A group of Linfield students were invited to be in the audience of a live radio show featuring author Sherman Alexie on Oct. 24 in Portland. The show was held in the Literary Arts Space in downtown Portland so the audience could be involved and ask questions.
Alexie’s literary works include a dozen books of poetry, four novels, four short story collections and two screenplays. He is often described as the greatest explorer and exploder of Native American stereotypes.
He began the program discussing what it means to be a “real” Indian and what kind of implications that stigma has.
“I was the first person in the family to leave the reservation,” Alexie said, addressing what he calls a necessary betrayal.
“I had to leave to survive. The alternative would’ve been substance abuse and emotional suffering.”
The only way to survive on a reservation is to be traditional, he said, embracing the roots of the tribe and practicing old ways. “I’m not sure I would’ve been that guy,” he said.
Alexie said Indians are obsessed with authenticity. People’s ideas often drift in and out of what authenticity actually is.
“It makes you question what you are and aren’t,” Alexie said.
Stereotypes dictate that Indians are supposed to love nature, but Alexie is “so allergic to the outdoors.”
Indians are often regarded as highly spiritual people. However, Alexie describes himself as somewhat of an Atheist.
He said Indians are either judged harshly or praised intensely for whatever they do. There is often no escaping these kinds of stereotypes.
“I was born for the city. Born to hear helicopters and wander the street with 10,000 strangers,” Alexie said. “The reservation is a white creation, a rural concentration camp.”
He added that most Indian writers don’t live on a reservation.
An audience member asked Alexie what advice he had for writers. He emphasized the importance of reading. Growing up, his father shared all of his books with him. The first literary novel he read, “The Basketball Diaries,” opened his mind to more kinds of books. His grandmother frequently brought him books from garage sales.
“My grandma was always bringing me those romance novels. I thought they were awesome,” he said. “Back then, I thought every book was real. It seemed like a dream world that existed outside of the reservation.” He soon discovered that everybody’s life is valuable enough to write about.
“I loved poetry books, short stories and novels, but I never felt connected to them. It was through reading work by Indians that I realized I could be in there too,” he said.
One particular line by a Paiute Indian poet, Adrian Louis, summed it all up for him.
“‘I’m in the reservation of my mind.’ One could argue I’ve just been writing that line over and over again,” he said.
Alexie was recently named the 2013 Everybody Reads author for Multnomah County Library. To him, this means a chance to reach out to young readers.
“Young, poor, brown males need to be reading the most. ‘It’s the only book I’ve ever finished.’ I hear that all the time,” Alexie said. “The only things that are going to save you are books because it transports you outside your circumstances. You fall in love with the outside and dream about going there. Reading is like a passport.”
Some audience members were Native American, and Alexie picked them out immediately. He made jokes with them and called it identity sharing.
“‘You’re an Indian, aren’t you?’ It’s a tribal identification thing. It’s like the most exclusive club in the world. It’s a connection. Most Indians spend all their time being the only Indian in the room,” he said.
He gave his advice for writing about Indians.
“Quit making us so dang smart. Quit idealizing. We’re portrayed as these incredibly wise, gentle Indians, almost like superheroes. Make them interesting,” Alexie said.
According to Alexie, there are two kinds of writers. There are those who love their writing and those who hate it. Alexie is among those who are never happy with their work.
“I want to abuse my writing about 32 seconds after I write it. Nothing is ever as good as I want it to be, or fits into what I imagined. I’m a self-loathing kind of writer,” he said. “It keeps me motivated, never being comfortable.”
After counting on his fingers, he proclaimed that he only loves four of the short stories in his most recent collection.
“Everything else needs to get punched,” Alexie said.
Miller and Alexie laugh with the audience during “Think Out Loud” on Oct. 24. Alexie joked that he was, “broadcasting to 180,000 vegans right now.”
Kelsey Sutton/Managing editor