Sherman Alexie was a featured speaker at the Newport Beach Central Library for the Witte Lectures, lectures sponsored by very devoted library patrons which include the Witte family, among other sponsors. Because of this sponsorship, Newport Beach had the pleasure of hearing Sherman Alexie’s speech on March, 11 and 12, 2016: Without Reservations: An Urban Indian’s Comic, Poetic, and Highly Irreverent Look at the World.
For those of you who don’t know, Sherman Alexie is a Native American (Spokane) writer and comedian and highly influential to American literature. He is a novelist, poet, and screenwriter with more than twenty-four books in print, his most well-known being The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel that is on the top of America’s banned book list for the character, Junior, mentioning three times that he enjoys masturbating. Never in the book does it show the act of doing so, but realistically, he’s a teenage boy! While this novel started out as a young adult novel, it had migrated to the border between young adult and adult fiction because of the content. Alexie brings a distinct, cultural voice to the modern literary canon.
“I landed at John Wayne [airport], which is always weird for an Indian.” There was a full house, and tickets were sold out for BOTH DAYS to hear this man speak (and for the record, at least 95% of the audience was over 40 years old. I was a lone 25-year-old among a small selection of teens and college students. This shows the main target audience for his works). Alexie’s speech at the Newport Beach Central Library did not feature any one single book, but rather how Alexie sees life and how he brings humor to everything, even brain surgery! Before we get into the brain surgery, I must say, that Alexie has humor in all forms: crude, racist, sexual, and lets not forget the poop jokes! Why? Because all these things are a part of life, and for some reason people tend to avoid things that are sexual and gross, things that are everyday body functions, and Alexie draws out the humanity that comes with this kind of humor.
In December 2015, Alexie had brain surgery for a benign tumor, a tumor that he said caused these “pauses” in his intellect. It was a nine hour surgery, and Alexie claims to have had a “near-death dream,” in which his parents come to him in what they were buried in. On a grassy plain, this is where his mid went to relax from the stress of such a surgery, and growing up in a racist, classist world, he comes out with “spiritual life skills.” He talked about how the nurse grabbed his Johnny to insert a catheter, and how it was awkward because he is famous and many of the staff recognized him. After talking about the surgery, he talked about the death of his mother a few years ago, and how “grief poop,” is yet another part of life, unavoidable even when the sign says “Please be gentle with our plumbing.” Alexie says, “When you tell stories…you wanna get at the very meaning of being human,” which goes back to how people avoid sexual things. Basically, Alexie’s “grief poop” story was a metaphor for flushing away his grief bit by bit, but his humor reaches the pit of humanity.
Interested in his books yet? During the Q&A, one older man said, “I haven’t had the pleasure to read any of your books yet, but is your writing style similar to your speaking style?” as in, are Alexie’s books vulgar, racial, sexual, and full of poop? YES. His writing is extremely humorous while getting at the deeper meaning of being human. Identity is a big theme in his novels as well, because for Native Americans, identity is huge. Alexie shared how his culture has a rite of passage where they get to choose a new name when they come of age, creating their own identity.
I am always game for a book signing, but alas, my copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is on my kindle! Oh no, that just meant I had to buy a different one of his books for signing (such a bummer, right? Joking!). So I ended up buying his novel, Indian Killer. This novel is based in Seattle, Washington, and features a serial killer who scalps his victims and covers them in owl feathers. This causes a lot of problems for the Native Americans living in the area. Sound interesting? I though so, so a book review will come from that in about a month or two. See you then!
By the way, I highly recommend, really, any of Sherman Alexie’s work. He has lots of novels, short stories, and poems to check out, and not all of them are sexual and racial humor. Many of them are about nature and various Native American cultural bits.