, and the racial tension that ensues. A sly sociopolitical polemic, the novel features a white Native American studies professor who is an Indian wannabe, reflecting Alexie's fury at the rise of non-native authorities on Indians. "It was a response to the literary movement where a lot of non-Indian writers are writing Indian books," he says. "Non-Indian authors enjoy a success that is not determined or critiqued by American Indians. So I want to make sure they're aware of an Indian critical response to their work."

After the novel, he took a brief detour from writing books and turned to filmmaking. Adapting stories from
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, he produced and wrote the screenplay for
Smoke Signals, which was billed as the first Indian-produced, Indian-directed, Indian-acted, and Indian-written feature film. "No Indians in loincloths," Alexie quipped. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and picked up the audience award for the most popular film.

With such success right out of the gate, Alexie wanted to follow with an adaptation of
Indian Killer, but he quickly became frustrated with the vagaries of the Hollywood system and returned to books. "The movie world is fine," he says, "but I really grew disillusioned with it in many ways. It's so amorphous, and so much has to happen for a movie to get made. I write a book, and it gets published. I like the immediacy of it. I'd forgotten what it meant to be a writer. As much as people love movies, they really hold authors in high esteem. It's one thing to make a movie and quite another when people want to hear your voice."

This past year, he published a new collection of short stories,
The Toughest Indian in the World, which explores the collision between lives on and off the reservation. The protagonists are urban Indians who work as lawyers, writers, and other professionals, and Alexie intends them to defy the stereotype of poor, illiterate American Indians. "I've been reading recent Indian literature, and little of it is about urban Indians, despite the fact that most of us Indian writers are urban Indians now. I also wanted to get away from the model of the dysfunctional Indian."

His favorite mediums are still poems and short stories. "These two things are very natural," he says. "It's like breathing for me. I really have to struggle with novels. If I never had to write another novel again, I'd be happy. I like the contained world. Every novel could be a hundred pages shorter. I think short stories are a greater challenge. You can make fewer mistakes. With poems, you can't make any. It's more of a tightrope. I think novels are the white man's world."

Nonetheless, he knows his viability as a writer depends on the form, and he is working on his third novel,
Red World, although he plans to give it his own unique spin. "It's a very conventional story set in an unconventional world," he says. "It's an alternate U.S., set in the twentieth century as if the British had won the American Revolution." He is also working on a children's book, another for young adults, and a collection of essays about Native American literature, and he hasn't given up on movies, either, hoping to write, produce, and direct a film based on
Reservation Blues.

Alexie lives in Seattle with his wife, Diane, who is of Hidatsa, Ho Chunk, and Pottawatomi descent, and their young son, Joseph. An insomniac, Alexie does a lot of his work at an IHOP near his house at three a.m. "I'm a binge writer," he says. "I used to be a binge alcoholic. I've substituted writing for alcohol. Writing is everything. It takes stuff away. It's like being married. It's a high-maintenance relationship. You can't get lazy. I'm doing something around it every day-reading, writing, editing, thinking. I can be staring out the window, and I'm working real hard."

In the early days of his literary career, Alexie used to joke that he was merely "the Indian du jour." Clearly, though, he's making it a very long day.

Lynn Cline is the author of Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe.
She is a staff writer for the arts and entertainment magazine Pasatiempo,
and the food editor for The Santa Fe New Mexican.