Alexie at the Texas Book Festival in 2008
|Born||Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr.
October 7, 1966
Wellpinit, Washington, USA
|Occupation||Poet, author, screenwriter, filmmaker|
|Genre||Native American literature, humor, documentary fiction|
|Literary movement||Indigenous Nationalism|
|Notable works||• The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
• Smoke Signals (film)
• Reservation Blues
• The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
• War Dances
Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. (born October 7, 1966) is a poet, writer, and filmmaker. Much of his writing draws on his experiences as a Native American with ancestry of several tribes, growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington.
His first novel, Reservation Blues, received one of the fifteen 1996 American Book Awards. His first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), is a semi-autobiographical novel that won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People's Literature and the Odyssey Award as best 2008 audiobook for young people (read by Alexie). His 2009 collection of short stories and poems, War Dances, won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Sherman Alexie was born on October 7, 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where he spent his childhood. His father, Sherman Joseph Alexie, was a member of the Coeur d'Alene tribe and his mother, Lillian Agnes Cox, of Colville, Flathead, Spokane and Euroamerican heritage. One of his paternal great-grandfathers was of Russian descent. Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that occurs when there is an abnormally large amount of cerebral fluid in the cranial cavity, and had to have brain surgery when he was only six months old. He was not expected to survive, or, if he did so, was expected to suffer mental disabilities. However, Alexie's surgery was successful and he survived with no damage to his mental faculties.
Alexie has described his life at the reservation school as challenging because he was constantly teased by other kids. He was nicknamed "The Globe" because his head was larger than usual due to the hydrocephalus as an infant. Until the age of seven, Alexie suffered from seizures and bedwetting and had to take strong drugs to control them. Because of his health problems, he was excluded from many of the activities that are rites of passage for young Indian males. Alexie excelled academically, reading everything available to him, including auto repair manuals.
In order to better his education, Alexie decided to leave the reservation and attend high school in Reardan, Washington. The school was thirty miles off the reservation and Alexie was the only Indian student. He excelled at his studies and also became a star player on the basketball team, the Reardan High Indians. He was elected as class president and participated as a member of the debate team.
His successes in high school won him a scholarship in 1985 to Gonzaga University, a Roman Catholic school in Spokane. Originally Alexie enrolled in the pre-med program at Gonzaga with hopes of becoming a doctor, but found he was squeamish during dissection in his anatomy classes. After an unsuccessful try at medicine, Alexie switched to law, but that didn’t work out either. He felt enormous pressure to succeed in college and he began drinking heavily to cope with his anxiety. Though he was not happy with his choice of career path, Alexie found comfort in literature classes. In 1987 he dropped out of Gonzaga and enrolled at Washington State University (WSU).
There he enrolled in a creative writing course taught by Alex Kuo, a respected poet of Chinese-American background. Alexie was at a low point in his life and Kuo served as a mentor to him. Kuo gave Alexie an anthology entitled, Songs of This Earth on Turtle’s Back, by Joseph Bruchac, which is a book that changed his life; he said that it taught him "how to connect to non-Native literature in a new way." He was inspired by reading works of poetry written by Native Americans.
With his new appreciation of poetry, Alexie started work on his first collection, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, which was published in 1992 through Hanging Loose Press. With the success of his first book of poetry, Alexie stopped drinking and quit school just three credits short of a degree. In 1995 he was awarded a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University.
In 2005, Alexie became a founding Board Member of Longhouse Media, a non-profit organization that is committed to teaching filmmaking skills to Native American youth, and to using media for cultural expression and social change. Alexie has long supported youth programs and initiatives dedicated to supporting at-risk Native youth.
Alexie's stories have been included in several short story anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories 2004, edited by Lorrie Moore; and Pushcart Prize XXIX of the Small Presses. Additionally, a number of his pieces have been published in various literary magazines and journals, as well as online publications.
Alexie’s poetry, short stories and novels explore themes of despair, poverty, violence and alcoholism among the lives of Native American people, both on and off the reservation, but lightened by wit and humor. According to Sarah A. Quirk from the Dictionary of Library Biography, Alexie asks three questions across all of his works: "What does it mean to live as an Indian in this time? What does it mean to be an Indian man? Finally, what does it mean to live on an Indian reservation?" The protagonists in most of his literary works exhibit a constant struggle with themselves and their own sense of powerlessness in white American society.
Alexie’s writings are meant to evoke sadness, but at the same time he uses humor and pop culture that leaves the readers with a sense of respect, understanding, and compassion. Alexie’s influences for his literary works do not rely solely on traditional Indian forms. He “blends elements of popular culture, Indian spirituality, and the drudgery of poverty-ridden reservation life to create his characters and the world they inhabit,” according to Quirk. Alexie's work is laced with often startling humor. According to Quirk, he does this as a
"means of cultural survival for American Indians-survival in the face of the larger American culture's stereotypes of American Indians and their concomitant distillation of individual tribal characteristics into one pan-Indian consciousness."
