Literature for Life: Sherman Alexie highlights Indian struggles with humor
Author Sherman Alexie has discovered the best way to forward political discussion is through art and humor. The author has published numerous works describing the hardships of growing up on a Native American reservation, using humor and storytelling to describe serious topics. This month we will look at authors who use writing and storytelling to tell important stories about their cultures. For these stories, read on:
Sherman Alexie: Sherman Alexie is a writer who uses art and humor to bring attention to societal issues. Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington with Spokane, Couer d’Alene, and American heritage. He is best known for his poetry and short stories that use humor to highlight serious themes about contemporary struggles of Indians living on reservations. Over the course of his career, he has published three novels, nine poetry books, and two collections of short stories. In addition to his heritage, he tackles alcoholism, poverty, and racism, all struggles he has faced during his life.
Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that gives the victim an abnormally large amount of fluid in the cranium. He had to undergo brain surgery when he was six months old, with doctors not optimistic about his chances of survival. He not only survived, but thrived, learning to read by the age of two. He immersed himself in his studies as a kid, because the rest of his life was “miserable.” The hydrocephalus had left him with an enlarged head, earning him the nickname “the Globe” from other children.
He chose to attend high school thirty miles away from the reservation so that he could further his educational opportunities. He flourished in high school, becoming the star of the basketball team and graduating with a scholarship to Gonzaga University in Spokane in 1985. Alexie said he felt like a second class citizen next to all the white students there, and began drinking heavily. Alcoholism ran in his family, with his father frequently drinking and disappearing for days at a time when he was young. He dropped out of college in 1987.
A few years later, he reenrolled in college at Washington State University, where he took a poetry class on a whim. His professor, Alex Kuo, is an accomplished poet who taught poetry all over the world. The poetry class changed Alexie’s life, awakening his passion for writing and poetry. After turning in a poem about life on the reservation, Kuo told Alexie that he should become a writer. Just one year after graduating, Alexie had published his first two poetry books: I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancydancing.
When giving readings for his books, Alexie liked to get creative. He delivered an impromptu stand up performance at a reading for Fancydancing, where he dressed up as a character looking for the “In-jun poet.” He recited his work from memory, something he still does at readings to this day.
Alexie went on to have a fulfilling career in writing, which still continues to this day. He released three novels, including Indian Killer, a mystery novel about a serial killer who scalps white men and the racial tension he creates. Alexie says he wrote it in response to the rising trend of non-native white people writing books about Indians.
He was also able to adapt his book Smoke Signals into a film, serving as the screenwriter. The film served as America’s first Indian-acted, written and directed feature film. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, where it won the Grand Jury Prize as the festival’s most popular film, and director Chris Eyre won the Filmmaker’s Trophy. It went on to fill a large trophy case with awards, honors and nominations.
Alexie released his most recent novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, in 2007. He currently lives in Washington with his wife and family. Beating a unique career path for himself, Alexie has dedicated his career to inspiring Indians like himself to create their own art.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: Much like Alexie, Khaled Hosseini has used writing to tell stories and educate about his culture. Hosseini burst onto the writing scene in 2003 with his debut novel The Kite Runner. The novel tells the story of two young boys growing up in Afghanistan; one is from an upper class family, and the other is his father’s servant. They are inseparable as children, but a traumatizing childhood incident divides the two of them for life.
Hosseini’s beautiful descriptions are at stark contrast with the dark societal themes he tackles during the novel. The story wouldn’t be powerful without the emotional resonance he instills in his characters. The friendship between the two boys is a relationship we truly sympathize with and relate to. This empathy allows Hosseini to demonstrate just how powerful an influence class has in modern day Afghanistan. His two follow up novels, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed, also highlight different societal issues in Afghanistan. Hosseini is a gifted writer, and like Alexie, he is using his talents to tell stories about his culture.
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: No one revises history quite like Álvaro Enrigue. In his most recent novel, Enrigue tosses historical figures and events up into the air at random and sees where they land. For instance, have you ever wondered what Anne Boleyn’s assassination has in common to the final Aztec empires, or battles between poets and artists in Rome, besides taking place in the 1500s? Of course you haven’t, because Enrigue is here to do that for you. He comically blends liberally recounted historical events with a modern style to create an entertaining and heartwarming novel.
Historical events all come to a head in a fictional modern day tennis match, which delightfully deconstructs truth in exchange for experimentation. To call this collection of pages a novel would be a stretch. The story often meanders, swaying to obey whatever Enrigue happened to think of at the keyboard that day. Despite his complete disregard for truth, he still manages to highlight the importance of Latinx influence throughout history. You’ll laugh while learning. Whether what you’re “learning” is true or not is beside the point.