A few weeks ago, Sherman Alexie came to campus; every once in a while, especially this week, buried in grading, I remember something he said, and I giggle.
For those unfamiliar with Alexie, he is a Spokane Indian writer, one of the now canonical Native American Writers (even reprinted in the Norton Anthology). And he’s one of those writers who refuses to be constrained by one genre: he writes poems, short stories, essays, novels, plays, screenplays, young adult books, stand up comedy routines, and, it seems, wickedly funny blog-like postings.
Needless to say, I’m a fan.
I’ve taught several of his works for years in Intro to Fiction, American Lit Surveys, and Native American Lit courses (Lone Ranger, Indian Killer, Reservation Blues, Smoke Signals, various poems and short fiction and essays), and I’ve read nearly all of them (not loved them all, but I have read them all). The young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, caused quite the stir in several small towns where parents tried to have it banned (for the one paragraph masturbation scene, NOT from the rest of the book, which portrays a racist white small town and dysfunctional families on an Indian reservation).
Not that Alexie’s works haven’t been controversial before True Diary: he’s fairly hostile to both Indians and Whites who deny reality, and he doesn’t shy away from the alcoholism among some Indians both on and off reservations. From his very post-modern novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven:
Anyway, Alexie came to our town and instead of what could have been a standard author reading he did a stand up comedy routine. I’ve been hearing about these routines for years (he refuses to record them; in fact, he yelled at one poor student who he caught recording him). Journalist Tim Egan described the 6’2″ Alexie as he entered the stage in a Seattle bookstore in 1997, acting like a drunken Indian, then posing as an Indian warrior. Finally, as the audience shifted around uncomfortably during the silence, Alexie turns to his mostly white audience and says:
“White people only like Indians if we’re warriors or guardians of the earth! Have any of you ever been to a reservation? A guest house is a rusted car up on blocks out behind a H.U.D. trailer.”
“And what’s with all these sensitive New Age guys beating drums in the woods, trying to be Indians? Hey, Indians gave that up a hundred years ago. Now we’re sitting on the couch with the remote.”
His in-your-face sense of humor hasn’t changed.
This time, again talking to a mostly white audience of faculty, students, and community members (with a sizable contingent of Native Americans also attending), Alexie riffed wildly, sans notes, with timing that Seinfeld would envy, on the following:
- Taking the ipod from one of the teens in the audience, he proceeded to both mock and praise the poor kid’s selections, noting that he needed to add that rocking chick from his own youth, Joan Jett, and he needed to learn how to mix a tape for his girlfriend–so much more time consuming and heartfelt than the just burning a cd.
- A tear-inducing bit on what happens once a plane lands and everyone gets up at once, sticking their asses in each others’ faces, pulling down luggage onto people’s toes, opening their cell phones and having exactly the SAME conversations: “Hi. We just landed. No, we are still on the run way. I don’t know for how much longer. Wait, I think someone up front just moved. No. Just some luggage fell down. Yes, we are still on the run way.”
- And another truly hysterical story about his father, in his cups, telling a 7 year old Sherman (“Junior”) to gather all his friends because he wanted to tell them about sex. Let’s just say the tag line is “just flick it”.
If you ever get a chance to see Alexie, I highly recommend it (his routine on the Kindle–he hates it–has caused waves in the Internets). But better yet, read his works.