CREATIVE PEAKS: Native Son

By on May 24, 2016

Famed writer Sherman Alexie talks in Jackson, and to Native youth.

Upcoming Page to the Podium visiting author Sherman Alexie writes because he wants ‘to move rooms full of people.’ He will share his passion for storytelling June 13 at Center for the Arts. Teton County Library will release free tickets online Wednesday, May 25.

Upcoming Page to the Podium visiting author Sherman Alexie writes because he wants ‘to move rooms full of people.’ He will share his passion for storytelling June 13 at Center for the Arts. Teton County Library will release free tickets online Tuesday, May 31.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Starting Wednesday at noon, free tickets are available for author Sherman Alexie’s June 13 appearance during the library’s Page to the Podium event. Tickets will be distributed online only beginning at noon, Tuesday, May 31 and are expected to go fast. (See below for details.)

Alexie is one of those multi-talented writers who excels in several different genres, including poetry, novels, short stories, and films. He wrote the screenplay for the first all-Native American film, Smoke Signals (1998), which was based on his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. He won the 2007 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In 2010 he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for War Dances. And that is just naming a few of his publication credits and awards.

Though Alexie wasn’t available for an interview, the motivation behind his creative output is no mystery. In a 2012 interview with musician Neko Case for The Believer, Alexie and Case talked about why they do what they do.

“I tell [my readers], ‘I write this shit for you!’” Alexie said to Case. “But a lot of writers won’t admit to that … They’ll get artistic or pretentious or, you know, talk about some ‘higher calling.’ The fact is, I want to move rooms full of people. I want to move someone sitting alone under a reading lamp. I want to move someone sitting on a beach. I want to make them laugh and cry. I want them to see me and come running up to me and tell me how the books made them feel. I love that!”

Free your mind

Speaking of speaking up, in addition to his public appearance, Alexie will be leading a private Q&A with several teens from the Wind River UNITY Council who are learning about freedom of expression. With help from former Planet co-publisher and co-founder Mary Grossman, the students are creating an entirely youth-led Native newspaper. Grossman recently started a nonprofit organization, Minds Wide Open, to teach freedom of expression as a human right.

“The Native youth want to be in charge of their own voice and narratives,” Grossman said. “They want to tell the world about who they are.”

As the former publisher of The Planet, Grossman has a wealth of experience to share in how to put together a newspaper. But her larger mission is really the importance of freedom of expression.

“We talk about honest reporting, and not silencing perspectives that might be offensive to someone,” she said.

The first issue of Wind River Youth Times will appear online only with an anticipated publication date in late June. Grossman hopes to publish a print edition once or twice a year.

The teens, who Grossman describes as “brilliant,” are motivated and regularly take action in their community, their state, and at a national level. Their UNITY Council is part of a national organization that fosters Native youth engagement and leadership. They’ve organized efforts to combat drug and alcohol abuse, traveled to Cheyenne to talk with their senators and representatives, and have plugged into President Obama’s Generation Indigenous program, launched in 2014.

So Grossman is not working with shrinking violets. But there is an arena where sharing their voices feels more precarious, and that is talking with their elders.

“The kids are trying to figure out ‘How will we have our voice, but not offend our elders?’’’ Grossman said.

Alexie understands this dilemma well. He spent his early youth with his parents on the Spokane Indian Reservation. But he left the reservation as a teen to attend a public high school in Washington State. He went to college at Gonzaga University and Washington State University.

Alexie told The Atlantic magazine that he couldn’t help feeling that he’d betrayed his people: “I was the first person in my family ever to go to college, leaving the reservation, leaving my tribe; feeling excited about going but also feeling like I’d betrayed the tribe. And knowing that no matter where I ended up, or what I did, I would always be there. Some large part of me would always be there on the reservation.”

Reflecting reality

In Alexie’s semi-autobiographical young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the main character decides to go to a “white” school off the reservation. The widely acclaimed novel is also widely banned. In a 2014 analysis of titles most frequently challenged or banned in the U.S., the American Library Association (ALA) noted Alexie’s book was in the top 10.

160525CreativePeaks-2_origTeton County Library Foundation director Pauline Towers-Dykeman loves the book. It was her first introduction to Alexie’s writing. “It’s a bittersweet story about trying to figure out who you are. It resonates with teens and adults,” Towers-Dykeman said.

The controversy over the book’s instances of profane language and references to masturbation, alcohol abuse, or death don’t worry her. “Sherman is an articulate spokesperson for how those kinds of things can be in literature,” she said. “Those are core ALA values of intellectual freedom.”

Grossman has secured sponsorship for the Wind River youths’ overnight trip to Jackson to hear Alexie speak. Their half-hour private talk with him will be an opportunity to see what a professional writer’s life is like.

Library adult program coordinator Leah Shlachter says it is important for students of color to have role models. “When you have an example of what’s possible, it increases your imagination about what you can do,” she said.

Shlachter has an MFA in poetry and credits her instructors of color for providing affirmation and support.

“When I was getting my MFA, it was important to me to have instructors who were writers of color,” said Shlachter, an enthusiastic admirer of Alexie’s poetry. “He has a way of being very sad and humorous at the same time. One line you are laughing and literally the next line you are starting to cry.”

Alexie has said he is passionate about writing realistically about life, especially for young people.

In 2011 he told the Wall Street Journal, “There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books—especially the dark and dangerous ones —will save them.” PJH

To obtain your free ticket to hear Sherman Alexie speak 7 p.m., June 13 at Center for the Arts during the library’s Page to the Podium event, visit tclib.eventbrite.com beginning noon on Tuesday, May 31.

Only one ticket per library card number; a limited number of tickets are available.

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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