The author Sherman Alexie, who writes of his life as a Spokane Indian, spoke at Western Connecticut State University recently, bringing his edgy, self-observant, funny and profane stories about being an Indian, the act of writing, and various absurdities of life.
If you only read spy novels, you haven’t heard of this guy. But he is a prolific novelist and poet, and he is hot-famous with, he says, especially ardent fans among literate women. His work includes “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “War Dances” and the screenplay for “Smoke Signals.”
Alexie describes himself as “a big, ugly, vaguely ethnic guy,” and he says his fame, especially after a dirt-poor childhood, sometimes leaves him puzzled:
“It’s pretty sad that people want to sleep with me because I’m good with metaphors.”
In addition to a lecture in Ives Concert Hall, Alexie met with students in small groups to talk mostly about writing and about Indian life.
He explained his dissonant position on story-telling, an Indian essence that he grew up with.
On the one hand he spoke with gratitude about learning how to tell stories:
“The most ancient and valuable thing I was taught was the power of stories.”
But he practically spits when he speaks of the elders who repeat 1,000-year-old tales over and over to younger generations.
“I write contemporary stories about contemporary problems,” Alexie said. “A story is created in its time to help with its time. It’s an ancient job — the impulse is ancient but the story should be contemporary. It’s the same with any form of medicine. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without antibiotics. In much the same way, a doctor from the 1700s, by contemporary standards, would be utterly incompetent today.”
He talks about the Internet as if he hopes it will go away:
“The Internet is a bunch of white guys telling me what I should be interested in. That historically has been a problem. It worked out well for the white guys, but not for the others.”
Yet he is experimenting with poems that include hyperlinks as essential elements, the first of which will appear on his website, which is being redesigned next month.
“Your job as writers is to use technology to make it inherent in the art,” he told students. “It has to happen. E-books, digitizing literature, is not using the technology in new ways.”
He said he will continue to experiment.
“I’m sure in 10 to 20 poems, I’ll write something great accidentally,” he said, and paused. “I wonder how long it will take to write something purposefully.”
During his lecture it was immediately clear that he uses words with exact purpose. By his second sentence he said the F-word, which I noticed caused the backs of several professors to tighten. Most of our lecturers don’t swear on stage.
When I asked him about it the next day, Alexie leaned forward and spoke emphatically.
“The power people give me because I cuss! You give up your own power to me! I’m stealing something from people who deserve to have something stolen from them. By the way, the same people who hate cursing don’t believe in global warming. They think f ***’s going to destroy the world! But polar bears being unable to f *** is OK.” (Hearst Communications, which administers this blog, doesn’t allow spelled-out cussing.)
His writing, Alexie said, is about belonging, the tale of those who are excluded and the path some of them take to become part of American society.
He described how his father drove him to a wealthy and white middle school in which Alexie had enrolled after being kicked out of the reservation school. He climbed out of the run-down van and walked toward a cluster of students.
“When I walked across the street that was my Atlantic Ocean,” Alexie said, “and that school was my Ellis Island. I am an immigrant, and I am also indigenous.
“I am the essential American experiment, the thing that defines us as American.”
Alexie’s performance — full of physical humor, pauses and facial expression — doesn’t translate as well into a written recitation as it does on video. But his observances and one-liners are in turn poignant and hilarious. Here are some of them:
Native American life is bipolar. To be colonized is to be bipolar. It’s a group mental illness. We celebrate our own sadness.
Poor, sick, invisible. That was the essential state. Condescended to and ignored.
You get so accustomed to your pain and sadness that you get addicted to it. You create ceremonies to remember your pain.
It’s easier talking about being an Indian than talking about being a writer. Being a writer makes me more separate, especially being a poet. That’s why I still write poetry.
When you travel through the world physically, you have experiences you can’t have on the Internet. The reason we evolved was because of socialization. With the Internet, we’re evolving sideways.
Nobody has risen out of the Internet to be a great writer. It hasn’t happened. The Web is vanity publishing, and it’s celebrating the absence of editors. It takes narcissism to the extreme to imagine that every one of your utterances should be published unedited.
I spend a lot of time trying to write, and then it arrives.
Artists are outcasts, no matter where you come from.
I’m a narcissist. All artists are narcissists. The better you are, the more narcissistic you are.
If you are a literary artist, 70 percent of your readers are white women. They are the most willing to fight for other people. Every civil rights cause succeeded because of white women.
Art is androgynous. The entire concept of creating something is man and woman. Creating art takes the male and female.
To me, 9/11 was the end game of tribalism. That’s where tribalism leads, to people thinking my tribe has the right to kill you.
We call ourselves Indians. As soon as you hear someone with an Indian name say Native American at a Native American gathering, you can be sure they are not Native American. They’re living by the Chicago Style Manual.
Canadian Indians are the worst. They call themselves the “First People.” Oh, shut up! Number One, you’re just Canadian.
I believe in interpreting coincidences exactly the way I want to. I told you, I’m Catholic.
Indian casinos are preserving the worst part of white culture for you. There was a time for Foreigner, and now there is a time for no Foreigner. White people should thank us.
I am a liberal feminist, so I objectify women out of the corner of my eye.
Follow Western Connecticut State University at www.wcsu.edu