CREATIVE PEAKS: Bravery to the Stage

By on July 5, 2017

Library brings the bold brilliance of author Sherman Alexie to the valley.

Sherman Alexie

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sherman Alexie cannot recall a single instance of his mother saying, “I love you.”

The absence of such a word made Dusty Springfield’s hit song “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” an appropriate title for his new memoir. The memoir centers on his relationship with his mother Lillian, who Alexie describes as “the lifeguard on the shores of Lake Fucked.” The song came out the year Alexie was born. His mother likely sang along as it played on the radio, but such overt affection was scarce on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Alexie will unravel his reservation upbringing, his journey to becoming an award-winning author, and doing it all as an “androgynous,” bookish Indian, when such an identity could have killed him, Monday at the Center for the Arts as part of Teton County Library’s Page to Podium series.

Alexie is among the more controversial authors of his time. His book is “one of the most banned and challenged in American history,” he writes in his memoir, “and that makes me giddy with joy.”

Best known for his semi-autobiographical young adult novel The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie’s stories fit neither white America’s expectations of Native American identity, nor fellow Native constructions of it. “The kind of Indian that’s expected,” he told BuzzFeed News, doesn’t say “fuck” or talk about masturbation in a young adult novel, or homophobia or politics for that matter.

Alexie does all of those things, and more. He does them in part because he gets a rise out of ruffling people’s feathers—especially other Indians, he said. But more importantly, he does it because such a voice helped him survive an unforgiving upbringing. “I didn’t survive all the stuff you’re gonna read about [in my books] because of humility,” Alexie told BuzzFeed. “I survived because I’ve been pissed off for 50 years.”

On the rez, as he calls it, Alexie grew up coddled by alcoholism, toxic masculinity, poverty—the things that plague Indian reservations across the country. His first attempt at distance was in junior high, when he enrolled in a predominantly white school just outside the reservation where “the only Indian was the mascot,” Alexie writes. He traded bullying on the rez for racism in the halls and in the homes of his new classmates. “It was like, ‘We know you’re this cool person, but we’re also made uncomfortable by you, and we need to have some power over you,” Alexie told BuzzFeed.

But rather than fight back with venom, Alexie rebelled by simply being the best at everything he could be. He became prom king, captain of the basketball team, and president of Future Farmers of America. He became a “part-time Indian.”

Alexie’s 24 books since then have grappled with some degree of part-time Indian identity. He told NPR he remembers a “golden era” of Native American literature, but it has since subsided. Alexie jokes that he’s been the “Indian du jour” for a “very long day.”

As an Indian author, as with any prominent voice of a historically marginalized group, Alexie feels a lot of pressure to speak on behalf of all Indians. But his books cannot, because his life has been such a deviation from the “Indian that’s expected.” That deviation has made him one of the most controversial, but also prolific, writers of his time.

“He doesn’t just write about being Native American,” Leah Shlachter, Teton County Library adult program coordinator, said. “He talks about a lot of things, through the context of being Native American.”

His writing, then, is for audiences from all walks of life. “He’s a wonderful storyteller in lots of different mediums,” she said. Indeed, Alexie has written children’s books, young adult novels, adult fiction, poetry, screenplays, and now a memoir.

Perhaps what makes his writing most powerful, Shlachter said, is the “range of emotion he can tap into.” She remembers reading The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian and being “amazed at how one page you’re laughing, the next page you’re crying.”

And he’s not just prolific on paper. His talks, Shlachter said, are funny, charismatic, and poignant. Even if you haven’t read his books, or even heard of his books, “listening to him speak will make you want to read his books. That’s why you should come.”

Teton County Library Foundation will host a welcome reception with the author from 5:15 to 6:45 p.m. Monday, July 10. The reception is $50, $20 of which is a tax-deductible contribution to the Library Foundation.

Sherman Alexie takes the stage at 7 p.m. All free tickets have been claimed, but a standby line will be available at 6:45, and communications manager Rebecca Huntington encourages people to standby. She also encourages anyone who cannot use their ticket to click “refund” in the Eventbrite app, or email Shlachter at [email protected]. PJH

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