Allow me to introduce him to you, if you've never heard of him... or have heard of him but don't know exactly who he is or what he's about.
Taken from The Best American Short Stories, 1994. But before I start, let me make an admission.
So here’s this thing that’s kind of freaky. I always thought Sherman Alexie was an old guy. Maybe the mistake came from me going back to get my Master of Fine Arts in my early forties. Although I’d seen Smoke Signals and read his poetry in short fiction, no one had ever made me read his work. Once I’m made to read someone, it lends a sort of supernormal importance to the work and the author. My own ageism caused me to assume that Sherman must be older. After all, someone can’t be that successful and actually be younger than me, can they?
Of course they can. I am a victim of my own ageism. Shame on me.
As it turns out, Sherman is a year younger than I am.
I heard him on the radio while driving to work recently. He was on Radio Times, being interviewed by Marty Moss because one of his books was selected by Philadelphia for their One Book Program. http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2011/02/21/sherman-alexie-war-dances-2/
From NPR: Two books by Sherman Alexie, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" and “War Dances” have been selected by the Free Library of Philadelphia as this year's One Book One Philadelphia. A returning guest to Radio Times, Marty Moss-Coane interviewed the novelist, poet and film-maker about “War Dances” after its publication in 2009, which went on to win the 2010 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Alexie grew up on an Indian Reservation fifty miles north of Spokane Washington and "War Dances” is a collection of short stories filled with characters dealing with complex issues as wide reaching as a failed marriage, alcoholic death, hate crime, obituary writing and courtship. Alexie has received many awards including the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award, the O Henry Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the 2007 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature for "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."
I thoroughly enjoyed the interview. Sherman is clearly a political animal, a creation of his reservation upbringing as a member of the Spokan Indian Nation, and has the ability to get to the point using beautiful and deadly arrows.
I was first introduced to him through his short story “Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven.” It discusses the popular beliefs whites have for Indians* in such a terrifically metaphorical manner, it had me laughing out loud (Sherman uses the term Indian rather than Native American because he believes that they should own the word that was once used to demean them).
Since then, whenever I have the chance, I read Sherman Alexie.
“Writing has liberated me from poverty, liberated me from fundamentalist thinking,” I remember him saying in the interview. Frankly, I think his success rests in that he has so much to say. There are significant problems with Indians and reservations. We look at Casinos and wave this away saying, they’re rich, they’re fine. If it were only so.
Here’s one of his poems from Slipstreampress.org.
Poverty of Mirrors
You wake these mornings alone and nothing
can be forgiven; you drink the last
swallow of warm beer from the can
beside the bed, tell the stranger sleeping
on the floor to go home. It's too easy
to be no one with nothing to do, only
slightly worried about the light bill
more concerned with how dark day gets.
You walk alone on moist pavement wondering
what color rain is in the country.
Does the world out there revolve around rooms
without doors or windows? Centering the mirror
you found in the trash, walls seem closer
and you can never find the right way
out, so you open the fridge again
for a beer, find only rancid milk and drink it
whole. This all tastes too familar. Copyright ©1992 Sherman Alexie
The sense of laconic loss is so palpable.
What I also learned in the interview was that Sherman is passionate about basketball. He has argued before the court to keep the Seattle Supersonics in Seattle and watches the game like it is his second life. In this poem he paints a visual picture of Indians and basketball:
From The Unauthorized Biography of MeLate summer night on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Ten Indi-
ans are playing basketball on a court barely illuminated by the
streetlight above them. They will play until the brown, leather ball
is invisible in the dark. They will play until an errant pass jams a
finger, knocks a pair of glasses off the face, smashes a nose and
draws blood. They will play until the ball bounces off the courtand disappears into the shadows.
This may be all you need to know about Native American literature.
(Borrowed from the Brooklyn Rail)
Daniel Grassian in his book Understanding Sherman Alexie says that this description suggests that “perhaps the fierceness, commitment, and drive with which they play basketball represents the larger, centuries-long struggle against colonialism that still exists today.”
I suddenly want to watch Indians playing basketball.
After listening to the interview, I sat down and wrote a complete short story called "Boot." I was so inspired by listening to him, so energized by his honesty and art, that I couldn’t help but do so. I wasn’t raised on a Res, and I’m not downtrodden or underprivileged, but I have been in situations. So I took one of those situations and wrote it thinking of Sherman Alexie. I chose boot camp and the cadences they use to brainwash us.
And it’s good.