Author Sherman Alexie gets to the root of writing during Pittsburgh appearances
In 2010, legislation in Arizona banning ethnic studies in schools also included a list of prohibited books. Among the titles were “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau and Sherman Alexie's “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”
While dismissing the efficacy of any ban — “If you want a kid to read something, ban it, put it out of their reach,” Alexie says — he's also quick to add that there is a benefit for writers who have books on such lists.
“Artistically, philosophically, creatively and financially, banning helps,” Alexie says, laughing. “Please, ban me.”
Alexie will appear Oct. 15 and 16 at two events hosted by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. On the 15th, he will speak to young readers for PA&L's Words & Pictures series at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland. The next day's appearance at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland is in conjunction with the organization's Ten Evenings series.
A poet, short-story writer, novelist and filmmaker, Alexie has received numerous honors, including a 2007 National Book Award for his young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and a PEN-Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2010 for “War Dances,” a collection of short stories and poems.
Alexie calls writing novels his “day job.” One of the reasons he keeps coming back to the longer form stems from his childhood, when his father was in the habit of reading genre fiction.
“I'm still addicted to plot,” he says. “I like to make things happen in my fiction. I'm very interested in endings. I'm still wrapped up in the lessons-learned idea.”
Alexie's most recent work is among his most personal. “You Don't Have to Say You Love Me” (Little, Brown) is a memoir about his mother, who sometimes sang the Dusty Springfield song of the same name to him when he was a child. Featuring alternating passages of poems and prose, “You Don't …” illustrates Alexie's literary dexterity and explores a difficult childhood as his mother wrestled with addictions.
“My mom sang a lot songs, pop culture songs and tribal songs,” Alexie says. “But I hadn't associated her with that song as completely until I wrote the book. So it has new meaning for me now: the notion of being desperate to be acknowledged, the notion of being desperate for maternal affection. Really, in a way, I ended up writing a memoir that is a very conflicted love song to my mother.”
Alexie's books have always illustrated an unseen side of contemporary Native American life. Because there are comparatively few Native American writers — novelist Louise Erdrich and poet/musician Joy Harjo come to mind, in addition to Alexie — the images popularized in vintage Westerns still dominate perceptions of their brethren.
“We aren't viewed as contemporary citizens in pop culture,” he says. “We are completely viewed as being part of the past. One of the great injustices is we're not seen as being your neighbor. That's why sports mascots are allowed to exist. The only way you can turn a people into a mascot is to pretend they no longer exist.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.