Most of us don’t remember much of our first few years of life, but childhood experiences can influence us for years and ultimately shape our life’s experiences. Sherman Alexie’s knowledge of the English language allows him to maneuver words to execute his ideas and lessons through his works. Born October 7, 1963, on the Spokane Reservation in Wellnitpit, Washington to a Spokane mother and Coeur d’Alene tribe father, Alexie was aware of the harsh realities of Native American reservation life He suffered from congenital hydrocephalus and undertook surgery when he was six months old. Though the procedure did not affect his aptitude to learn, he suffered severe side effects, including seizures, during his childhood. Because of his health he couldn’t compete physically, so he became a voracious reader. He left the reservation to attend an all-white high school, where he became the president of his class and a consistent honor roll student. His future mental capabilities were highly misdoubted as Alexie was reading by the age of 3 as a result of his father’s great hobby. Studies of parental behaviors have found that about 10% of someone’s academic achievements correlate with their home quality at age 3.
Many aspects of Alexie’s upbringing are used to set the style and themes of his works. A major issue of his life which has become the foundation for his work is alcoholism. As a child, Alexie can recollect his father’s excessive drinking and neglect of his household duties when he would do so. In his works, substance abuse is often the downfall of those reservation heroes. Many Indians saw the issue of substance abuse as an ‘Indian thing” that some people could avoid and not a temporary psychological problem. Alexie says, “I had the feeling I was going to be successful, and I didn’t want to be another disappointing Indian. The mess my father was, it broke my heart. I didn’t want to break an Indian kid’s heart.” During college, while attending Washington State where he graduated with a degree in American Studies, he would drink ‘a crate of beer a day” to cope with leaving the reservation. Growing up on a reservation along with many others Alexie did not have good relations with Caucasians and reflected this through is writing.
A key component of Alexie’s writing is his common use of irony. His poetry collections The Business of Fancy dancing and First Indian on the Moon depict the fraudulent illusions that tempt us all in America today. Irony is a great force in Alexie’s style, particularly his early short story collections, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World which are commonly described as having a consistently dark witty tone.
His work carries the heaviness of five centuries of colonization, retelling the American Indian struggle to survive creating a clear, convincing, and often painful portrayal of modern Indian life. “I’ve come to the realization that many people have been reading literary fiction for the same reason they read mainstream fiction,” he says. “For entertainment and a form of escape. I don’t want to write books that provide people with that. I want books that challenge, anger, and possibly offend.” In Sherman Alexie’s short story “South by Southwest,” a desperate man holds up an International House of Pancakes but demands only $1 from each of the diners. Identical to the bandit, many of Alexie’s characters pursue the ordinary in eccentric ways. Their finest moments come when they surprise the people around them with the reserve of their desires. Violence, or at least the threat of violence, becomes a sad but necessary vehicle for conquering their everyday dreams.
Alexie credits his top 5 life influences on his father, grandmother, Stephen King, John Steinbeck and The Brady Bunch. He describes his maternal grandmother as a traditional storyteller while his father was an alcoholic storyteller who loved books. Former Professor and Mentor Alex Kip exposed Alexie to Contemporary Poetry by Native American writers such as Simon Ortiz, Joy Hathor, and Adrian Louis. Alexie attended Gonzaga University initially for two years and transferred to Washington State where he changes his career path from becoming a medical doctor to pursuing writing. Kip convinced Alexie to attend his poetry writing workshops after he fainted in a human anatomy class bringing him to the realization, he was seeking the wrong career. The Spokane Indian community where Alexie grew up became the foundation for his characters who suffer from discouragement, poverty and substance abuse. In his short-story and poetry collections, Alexie illuminates the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often shape the everyday lives of Native Americans living on reservations.
His poems, novels, and short stories provoke sadness and indignation in the reader while leaving them with respect for characters in disheartened circumstances. Alexie’s protagonists struggle to survive the consistent beating of their spirits, mind and use of drugs and/or alcohol to cope with the white American society, self-loathe and a sense of powerlessness while he depicts the lives of Native Americans who try to escape by substance abuse and other forms of self-abuse. Alexie’s characters also access a mental, emotional, and spiritual outlet in which he refers to as ‘fancy dancing.”
Alexie has also been very active in the film industry. His first film was credited as the first film ever to feature an all Native American cast and crew, Smoke Signals. Written and directed by Alexie based on his book ‘The Business of Fancydancing” and the short story Smoke Signals. The plot follows Victor Joseph on a search to discover his native roots and accept his presence. The finished film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival on its 1998 wide release, Alexie told a Time interviewer that he hoped Smoke Signals would open doors for Indian filmmakers. Alexie collaborated with others to write music for his movies as well. Noted for his honesty, quick wit, and caustic sense of humor, he was a prevalent speaker and performer, and he appears on many television programs. He pointed to African-American director Spike Lee as a role model: ‘Spike didn’t necessarily get films made as much as he inspired filmmakers to believe in themselves. That’s what’s going to happen here. These 13-year-old Indian kids who’ve been going crazy with their camcorders will finally see the possibilities.” Many of Alexie’s characters in “The Toughest Indian in the World,” impersonate American Indians–Spokane or Coeur D’Alene Indians similar to Alexie. Not surprisingly, the characters in “The Toughest Indian in the World” are struggling to launch their cultural individualities. Several also are confronting their bisexuality and homosexuality. These challenges are believable, but at times the themes tend to conceal the characters. As a result, several of the stories lose their individuality and Alexie’s trademark, quirky timbre.
Alexie now 52, currently resides as a Creative Advisor to the Sundance Institute Writer Fellowship Program. He and his wife Diane live in Seattle with their two sons. He rarely visits the reservation where he grew up due to past bad experiences and memories. Sherman Alexie has been the recipient of numerous literary and artistic awards. He was a World Poetry Bout Association champion for four consecutive years, and a guest editor of the literary journal Ploughshares; his short story “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” was selected by juror Ann Patchett as her favorite story for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005. He founded Longhouse Media in January of 2015, a non-profit organization that teaches filmmaking skills to Native American adolescences. Nevertheless, he knows his practicality as a writer relies on the form, he gave his third novel, Red World, a unique spin. “It’s a very conventional story set in an unconventional world,” he says. “It’s an alternate U.S., set in the twentieth century as if the British had won the American Revolution.”
He is also working on a children’s book, a book for young adults, and a collection of essays about Native American literature. He someday hopes to write, produce, and direct a film based on Reservation Blues. To this day, Alexie has public readings and helps with youth programs to stop vulnerable minds from corrupting their potential with bad choices. He uses his life as a primary resource to stop kids from making the same mistakes he did. ‘I have to believe in it because I did it,” he says. ‘I left an oppressive reservation system in pursuit of bigger ideas. And while a lot of Native Americans would see me as somehow fleeing Native Americanness, I didn’t. I fled a place where white culture was completely defining me as a reservation Indian, limiting my possibilities. Now in this storytelling life of mine, I’m a nomad. I’m an old-school storyteller wandering the Earth.”
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