Within a year of graduating from college, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. His career began with the publishing of his first two collections of poetry in 1992, entitled, I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancydancing. In these poems, Alexie uses humor to express the struggles of contemporary Indians on reservations. Common themes include: alcoholism, poverty and racism. Although he uses humor to express his feelings, the underlying message is very somber and serious.
The Business of Fancydancing was well received, selling over 10,000 copies. Alexie refers to his writing as “fancydancing,” a flashy, colorful style of competitive Pow wow dancing. Whereas older, traditional forms of Indian dance may be ceremonial and kept private among tribal members, the fancydance style was created by Native American veterans from World War II as a form of public entertainment. Alexie compares the mental, emotional, and spiritual outlet that he finds in his writings to the vivid self-expression of the dancers. Leslie Ullman commented on The Business of Fancydancing in the Kenyon Review, writing that Alexie
“weaves a curiously soft-blended tapestry of humor, humility, pride and metaphysical provocation out of the hard realities...: the tin-shack lives, the alcohol dreams, the bad luck and burlesque disasters, and the self-destructive courage of his characters.”
Alexie’s other collections of poetry include:
- Old Shirts and New Skins (1993)
- First Indian on the Moon (1993)
- Seven Mourning Songs For the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play (1994)
- Water Flowing Home (1996)
- The Summer of Black Widows (1996)
- The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998)
- One Stick Song (2000)
- Face (2009), Hanging Loose Press (April 15, 2009) hardcover, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1-931236-71-3 
Alexie published his first prose work, entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in 1993. The book consists of a series of short stories that are interconnected. Several prominent characters are explored, and they have been featured in later works by Alexie. According to Sarah A. Quirk, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven can be considered a bildungsroman with dual protagonists, “Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, moving from relative innocence to a mature level on experience.”
Ten Little Indians is a collection of “nine extraordinary short stories set in and around the Seattle area, featuring Spokane Indians from all walks of urban life,” according to Christine C. Menefee of the School Library Journal. In this collection, Alexie “challenges stereotypes that whites have of Native Americans and at the same time shows the Native American characters coming to terms with their own identities.”
Other short stories by Alexie include:
- The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) (collection of short stories)
- "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" (2003), published in The New Yorker
- Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (2012)
- "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star−Spangled Banner' at Woodstock"
In his first novel, Reservation Blues (1995), Alexie revisits some of the characters from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, and Junior Polatkin, who have grown up together on the Spokane Indian reservation, were teenagers in the short story collection. In Reservation Blues they are now adult men in their thirties. Some of them are now musicians and in a band together. Verlyn Klinkenborg of the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 1995 review of Reservation Blues: "you can feel Alexie's purposely divided attention, his alertness to a divided audience, Native American and Anglo." Klinkenborg says that Alexie is "willing to risk didacticism whenever he stops to explain the particulars of the Spokane and, more broadly, the Native American experience to his readers."
Indian Killer (1996) is a murder mystery set among Native American adults in contemporary Seattle, where the characters struggle with urban life, mental health, and the knowledge there is a serial killer on the loose. Characters deal with the racism in the University system, as well as in the community at large, where Indians are subjected to being lectured about their own culture by white professors who are actually ignorant about Indian cultures.
Alexie's young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) is a coming-of-age story that began as a memoir of his life and family on the Spokane Indian reservation. The novel focuses on a fourteen-year-old Indian named Arnold Spirit. The novel is semi-autobiographical, including many events and elements of Alexie's life. For example, Arnold was born with hydrocephalus, and was teased a lot as a child. The story also portrays events after Arnold's transfer to Reardan High School, which Alexie had attended. Despite being misrepresented and attacked by right-wing activists bent on censorship, the novel received great reviews and continues to be a top seller. Bruce Barcott from the New York Times Book Review observed, "Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home."
In 1998 Alexie broke barriers by creating the first all-Indian movie, Smoke Signals. Alexie based the screenplay on his short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and characters and events from a number of Alexie's works make appearances in the film. Smoke Signals was directed by Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho Indian filmmaker, and the entire production team and cast is Native American. The film tells the story of two young Indians, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds the Fire (Evan Adams), who leave the reservation on a road trip to retrieve the body of Victor’s dead father (Gary Farmer). During their journey the characters' childhood is explored via flashbacks. The film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. It received an 86% and "fresh" rating from the online film database Rotten Tomatoes.
The Business of Fancydancing, written and directed by Alexie in 2002, explores themes of Indian identity, cultural involvement vs blood quantum, living on the reservation or off it, and other issues around makes someone a "real Indian." The title refers to the protagonist's choice to leave the reservation and make his living performing for predominantly-white audiences. Evan Adams, who plays Thomas Builds the Fire in "Smoke Signals", again stars, now as an urban gay man with a white partner. The death of a peer brings the protagonist home to the reservation, where he reunites with his friends from his childhood and youth. The film is unique in that Alexie hired an almost completely female crew to produce the film. Many of the actors improvised their dialogue, based on real events in their lives.
