Sherman Alexie’s literacy memoir essay ‘The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” begins by describing his father’s love of reading, and how that influenced Sherman’s own love of reading. He described how his father’s intense interest in books”buying them even when that was all the extra money they had”led him to open up his father’s books, even before he knew how to read. Playing with his father’s books, he began to learn the shape of composition”noticing that paragraphs were ‘fences” made of words. He began to see paragraphs everywhere, like sub-claims of a larger thesis. This led him to see the comic panels within a Superman comic as paragraphs. He describes how he learned to read by understanding that the text bubbles within the ‘paragraphs” described specific panels. The rest of the essay depicts his growing awareness of the low expectations American Indians faced in the classroom, and how he combats those expectations today. He is aware of the low expectations because he beat the expectations, and excelled academically, even drawing resentment from fellow classmates. He concludes his essay by describing his work as a teacher of creative writing for Indians, showing them that they can read, excel academically, and become successful in the modern world. All this because he picked up a book.
The meaning of the whole essay can be reflected through Alexie’s lines ‘I was trying to save my life”; ‘They are trying to save their lives”; and, ‘I am trying to save our lives”. Throughout his essay, he highlights his culture’s (American Indian/ Native American) presence in American English culture, and English culture’s expectations of Native Americans. He reminisces on the systemic expectations of his people to be sub-mediocre in a public education setting”they were monosyllabic, struggled with reading, and submissive to non-Natives. Because of these expectations, he was held back. And he was smart, arrogant, and persistent. He knew his culture’s people were intelligent”back in their communities, they told complex stories, sang songs, and reveled in witty jokes. Those who failed at school were accepted by their culture ceremoniously, even though they lived a grueling life in the English culture. This led to a life of cyclical poverty.
Alexie implies this lack of success, though condoned, is undesirable, even fatal, to their culture. He needed to ‘save” their lives. He needed to inspire them to work hard and show society what they could bring to the table of life. When Native Americans begin to beat the racist expectations set up by the English culture, other Natives”other oppressed cultures”will follow suit. Language is the key to a culture, it is the defining trait of how that culture operates, flows, and creates. Not wanting to give up the language of his own culture, Alexie still understood that learning English and succeeding as a Native in the English culture wasn’t putting at risk his own culture nearly as much as not learning English and succeeding. He understood that to slow, or even stop, the downward spiral of his community, they would need to succeed as well, if not better, than their oppressors. When someone grasps this key”they cannot be easily led or controlled, and can themselves be powerful. Alexie understood that he was smart, not because of who he was, but how he read. Even though Alexie grew up among the myths and tales of his people and his people’s heroes, those verbal, unwritten fragments of his culture would die. They need to be preserved. Alexia was never taught about Natives that wrote poetry, short stories, and novels. There was no English text of the heroes of his community, texts that had the chance to live on like Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dickens. Alexie did not have their literary Native equivalent to read and aspire to.
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