The Life and Accomplishments of Poet, Sherman Alexie; a brutally honesty, funny, and poignant writer


I first got introduced to Sherman Alexie in a Literature Arts and Discourse class at California State University, San Marcos by an eccentric and passionate professor, Brandon Cesmat. He wanted us to read the novel Reservation Blues because of the writer’s unique ability to blend music, pop culture, and fiction into one. I read the book and was instantly hooked. I went on to read everything else the author ever wrote and researched his life. I had to know how it all began.

Who would have thought that a poor American Indian from a small reservation in Washington, born with water on the brain, and suffering multiple childhood seizures, would grow up to become one of the most inspiring and influential voices in American literature? When it comes to his own place as a Native American writer, he says, “Sixty percent of all Indians live in urban areas, but nobody’s writing about them. They’re really an underrepresented population, and the ironic thing is very, very few of those we call Native American writers actually grew up on reservations, and yet most of their work is about reservations” (qtd in “Sherman Alexie Quotes,”). Indeed, poet and fiction author, Sherman Alexie has transcended the obstacles of his early-life circumstances, to write many award winning pieces of literature that inspire the multicultural generation today with an authentic, poignant and brutally honest voice of a modern American Indian living in two worlds.

Life

On October 7th, 1966 Sherman Alexie was born to his Coeur d’alene Indian father, Sherman Joseph Alexie  and his half white, half Spokane Indian mother, Lillian Agnes Cox with hydrocephalus—water on the brain. Told he would become mentally retarded if even survived the necessary surgery on his brain at 6 months of age, his parents took the chance. While Alexie did suffer multiple seizures in his youth due to his condition, he shocked his doctors and parents by not only not exhibiting signs of brain damage post operation, but instead, phenomenal intelligence. Sherman Alexie speaks of his seizures in his early years, “The lights would pop, then I’d rise out of my body and be able to fly off anywhere I wanted,” he recalls. “There’s a surreal euphoria; the synapses are misfiring, so the memory banks are flooding your head. I’d get to feel like a superhero for a couple of minutes” (qtd in Maya Jaggi). He became an avid reader, even reportedly reading books like Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck at the age of 5 (Donovan and Lewis 21).

Living on a reservation in Wellpenit, Washington, he got to see the beauty and spirituality in Native American culture as well as the pain and the suffering. His father was an alcoholic and even his older sister and her husband died in a house fire due to drunkenness. To add to the suffering, the school system on the reservation was terrible. And his Indian peers seemed to find a desire to learn and succeed in the outside world as a sign of dismissing his heritage, of being a sell-out. Yet, because of his intelligence and love of reading, he was not satisfied with the education on the reservation and did not become influenced by his Indian peers. In 7th grade he opened up his textbook in school to find his mother’s name written in it. No new textbooks in how many years? At that moment he knew he needed something more. He needed to leave the reservation if he wanted to succeed in his life. He talked his parents into allowing him to go to school off the “rez” and in 8th grade, began attending an all white school on the outskirts of his reservation. He was the only Native American child there (Donovan and Lewis 20-27). But he learned and eventually he began going to college. This is where he would discover his love for writing, and find his place in the world. When talking about his leaving the reservation for education in the white world, he says, “”Plenty of people saw my leaving as a betrayal,” he says.”I felt guilty, but I’ve forgiven myself, and most of my reservation has” (qtd in Jaggi).

It was at Washington State University where Sherman Alexie initially pursued a degree in Medicine, but due to his inability to emotionally handle the gore of anatomy, began to pursue his writing. He ended up getting a degree in American Studies while at the university. His love of writing really started when one of his professors gave him an anthology of creative writing by Native Americans. This inspired his own writing. And before he even graduated college with his BA, he had already published a score of poems in a couple of journals. Then after winning a 5,000 dollar grant to pursue his writing more, he realized he was going to be successful and decided to stop his alcohol abuse (Donovan and Lewis 25). He has been sober since, claiming that he didn’t want to become another “disappointing Indian” (qtd in “Sherman Alexie Quotes.”) And so his career began—people paying him to write and his writing winning hearts and inspiring readers. What made his writing so captivating? He says. “I was always the depressed guy in the basement. But I’ve borrowed their sense of humor and made it darker and more deadly – a weapon of self-defense. Being funny you win hearts quicker; people laughing are more apt to listen” (qtd in Jaggi). His writing deals with the pains and pleasures of the Native American experience. He often draws from personal experiences but adds fiction to create dynamically alive complex speakers in his poetry. This is something he loves and does not consider work. His fiction both in short stories and in novels came later to make money. Something he considers work, but is still filled with the poignant poetry that started his career. He has been successfully writing since and continues now in his 40’s. Sherman Alexie resides today in Seattle Washington, with his wife Dianne and his two sons, Joseph and David. He continues to write and has even begun to do comedy in the form of standup. He would like to pursue film some more as well (“Chronology”2).  