Other film projects include:
- 49? (writer, 2003)
- The Exiles (presenter, 2008)
- Sonicsgate (participant, 2009)
Awards and honors
- National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship
- PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction for the story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
- Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award
- American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation) for Reservation Blues
- Granta Magazine: Twenty Best American Novelists Under the Age of 40
- New York Times Notable Book for Indian Killer
- People Magazine: Best of Pages
- The New Yorker: 20 Writers for the 21st Century
- National Book Award, Young People's Literature, for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- American Library Association Odyssey Award as the year's "best audiobook for children or young adults", read by Alexie (Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC, 2008, ISBN 1-4361-2490-5)
- PEN/Faulkner Award for War Dances
- Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award
- Puterbaugh Award ", the first American Puterbaugh fellow
- California Young Reader Medal for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- List of writers from peoples indigenous to the Americas
- Native American Renaissance
- Native American studies
- Eric Konigsberg, "In His Own Literary World, a Native Son Without Borders", The New York Times, October 20, 2009.
- American Booksellers Association (2013). "The American Book Awards / Before Columbus Foundation [1980–2012]". BookWeb. Archived from the original on March 13, 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-25. "1996 [...] Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie"
- "National Book Awards – 2007". National Book Foundation (NBF). Retrieved 2012-04-15.
(With acceptance speech by Alexie, interview with Alexie, and other material, partly replicated for all five Young People's Literature authors and books.)
- "Odyssey Award winners and honor audiobooks, 2008-present". ALSC. ALA. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
- "Sherman Alexie wins 2010 Pen/Faulkner fiction prize for War Dances". Jacqueline Trescott. The Washington Post, March 24, 2010. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
- Johansen, Bruce E. (2010). Native Americans today : a biographical dictionary. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Press. pp. 7–10. ISBN 978-0-313-35554-7.
- Quirk, Sarah A. (2003). "Sherman Alexie (7 October 1966-)". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Seventh 278: 3–10. Retrieved 2012-04-07.
- Alexie, Sherman (May 28, 2012). "Twitter: Sherman_Alexie : Elizabeth Warren is as close to her Indian ancestors as I am to my 19th Century Russian furtrapping great-grandfather.". Twitter.com. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
- Cline, Lynn (2000). "About Sherman Alexie". Ploughshares 26 (4): 197. Retrieved 2012-04-05.
- "Sherman Alexie". Authors and Artists for Young Adults 28. 1999. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
- "Sherman Alexie". Encyclopedia of World Biography. 1998. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
- "Sherman Alexie". Authors and Artists for Young Adults 85. 2011. Retrieved 2012-04-05.
- "A Conversation With Sherman Alexie". Blue Mesa Review. Blue Mesa Review. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
- Official Sherman Alexie website
- "About Us: What is Longhouse Media?". Longhouse Media.
- Ettlinger, Marian. "Sherman Alexie". Salem Press. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
- "The Toughest Indian in the World (review)". Retrieved 2011-09-20.
- "Without Reservation: Blasphemy (review)". Retrieved 2012-11-25.
- "Smoke Signals". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
- "Winners". California Young Reader Medal. Retrieved 2011-05-08.
- Other sources
- Alexie, Sherman; Bill Clinton and Jim Lehrer. "A Dialogue on Race with President Clinton". News Hour. July 9, 1998.
- Nygren, Åse. "A World of Story-Smoke: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie." MELUS 30.4 (Winter 2005): 149-69.
- West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. ""Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie". Cineaste 23.4 (Fall 1998): 29-33.[dead link]
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Sherman Alexie|
- Official website
- Sherman Alexie at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Sherman Alexie at the Internet Movie Database
- Voice of the New Tribes article by Duncan Campbell in "The Guardian" January 3, 2003
- Sherman Alexie's poem "Punch" in Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts (24.1).
- Berglund, Jeff and Jan Roush, eds. Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays, (2010) ISBN 978-1-60781-008-7.
- Sherman Alexie at Library of Congress Authorities, with 26 catalog records
- "Sherman Alexie" by Robert Capriccioso, Identity Theory, published March 23, 2003
- "Sherman Alexie" by Joelle Fraser, Iowa Review, copyright 2001
- "Northwest Passages: Sherman Alexie" by Emily Harris, Think Out Loud, Oregon Public Broadcasting, broadcast October 8, 2009
- "Interview With Sherman Alexie" as 2007 National Book Award winner, by Rita Williams-Garcia
- "No More Playing Dead for American Indian Filmmaker Sherman Alexie" by Rita Kempley, The Washington Post, July 3, 1998
- "Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Cultural Borders" by Bill Moyers, broadcast April 12, 2013 — with "Dig Deeper" on Alexie's life, work, and influence