Walking into the Sherman Alexie event, I was honestly and most absolutely expecting a snooze fest. In previous years, I have met authors whose books I have adored and whose words have swayed me into meeting them, and every time I had acquired the privileged opportunity, it seems as if their passive personalities contradicted with their tone that they took up as an author, not quite meeting with the writer creating reality within literary bounds. I was never quite impressed. But when I attended this event, Sherman Alexie’s charismatic humor, captivating intelligence, and outstanding personal beliefs shoved me off my high horse or per se inaccurate expectations. By the way he moved freely with his hands and the way he talked so freely with his words, one could promptly conclude that this author, banned across the nation, was not just a writer, but an independent individual who knew his place in the world and where he stood among others. He spoke so firmly and fondly of his heritage and made us all take a step back and realize of the unfair treatment everyone gave to Native Americans. Slowly, I looked around the auditorium and saw jaws dropping to the floor when the person who had introduced Sherman Alexie surprisingly swore to quote Alexie’s words. By then, boy did I know I was in for something.
Right from the start, the interviewer asked about a central situation revolving around everyone’s heads (not me because I didn’t read the book this event was based on but I most surely will later) in which Alexie’s book was banned from school libraries and curricula. From further research and from context clues, I had found that the book that Sherman Alexie had written called The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was a narrative from the viewpoint of a 14-year-old Native American teenager that contained some controversial content for an audience of children including- homosexuality, alcohol, violence, and references to sexual profanity. Of course from then the interviewer asked, “What do you think about this?” Sherman Alexie, being the ever-charming person most had not expect he was, answered everything with sass and humor but an equivalence of intellect and respect. He said that banning this book banned liberal thinking and arts, and argued that parents should worry more about internet access than this “harmful” banned book. Sherman Alexie also mentioned growing up in a Christian conservative town but most definitely performed actions that were not so Christian-conservative and probably a tad inappropriate to mention on here.
As the interview submerged deeper though, the question of cultural, racial, political, and historical conflict between literary content to current social distinction of the Native American culture rose. Time and time again, and as Sherman Alexie clarified, we see that Native Americans possess the least of power in all aspects, mainly politically and socially. Bringing this up, I was reminded of how Native Americans were treated way back when the early Europeans had landed in America, driven and pushed back by pure greed and economic hunger. I thought to myself of a time when we had ever actually treated the Native Americans with respect and provided them with what they wanted, and nothing had come up. Sure, presidents like Jackson must have cared for them, having had an Indian son, and Clark gaining custody of Sacagawea’s son, but never did we actually execute something beneficially tremendous for them, and to note that we had not done anything beneficial really for the Native Americans as an entity, as a whole. The Indians were still driven out of their homeland and into the unfamiliar area west of the Mississippi, and Lewis and Clark’s expedition main goal was to acquire more land for America, not to establish firm relations with Indians. Additionally, we dragged the Native Americans into wars like King Philip’s War and the French and Indian War. Sure we could argue that the initiation of these could have begun from the Indians’ side, but what are we to expect for them to do when settlers and expansionists look to have obtained their land? Of course they would defend themselves. As I write this, I realize I must probably come off as angry and confused but I’m finally starting to feel for them and look through their eyes. Just imagine how they must have felt! This was probably also why Alexie was defending his people with honor and wearing the title of a banned author with pride- he knew firsthand from his life of the unjust treatment Indians received from others.
Also as a political activist, Sherman Alexie remarked a few sassy political comments here and there, some about liberals and conservatives. He connected this with the white male being such a norm not just in government of years past and currently, but also in the world of media, namely TV and books. Sherman Alexie made an interesting point about how white males write to each other, write about each other, and consume each other’s products to sustain reputation in society. I kind of laughed at this wordplay and then agreed to it after. He mentioned how there is rarely an open stage for Native American writers to write about their experiences because of how uncommon it is. Alexie hopes to be the one to change this norm, to emphasize on art and substance of one’s experiences rather than product, and to “recreate a system where the poor and marginalized have more voices in the literary world.”
Before wrapping it up, the question-and-answer portion came for Alexie and the audience. Now, I found this to be the most significant portion of the whole thing, just because Sherman Alexie, in all his intellectual beauty, pointed out some things I would have never thought of before, making me take second, third, fourth (and so on) looks about his choice of words and his meanings behind them. My absolute (oh gosh most favorite) part was when he talked about his source of influence to drop everything and become a poet, derived from the first line of a poem: “Oh Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.” A thought-provoker, huh? I stopped listening to think about this and came up with different concepts but later on, Alexie elaborated on this and it came clear to him after a while that his mental illness, bipolar disorder, was the reservation of his mind. Of course, I interpreted it pretty differently prior to what he said but it just made me think a lot about the emotional aspect Native Americans possessed in early America to the present time. This talk led to the topic of reservations and how Alexie confirmed they were not sacred places, but “rural concentration camps”. Indians did not create reservations, but were a result of war and history, which most people I bet don’t think about. This of course can be connected to America’s earlier need to drive out the Indians in giving up with assimilation and in progressing America’s best interests. Alexie points out that Native Americans have been primarily urban since the end of World War II. I know this will be covered later, but it just made me wonder of what factors contributed into this happening around the time of WWII.
The talk ended with Sherman Alexie bluntly proclaiming that every creation story is BS, and how we all started out from the same place and the same roots. It’s just that “every culture is born because of someone new getting pissed and walking somewhere new.” Again, some more laughter from the audience and nods because yes, it was true. If people were content with what they had, then there really wouldn’t be a need for expansion, especially in America’s case during the colonial era. But someone must have gotten quite p.o.’d, with the extra incentive of land and trade helping too, for people to expand and create such cultures. In our case, it unfortunately led to former inhabitants being forced to move and live in our supposed idea of safe areas called reservations, which I may add again is what Americans created, not the Native Americans. Our own doing. How terrible for them. But the respect I have for Native Americans and their strength is immense at this moment.
After all of this, I just believe that we’re in need of more writers like Sherman Alexie, to voice these things not relevant to the general public today but once heard, will most likely make us think twice. It definitely turned heads, especially mine. Being in his presence, to experience the wise thinking of a rather unique man was a great thing to have spent my Saturday morning. Now, I just have to find a copy his book and go start reading it.
Chicago Humanities Festival event, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (and Banned Writer)
Bailey, Thomas A., David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant, 11th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. Print.
Images from Google Images, Liscensed to Freely Use and Share.