Works and Accomplishments

Aside from being published in multiple respected journals like the New Yorker, Sherman Alexie has published multiple collections of poetry like The Business of Fancy Dancing and First Indian on the Moon as well as Summer of Black Widows, short fiction like The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World, and novels like Reservation Blues and Indian Killer and has won many respectable awards. Some of his works, he even adapted into indie screenplays—such as Smoke Signals which was a huge success and The Business of Fancy Dancing, which did not succeed due most likely to its dealing with homosexuality (“Chronology” 2). In “A New York Times Book Review essay on Native American literature […] Alexie [is called] ‘one of the major lyric voices of our time”’ (“Chronology” 2). He also won the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, was interviewed by Oprah herself on the Oprah Winfrey Show, has won the World Heavyweight Poetry Championship, has been labeled The New Yorker’s “Future of American Fiction “and most recently has won Circle of the Americas 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award for his most recent 2011 short fiction piece—War Dances,(“Chronology” 2).

Impact

In an interview with Identity Theory’s Rob Capriccioso, Sherman Alexie writes about his impact more so on the college-educated white women and the gay community than any else. He claims to be too white for Indians and too Indian for most whites. But it is the educated white women and the educated gay community who understand him more. And he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about that. He writes what he wants, only adding margin to his own writing when he began to pursue young adult fiction, even having his work appear in high school textbooks, which also drew him much success and certainly opened young readers up to the world of reading, but he has found more freedom and less writer’s block in his latter years of writing now that he has ventured back into the adult genres (Capriccioso). Perhaps it is the poignant emotion he so honestly expresses that captures the hearts of his female, gay, or teen readers—as the pangs of life are so often celebrated and explored in these areas more so than any other. Perhaps it is his honest analysis of prejudice in his life–a topic often discussed in depth in these communities, especially in education. Regardless of who loves him, he has a huge heart to help Native American youth rise above their circumstances and so speaks often in high schools, as well as being a founding board member of a program to help Native American youths develop film writing and filming skills, called Longhouse Media (“About Us”). No doubt he wants to show them that to be educated and creative does not mean they have to lose their heritage. Media could certainly help the youth of today find a way to express themselves–and shed the old skin and the filth from their lives. Becoming someone better inspite of it all.

Sherman Alexie says, “If I couldn’t write poetry, I would have to wash my hands all the time” (qtd in” Sherman Alexie Quotes”). Yes, his poetry does appearing purging in its honest confession of the conflicts in this life. But his honesty is refreshing, his figurative language is breathtaking, and his idealism is truly inspiring .If you have not had a chance to read some of the funny, sad, and beautiful literature of Sherman Alexie, you must. Alexie’s creative blending of poetry, fiction, and memoir truly exemplifies the complexities of being human in a postmodern multicultural generation, with all its good and bad—something this generation has desperately needed.

Some of My Favorite Works by Sherman Alexie

What I Can’t Wait to Read Next

Works Cited

“About Us.” Longhouse Media. Web. 19 March 2013.

Capriccioso, Rob. “Sherman Alexie.” Identity Theory. 23 March 2003. Web. 18 March 2013.

“Chronology of Sherman Alexie’s Life.” Critical Insights: Sherman Alexie (2011): 407-409. Literary Reference Center. Web. 19 March. 2013.

Donovan, Georgie L. and Leon Lewis. “Biography of Sherman Alexie.” Critical Insights: Sherman Alexie (2011): 20-29. Literary Reference Center. Web. 19 March 2013.

Jaggi, Maya. “All Rage and Heart.” The Guardian. 2013. Web. 18 March 2013.

“Sherman Alexie Quotes.” Brainyquotes. Book Rags Media. 2001-2013. Web. 18 March 2013.

