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The Art of Offending Your Audience:
An Evening with Sherman Alexie
by Lisa DeVries

He has a nervous habit of placing his hand upon his forehead when he is onstage, shielding his face from the audience as if he faces momentary bouts of embarrassment. But with the removal of his hand, his mischievous smile reappears, and he returns to his unique form of storytelling, weaving personal narrative with social commentary.

AlexieDeVriesMarfieldDouglas Thiele, Professor of English, introduced Sherman Alexie at the Tidewater Community College's Sixth Annual Literary Festival, half-jokingly, as a writer who "is always on the edge of offending somebody."  And Alexie has a way of making offensive remarks, but it is in such a way that even if you're the butt of the joke, whether by political party affiliation, your stance on the Iraq War, or big business behaving badly, he leaves you laughing:  "Like gay marriage, for instance.  I wish someone would ask me about that.  Gay marriage does not threaten my marriage.  Beautiful, easy women with no boundaries threaten my marriage.  I don't need anyone else's help."

The theme this year was a commemoration of the 400th Anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, and Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian author, was the keynote speaker.  He laments, however, that he is never asked to speak on social issues like the Iraq War, gay marriage, 9/11, but instead is constantly bombarded with "the Indian Question" though he rarely writes about First Contact.  Concerning Jamestown and his own white heritage, Alexie asserts, "How can I call it the Great Evil?  I'm Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, German, and British.  I wouldn't be here otherwise."

AlexiebookAlexie asks, "How do you become this?" and determines that his liberation from reservation life and its effects were through his writing.  He does comment on other Indian writers, however: "We love to only talk about the pain.  But we're not victims.  We're perfectly capable of screwing up ourselves."  He certainly seems to hold the view of his fictional character Seymour Polatkin from The Business of Fancydancing, that every Indian is capable of abandoning an institution (the "rez")  that remains within the colonial tradition of genocide, biological warfare, forced sterilization, and, of course, the concentration camps.  After identifying other Indians in the audience by their laugh, Alexie warns, "They are trying to kill us … I hate the rez. Get out of there as soon as you can."

Alexie openly discusses his journey from the hell of being raised on a reservation, what he also calls "a concentration camp where we were sent to die," through his struggle with alcoholism, to his eventual fame as a writer.  From his first book of poems and short stories, The Business of Fancydancing (1992) to his most recent novel Flight (2007), Alexie constantly challenges the reader to reconstruct concepts of the modern Indian and 'Indianess.'  In his poem "Indian Boy Love Song (#2)," he mourns the loss of his culture through envisaging the community of elders as keepers of tribal memory.

I never spoke
the language
of the old women

visiting my mother
in winters so cold
they could freeze
the tongue whole.

I never held my head
to their thin chests
believing in the heart.

Indian women, forgive me.
I grew up distant
and always afraid.

The Business of Fancydancing was eventually made into a film in 2002, as was his second book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in 1998 in the film Smoke Signals.  Even though his writing has brought him much success in the literary world as well as in the film industry, Alexie jokes, "In the literary world, I'm Fidel Castro, but in Hollywood I'm more like the senator from Wyoming."


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