say your piece
155 30 OCTOBER 2003
Authentic American
Sherman Alexie Speaks at the Downtown Library
By Rachael Sawyer

gave my little brother a copy of Sherman Alexie’s collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian In The World, for his 14th birthday and bought another copy for myself. A week after my brother had called to thank me enthusiastically for the book and inform me that Alexie, who is speaking Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the downtown Salt Lake City Public Library, had made his list of heroes (a list he carries around with him everywhere, comprised of such notables as Jimi Hendrix, Andy Kaufman, the creators of “Jackass” and Shakespeare), I finally found the time to indulge in Alexie’s always-striking prose.

The striking prose of “Assimilation,” the first story in this collection, described adulterous, biracial, lesbian sex. I thought of my impressionable little brother and began to re-evaluate his enthusiastic gratitude for his first taste of Alexie’s writings.

As I read on, Alexie’s beautifully wrought accounts of fluid, polymorphous, ultimately and supremely redemptive sexuality brought tears to my eyes. I thought of my brother, facing the brutality of teenage years, the showy homophobia, the forced machismo and thought, “This is so good for him.”

My next thought was, “Dad would kill me.”

My brother and I frequently talk about literature, and the conversations veer toward Alexie over and over again. “There’s just something about the way he says things…,” my brother remarks, trailing off in a way that indicates he shares my intoxication with one of America’s most innovative literary voices.

My brother pauses. “Is he…gay?” I can tell that in this question rides the confusion of a thousand images of the fierce American Indian warrior shattering from the blast of the realization that there may be homosexuals among them.

“I think he might tell you that sexuality is more complex than being ‘straight’ or ‘gay,’” I tell him, and his face tells me that the word “fag” is looming large and heavy in his mind, but he shrugs it off. This is so good for him.

The “toughest Indian in the world” may not turn out to be what you had in mind before you read Alexie. And that’s the point.

I was first treated to Sherman Alexie through the film “Smoke Signals,” which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award in 1998. Alexie wrote the screenplay based on his collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. It thrust him into literary notoriety.

Alexie’s voice, originating in the experience of growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation, is that of the American Indian storyteller, drawing on ancient oral traditions. But his characters move around in our world, the world of corporate luncheons and political in/correctness and fast-food drive-thrus.

The combination is a breed of magical realism recalling that of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Jeanette Winterson, but thoroughly American. It cuts to the heart of our national shame that has yet to be recognized as such. And it does all this with a humor so rich and natural that you remember whole paragraphs of Alexie’s prose vividly after only reading them once.

Tickets are free to the event which is part of the 2003 Dewey Lecture Series. But unfortunately, auditorium seats have been sold out. You can still come and hopefully watch the video feed—it will be well worth it. After all, what’s good for my little brother is good for you.

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