by Lou Mancinelli
National best-selling author and recipient of the 2010 PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction Sherman Alexie captivated a crowd of more than 50 at the Chestnut Hill Library Thursday morning, March 17.*
Alexie’s “War Dances” (Grove Press, NY, 2009) and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” (Hachette Book Group, NY, 2007) were chosen as this year’s books for the One Philadelphia, One Book initiative aimed at promoting libraries, literacy and community discussion with a single book. A scheduling rearrangement provided the opportunity for the library to host the author.
After an audience member tried to take video of Alexie, a library staffer asked that no one take video.
Alexie addressed the issue right away.
“Why would you put a camera between you and me?” said Alexie at the beginning of his talk referring to internet clips and audience members who immediately pull out cell phones and begin taking photos. “It’s somewhat colonial… This culture is trying to destroy art.”
“It’s this moment, and it won’t happen again,” he added.
Ironically, Alexie began with a story about how technology saved his life as a an infant.
Maybe it was fate, or a series of random incidents, Alexie told the crowd, that enabled him to survive as a young child after a brain surgery at six-months-old to mediate his hydrocephalus — water on the brain. Doctors did not expect the boy, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State, to survive. He did, but as a result suffered seizures and insomnia as a youth, an insomnia he still battles.
He told the crowd a story about how when, as a young boy with a large lump on his head, he was pushed on a swing by his cousin. He was too young to know to hold on with both hands, and there was no back support. When his cousin pushed the swing, something maybe instinctual, or an ancient impulse, Alexie said, caused him to hold on to one of the swing’s chains and he swung off in a kind of circle, like a spindle, which made his fall to the wood chip pile less abrasive.
When Alexie was brought to the hospital, doctors noticed a swelling on his head that needed to be removed. His mother had been told numerous times by government reservation doctors the swelling was not a problem. The doctor’s reluctance to provide proper medical care to people living on the reservation was a widespread form of oppression, Alexie said.
Alexie talked about struggles students experienced on the reservation. One day, a teacher got mad and walked around the school cutting off kids’ braids. Another would make students stand in the form of a T, and hold a stack of books in both arms. Alexie himself once had ten teeth pulled in one day without the numbing effect of Novocain.
Alexie grew up sick, and poor “on government foods.” His family got plumbing, a status symbol on the reservation, when he was six. In the fourth and fifth grade, he was doing high school work.
As a teenager at a high school on his reservation, Alexie saw his mother’s maiden name printed in a text book, and realized he had to leave the reservation for the chance at a better education and an opportunity to improve his condition.
“The 22 miles to that school was my Atlantic Ocean,” Alexie said. “That school was my Ellis Island… I was a first-generation immigrant.”
When he told his parents he had to leave, they said okay.
Alexie went on to attend Gonzaga University and Washington State University (WSU). After graduating from WSU, he was awarded the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992. His first collection of short stories, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993. For this story collection he received a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction, and was awarded a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award.
“My career is based on proving the country wrong about who I’m supposed to be,” he said.
It seems plausible for some to think of Alexie as the voice of the American Indian nation, the voice of the fallen indigenous, but the portrait of an artist as that of voice of a generation tends to be shunned by artists (see: Bob Dylan).
That, and his work goes beyond the oppression of the American Indian and begins to stand as a war dance of sorts for the liberation of oneself.
“Why do poets think / They can change the world? / The only life I can save/ Is my own,” writes Alexie in “War Dances.” The image of the poem is based on the poet’s reaction to a man who just tried to swerve his car into a dog.
Alexie told the crowd he felt disrespected and uncomfortable, towards the end of the event that was infused with distractions.
“This has never happened before,” he said. “I expect it from children, but from adults… in a library…”
Those distractions included a truck driver who walked into the room and in a loud voice, excused himself and asked if anyone driving a Subaru or Honda was blocking him in. There were more than three cell phone rings, the same one twice. Alexie’s skill as a public speaker and interpreter seemed to enable him to translate the moments into humor.
Despite the distractions, Alexie maintained his poignant prose.
After the talk, one member of the audience said she agreed with Alexie on the presence of cameras in the library.
“I’m in favor of his perspective on cameras and cell phones,” said Lorraine Linder, an audience member who lived in Chestnut Hill for 30 years before recently moving to Jenkintown. “I think it keeps us from knowing each other in ways that matter. Three generations of my family follow him. Myself, my kids, and my grandchildren.”
Sherman Alexie is the author of numerous novels, poetry books and short-stories. For information, visit fallsapart.com.
* An original version of this story online stated that numerous people pulled out their cellphones to take pictures. That was an editing mistake. Only one person tried to take video of Alexie, resulting in Alexie’s comments.