13 Ways of Looking at Sherman Alexie 

The outspoken literary wunderkind is not a Native American, got it?

Sherman Alexie
Wed. Sept. 20, 6 p.m.
Free
Physicians Auditorium
66 George St. (at Coming)

Noted poet, author, director, comedian, and songwriter Sherman Alexie speaks tonight at the College of Charleston. While it's encouraging to know that a mere writer can be too big and busy to give an interview, it does demand a more creative way to preview his much-buzzed visit.

1. Sherman Alexie's heritage is with the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Nations. He prefers to be called an Indian. "Native American" he says, is a "guilty white liberal term."

2. Alexie is a member of the Royce Carlton speakers' bureau, along with Edward Albee, Anthony Bourdain, Joan Rivers, and Joan Didion, to name a few.

3. Born with hydrocephalus, an abnormal swelling of the brain, Alexie was shy and reserved and often stayed at home or hid in the rocks of his reservation in eastern Washington State. He started reading at age three and read The Grapes of Wrath when he was five.

4. After seeing his mother's name in a textbook at a reservation school, Alexie transferred to a white high school 20 miles away. He and the mascot were the only two Indians.

5. Alexie was raised Catholic.

6. He went to Gonzaga University on scholarship, drank heavily, dropped out, and earned a B.A. in American Studies from Washington State. Now 39, he's been sober 16 years.

7. The Business of Fancydancing, an 84-page collection of poems and stories published by Hanging Loose Press in 1991, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, launching Alexie towards literary stardom at 26.

8. He is a board member of 826 Seattle, one of several free tutoring and creative writing centers for kids, a national program started by another literary wunderkind and iconoclast, Dave Eggers.

9. Basketball was a big part of reservation life. It figures in a number of stories by Alexie, who is 6'2" and was captain of his high school team.

10. Smoke Signals was a well-reviewed film based on "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" from Alexie's collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. He wrote the screenplay, co-wrote five songs, and helped with costumes and editing. Miffed when people asked him how much he was involved, Alexie directed his next movie himself (The Business of Fancydancing, 2002).

11. The College of Charleston President's Office is sponsoring Alexie's lecture, which is entitled: "Without Reservations: An Urban Indian's Comic and Poetic View of the World." Crazyhorse, the literary magazine published by the College's creative writing department, was not involved, although its editors are thrilled.

12. Alexie also does stand-up comedy and was a four-time winner in the now-defunct World Heavyweight Poetry Bout, a 10-round, head-to-head competition, with the last round extemporaneous.

13. The traditional religion and dancing of the Spokane Indians revolved around the salmon. Their fisheries and culture were devastated by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.

"Where you from?" she asked.

"Wellpinit," he said. "I'm a Spokane."

"I should've known. You got those fisherman's hands."

"Ain't no salmon left in our river. Just a school bus and a few hundred basketballs."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Our basketball team drives into the river and drowns every year," he said. "It's tradition."

She laughed. "You're just a storyteller, ain't you?"

"I'm just telling you things before they happen," he said. "The same things sons and daughters will tell your mothers and fathers."

— From "Crazy Horse Dreams"


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