Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 8, 2009

Thoughts on Sherman Alexie

Last week I went to UMass-Amherst to hear Sherman Alexie talk about his books and life. He’s touring for his latest story collection, War Dances, so I’d heard about people leaving his talks dazed and full. I admired the two story collections I read, particularly The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which my daughter’s smart friend Liz told me is one of the best books ever. I liked his award-winning YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Sherman Alexie is not just a storyteller – speaking entirely without notes – but an actor – taking poses of his characters, mainly drawn from himself. He speaks and writes a lot about depression and alcoholism, usually with a dark humor. When asked about whether people should try to depict people outside their own race, color, and gender, Alexie said he used to insist that authors stick to what they know. “I’ve become less rigid about that,” he said. “But I still see truth there,” explaining that writing is like a house. You don’t want to stay on the first floor. You need to explore the basement and the attic, and it’s harder to get to those places when you’re writing much beyond your personal experience. “The trouble with writing outside your culture is that it mostly stays on one floor.”

He also said that the key to him becoming a successful person – a writer, and sober for about twenty years – was that his father read books. He noted that they weren’t literary books, but that having books in the house showed him a way beyond what he saw on the reservation. And he related this to why he tirades against Kindles and other e-readers. Books should be where children can see them, smell them, hold them. Screens are fine, Sherman Alexie said, for things like classes or sports journalism, but the book is a sacred object. Mixing everything together on one screen sets all writing as if equal and it’s not. People sometimes need to hold books as if totems that may change their lives.

I’m personally not so much against e-books. For one thing, aren’t trees sacred, too, and won’t e-books save some from being cut? And look what blogs do for books. Still I thought of his words while I walked in the woods the other day, and saw birch bark peel from trees. I grew up when it was common to play cowboys and Indians, mixing tribes at uneducated whim, bending green branches strung with string into bows, and pretending sticks were arrows. And I found bits of fallen birch bark to etch with what I called writing that no one could read. I remembered looking at those scratches as being sort of sacred, or too profound for me to ever understand.

What stories might be told on that bark? What stories are already there?



  1. How beautiful

  2. I like what he says about exploring. The more I look closely at what I’m writing, the more I see that I am exploring–if not my own life–the pieces/problems of it that I may not have solved yet. Questions that have come up. Stories that are mine, even if the details aren’t.

  3. What a lovely, thoughtful post. I skimmed this line from it for Sunday’s quoteskimming post: “People sometimes need to hold books as if totems that may change their lives.” What a powerful image that is.

  4. Lovely post.
    I heard Sherman Alexie speak at LA. He captivated the entire ballroom.

  5. I’m so glad you got to hear Sherman Alexie speak (and okay…a tiny bit jealous, too!). I’ve heard such great things about him as a performer.

  6. Books should be where children can see them, smell them, hold them.
    I just love that line . . .

  7. Thanks, Jo. I’m glad something came through of the hope I’d felt from hearing someone who’d faced tough things and turned them into beauty.

  8. Becky, it sounds like you are working hard and deep. On — I love your line — Stories that are mine, even if the details aren’t. I am so looking forward to reading your historical!

  9. Thank you, Kelly. I felt very moved by his talk, and felt like I couldn’t convey it, so I’m glad to hear I at least got across a bit.

  10. Then you know how amazed I was! He kept answering questions even though the introducer kept hovering behind him, and after he stopped, said he could have gone on till midnight, and I believe that!

  11. I hope he gets to your area sometime. He seems to genuinely enjoy speaking, but not being away from his family.

  12. Re: Books should be where children can see them, smell them, hold them.
    And I love that your camp offers a place for children to do that!

  13. Oh, thank you for sharing. I hope someday to get to hear Sherman Alexie in person. I’m a great fan of all his books.

  14. Thank you, and I hope you get to hear him in person, too. Great as his books are, I have to say his presence brought a warmth and sincerity I know I’ll bring to my next reading. I think I’m going to read some of his poems next.

  15. I envy you the chance to hear Alexie speak. And I really like what he says about attics and basements. And having borne witness to Sweetpea’s very physical relationship with books, I’ll have to agree with him on the importance of being able to touch, feel, smell, and maybe even taste those pages.

  16. And I love that your camp offers a place for children to do that!
    Thanks! ;0)

  17. Lovely again. Yes, the dilemma of the trees.

  18. Yes, he inspired me to make sure I’m not content to stay on one level. Hopefully those of Sweetpea’s age are going to be exempt from e-books, but that’s where it begins and there’s something that’s ongoing: when we touch and sniff books.

  19. Sarah, your cheers always mean so much to me. xo

  20. Now I want to hear him speak! Thank you for this lovely post.

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