Those Amazing Teachable Moments

//www.starbeck.com/images/as_131_smile_mask.jpgIf someone had asked me why I wanted to teach high school students or to teach English, they would not hear me speak about my excitement over creating grammar trees or analyzing the conflict in the plot of a story or determining whether or not Hamlet is insane. I wanted and still want to teach high school students through literature and writing because I want to make a difference in their lives.  Literature and writing was the only avenue that allowed me to get in touch with my emotions in high school and college. High school is a terribly confusing time for most teenagers and many of them, I myself was one of them, couldn’t find solace at home. How much I would have loved to hear from someone willing to talk about the struggles of being a teenager and how they got through it. Someone who truly understood what I was going through and willing to admit some of the things they learned. Someone who could be a good example to me.

Of course, I have long stretches of time in my classes where all I do end up teaching them is how to analyze a character and how to determine whether a word is an adjective or an adverb, but every once in a while, I am blessed with an opportunity to teach my teenagers about life. Sometimes it may be through the theme of a story that everyone is into and I can hear their silence…but a different kind. A silence that screams thought and contemplation instead of boredom or apathy. But even better are those moments before, during, or after school, when I can teach them about something that is affecting them right now.

I had that moment today.

We just finished a unit on Poetry. I love poetry and I loved poetry in high school. But one thing I remember from poetry in high school is that I learned more from the poems that connected to my life than the poems that Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson ever wrote about. Browsing through the curriculum that I was to teach this year, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly we would rush through poetry without ever having students learn how to apply it to their own writing or to have them share poems that make them think or feel something. So I made some adjustments. I required each one of my students to either bring in a poem that they wrote or a poem that someone else wrote, but that they liked. Everyday, someone would read their poem and we would talk about it before jumping into the day’s lesson. I even told them that I wanted this poetry unit to be meaningful to them. And as we studied poetry, I often asked them to think about how they could write poetry using some of the figurative language or techniques that the poets of our curriculum used. I saw many amateur poets excitedly practicing their skills on their college-ruled lined paper that they folded and stuffed into pockets or passed on to friends in the halls.

Today one of my students brought in a poem that she wrote. It was a free-verse confessional poem about the masks she wears and her desperation to be liberated from the lies she lies behind. She started to cry while reading it and the entire class was screaming the silence of complete understanding. We all gave her a big group hug and when I heard students whispering to each other about how they felt the sameway  and when I saw tears well up in a few empathetic audience members, I knew I had to set aside my lesson for the moment and use this opportunity to teach them something.

I asked them to raise their hand if they felt the way she did. Every single hand went up. Twenty hands from twenty 14-year-olds of every color and social group and intelligence level. Twenty teenagers who thought that no one understood them, but learned right there that they had more in common then they thought. For half an hour we talked about the masks we wear in high school. About how tough it is when we don’t know who we are. I shared with them how much I had felt the same way when I was a freshman. And then I felt called to take it to a deeper level and bring up how so many teenagers turn to drugs to find comfort in their confusion and how this just fuels the vicious cycle of not being self-actualized. I explained to them that what they are feeling is normal– about the development of their frontal lobe and what areas of our thinking and acting that it influences. Also coincidentally, the very same part of the brain that drugs destroy, slowing its development or preventing it from ever developing at all until they find themselves at the age of 35 and realizing they are at the emotional level of a 14-year-old and wonder if it is too late to ever figure life out. Students asked a lot of questions. Questions about alcohol and marijuana. About where to draw the line.  About what to do about “friends” who are abusing drugs. I had one student ask me what she could do to help herself not feel so lost and confused. She finally realized she was normal, but still wanted hope. I gave them both secular and spiritual advice. I told her and the rest of the class to write, to exercise, to stay active, to do more of the things that help them release emotions and energy. I told them to associate themselves with people who love and respect them no matter who they are, be it family or close, true friends. And I told them, that for me, Jesus has made a difference. I made sure to say “for me” so that I couldn’t be accused of telling them they HAD to develop a personal relationship with their creator even though I wanted to so bad. This is definitely one of the downsides of working in public education and I’m not sure if I will have a job tomorrow. But the atmosphere of the class had gotten so personal at that moment, I think it will stay indoors. If not, I have faith that I will be okay.

It was hard to change the subject to our analytical essays afterward, but we all made the transition. I told them that they could come and talk to me anytime they wanted and that I would listen and not judge them and to do my best to share my wisdom. I told them that our class was a family and I watched their heads nod in agreement. It was a powerful moment.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if these kids walk away from my class knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor. But if they walk our of my door knowing that they are not alone and there is light at the end of the dark tunnel of adolescence without masks or drugs or suicide, then to me, I have made a difference. I hope they all sleep a little better tonight. And maybe try writing another poem again soon.