There are a few rock star writers in America, and Sherman Alexie is one of them. If you were fortunate to be in the standing-room only audience March 28 when Alexie performed – there’s no better word for it than that – for two hours for the MSU President’s Fine Arts Series Creative Nations lecture, you have insights into his popularity. Alexie is brilliant, searing in his observations of contemporary life and what it means to be an American Indian today, and downright hilarious.
Alexie is the winner of: The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, a PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for his runaway best seller, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” He appears widely in the media, including several appearances on the Colbert Report. A poet, novelist, short-story writer, Hollywood script doctor and performer, he currently has seven book projects under contract, including his next book, a children’s book, “Thunder Boy, Jr.” While signing books for the event, he shared a few additional observations about his life, work and the current state of Native affairs.
1) You’re a new member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. If you weren’t a storyteller, what would you be doing?
A high school English teacher and basketball coach.
2) You know what it is to leave a reservation as a young person. Any advice to Native students who are first-time college students at MSU, hailing directly from Montana’s reservations?
You have to stop thinking about isolation, thinking about you as The Only. You have to think of isolation and yourself as being the Original One.
3) What can a university do to attract Indian students and help them achieve?
Simple. Buy a house and make it a Native House. Make it a mini-reservation on campus. Intensely tribal people need an intensely tribal place to be.
4) What still surprises you about the way the general public and mainstream media view American Indians?
That racially stereotyped mascots are still accepted. That racially stereotyped mascots are still celebrated. That the racially stereotyped mascots are accepted by Natives.
5) What has surprised you most about your writing success?
International publication. I do well in South Korea. I'm published in Japan and Israel. Every country has oppressed indigenous people. Every country has people getting their ass kicked.
6) What keeps you up at night?
Netflix. Right now I'm watching "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Apparently one of the characters is a blonde Native, which is causing a stir, although I haven't gotten to those episodes yet, so I can't comment about that. Love what I’ve seen so far.
7) We are speaking at Bozeman’s Country Bookshelf, a terrific independent bookseller. You are famous for appearing on the Colbert Report to criticize Amazon’s monopoly, giving a big boost to Edan Lepucki’s book, California. Five months later Amazon reached a deal with your publisher, Hachette. Do you have anything further to say about the current state of bookselling in America?
Amazon is still a monopoly and, like Google, they are seeking world domination. Books are just part of the problem. We liberals have allowed the Libertarian media moguls to dominate our life. We have subverted our political ideas for free shipping.
8) What piece of advice would you give the 20-year-old Sherman Alexie?
Wow. That would be my sophomore year in college. I'd tell him "Sober up ….”, I didn't sober up for another five years.
9) What can education do to assure there are more voices like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich?
Books, books, books, books, books. And education.
I talked to a social worker once who said that if enough bad things happen to a kid by the time they are the age of 5, it doesn’t matter what comes after.
Each person in the U.S. can be helped by an extensive preschool system.
10) Time magazine recently honored your “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” as one of the 100 best Young Adult Books of All Time, yet a few school districts, including some in Montana, tried to ban it. When you were writing the book did you think it would be controversial?
Not as controversial as it is. Not historically controversial. But, I love the controversy. Nothing guarantees that a book will be bought and read than having people tell others they can't read it. Percival Everett, the writer, said that if you’re getting banned, then you’re offending the right monsters. I feel good so as long as I am offending the right monsters. People who are looking to ban my books want this to be a Christian version of Saudi Arabia, a total theocracy.
Besides, it's quaint to ban books now that kids have access to the Internet, and all that can be read there.
11) What book would you recommend that everyone at MSU read?
The Koran. Then they would know that it is essentially the same as the Bible. All great religious books are pretty much the same book. They have all the joy and agony, hope and loss, morality and venality and magic and violence.
The book that I have read recently that most impacted me the most was “Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes, which is a biography, novella, memoire about ballooning and grief. It's a book about grief.
12) What is your favorite road trip music??
We have this new car that has satellite and I like the Coffee House station, which is nothing but covers. Nothing makes me happier than listening to a good cover. I'm making a mix tape of these covers. My current is Patti Smith doing “When Doves Fly.”
To learn more about Sherman Alexie go to his website, fallsapart.com