Last Thursday, I had the great pleasure of talking about how literature has kept me employed and well-adjusted in New York at the North Dakota University System 2008 Arts and Humanities Summit in my hometown of Bismarck. Fancy that Sherman Alexie—last year’s National Book Award winner for the YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—was also there as the keynote speaker. People crammed to capacity the beautifully restored Belle Mehus Auditorium for an hour-plus performance. I use that word rather than speech because Alexie communicates beyond words and gesticulations. He borders on being a stand-up comedian in his physicality and timing. Two or three dozen kids, many of them Native Americans from the local reservations, sat at his feet on the stage, holding their bellies from laughing.
His material? Himself, a half white, half Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian who was born with hydrocephalus on a reservation in Washington State. That is to say, poverty, racism, alcoholism, basketball, books, and beautiful girls. The same subjects, coincidentally, of True Diary, which he acknowledges is highly autobiographical. This performance, in other words, wasn’t intended as a stock "It’s been hard being an Indian" lecture. Alexie, it seems to me, wants to get people’s attention so they’ll listen to his story. His aim is to create empathy for his character (as opposed to his race). His strategy is humor, most of it "racial" in the sense that he lampoons reservation life, from its bad food to its bad plumbing. Some might find it inappropriate or crude, but my audience (about 50/50 white and Native) loved it. Alexie would probably say rez mystery meat deserves to get ridiculed because it’s disgusting.
In the Q&A portion, he paid tribute to his father, who died a few years ago of liver failure owing to alcoholism; predicted this country’s next president (Obama); and pondered the cult status of the film Smoke Signals, based on one of his short stories from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I’m very grateful that this most affable author (he knows LJ well) took the time to let me make a little video of him.