Alexie, Sherman 1966–
Alexie, Sherman 1966–
(Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr.)
PERSONAL: Born October 7, 1966, in Spokane, WA; son of Sherman Joseph and Lillian Agnes (Cox) Alexie. Ethnicity: Native American Education: Attended Gonzaga University, 1985–87; Washington State University, B.A., 1991.
ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 376, Wellpinit, WA 99040. Agent—Hanging Loose Press, 231 Wyckoff St., Brooklyn, NY 11217.
CAREER: Writer, c. 1992–; song writer and music composer; director of films, including The Business of Fancydancing, 2003.
AWARDS, HONORS: Poetry fellow, Washington State Arts Commission, 1991; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1992; Slipstream chapbook contest winner, 1992, for I Would Steal Horses; American Book Award, 1996, for Reservation Blues; three-time World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout winner; nominated for Independent Spirit Award for best first screenplay, c. 1998, Outstanding Achievement in Writing award, First Americans in the Arts, 1999, and Florida Film Critics Circle Award, all for Smoke Signals; Outstanding Screenwriting Award, OUTFEST, 2003, for The Business of Fancydancing; Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction finalist, 2003, for Ten Little Indians; O. Henry Prize, 2005, for the short story "What You Pawn I Will Redeem."
The Business of Fancydancing (poems), Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 1992.
I Would Steal Horses (poems), Slipstream, 1992.
First Indian on the Moon (poems), Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 1993.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Old Shirts and New Skins (poems), UCLA American Indian Studies Center (Los Angeles, CA), 1993.
Water Flowing Home (poems), Limberlost Press (Boise, ID), 1994.
Seven Mourning Songs for the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play (poems), Whitman College Press, 1994.
Reservation Blues (novel), Grove/Atlantic (New York, NY), 1994, published as Coyote Spring, Atlantic (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Jim Boyd) Reservation Blues: The Soundtrack (recording), Thunderwolf Productions, 1995.
The Indian Fighter (radio script), National Public Radio, 1995.
Indian Killer, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1996.
The Summer of Black Widows, Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 1996.
The Man Who Loves Salmon (poems), Limberlost Press (Boise, ID), 1998.
Smoke Signals: Introduction, Screenplay, and Notes, Miramax (New York, NY), 1998.
One Stick Song (poems), Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2000.
The Toughest Indian in the World (stories), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2000.
(Author of introduction) Gwendolyn Cates and Richard W. West, Indian Country, Grove/ Atlantic (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor) Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.
(Author of foreword, with Robert Hershon) The CLMP Directory of Literary Magazines and Presses, Manic D Press, 2002.
(Author of introduction) Percival Everett, Watershed, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2003.
The Business of Fancydancing (screenplay), Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2003.
(With others) The Business of Fancydancing: Music from the Movie (soundtrack), 2003.
Ten Little Indians: Stories, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributing editor, Contentville, 2000–. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, Left Bank, Seattle Weekly, New Yorker, and New York Times; contributor to poetry anthologies, including Voices of the City, Hanging Loose Press, 2003; contributor to recordings, including Talking Rain: Spoken Word and Music from the Pacific Northwest, 1995, Honor: A Benefit for the Honor the Earth Campaign, 1996, Jack Hammer Lobotomy, 1991, and Roadkillbasa, 1994.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Tattoo Tears, a collection of short stories; House Fire, a novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Drawing heavily upon his experiences as a native Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribal member who grew up and still lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, writer, performer, and filmmaker Sherman Alexie has garnered high praise for his poems and short stories of contemporary Native American reservation life, among them The Business of Fancydancing, a poetry collection Alexie has since adapted into a film. Alexie, who performs many of his poems at poetry slams, festivals, and other venues, has received praise for the energy and emotion he brings to his work.
When Alexie was a child, his mother supported the family by working at the Wellpinit Trading Post and selling her hand-sewn quilts, while his alcoholic father was absent from the home much of the time. Alexie spent most of his childhood reading every book in the Wellpinit school library, and in the eighth grade he decided to attend Reardan High School, located thirty-two miles outside the reservation. His achievements in high school secured his admission to Spokane's Jesuit Gonzaga University in 1985, where pressure to succeed led him to begin abusing alcohol. Alexie transferred to Washington State University in 1987 to be with his high-school girlfriend, and it was there that he began writing poetry and short fiction. In 1990 Alexie's works were published in Hanging Loose magazine, and this success gave him the will and incentive to quit drinking, which he did that same year.
In his short-story and poetry collections, Alexie delineates the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often pervade the lives of Native Americans living on reservations. He has been lauded for writings that evoke sadness and indignation yet leave readers with a sense of respect and compassion for characters who are in seemingly hopeless situations. Involved with crime, alcohol, or drugs, Alexie's protagonists struggle to survive the constant battering of their minds, bodies, and spirits by white American society and by their own self-hatred and sense of powerlessness. As Alexie asserted in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: Native Americans "have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins." While he depicts the lives of Native Americans who attempt to escape their situation through alcohol and other forms of self-abuse, Alexie also finds a mental, emotional, and spiritual outlet in his writing, which he refers to as "fancydancing."
A key characteristic of Alexie's writing is his irony, surfacing in dark humor buoyed by his exquisite sense of timing. His poetry collections The Business of Fancy-dancing, First Indian on the Moon, and Old Shirts and New Skins reveal this irony by exposing the "fraudulent illusions that tempt us all in America today," noted Andrea-Bess Baxter in Western American Literature. Alexie, commented Baxter, has a "talent for frequently turning history upside down" by placing historical characters such as Crazy Horse and Christopher Columbus in modern contexts with ironic twists. For example, in one instance Crazy Horse comes to life in the Smithsonian but is misidentified as an anonymous Hopi male; in another Columbus is cast as a real estate agent. Carl L. Bankston III, reviewing Alexie's oeuvre for the Bloomsbury Review, wrote that the author "combines a gift for startling associations and a fluid ease of literary style with an intimate familiarity with the quotidian facts of modern reservation life. As a result, his poems are simultaneously documentaries of tribal existence and revelations of the spirit and inner significance of that existence."
Commenting on The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie's first published poetry collection, Leslie Ullman in Kenyon Review wrote that the author "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." Noted Bankston in his review of The Business of Fancydancing, "The most impressive quality of Alexie's writing is his ability to let poetry appear unexpectedly from … themes of everyday life in an unadorned, conversational idiom. There is no straining after effect."
Alexie introduces several characters in his poetry that resurface later in his short-story collection Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven and his novel Reservation Blues. These include Big Mom, mystical matriarch and "the best fry bread cook" on the reservation; Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a young storyteller; and Thomas's friends Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin. In Reservation Blues the young friends, now in their thirties, come into possession of legendary blues musician Robert Johnson's magical guitar, which provides Victor with a measure of unnatural talent and the boys with something to do: form a rock band. Their trials and tribulations bring together Native and Anglo worlds in a resounding crash, as Verlyn Klinkenborg notes in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Klinkenborg found that Alexie writes effectively for "a divided audience, Native American and Anglo. He 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. But Alexie never sounds didactic. His timing is too good for that. Reservation Blues never misses a beat, never sounds a false note." Abigail Davis in Bloomsbury Review declared that "this first novel by Sherman Alexie comes as close to helping a non-Native American understand the modern Indian experience as any attempt in current literature. The reader closes the book feeling troubled, hurt, hopeful, profoundly thoughtful, and somehow exhausted, as if the quest of the characters had been a personal experience." Frederick Busch in the New York Times Book Review, however, saw Alexie's work as falling short in the novel form. "Though there is wonderful humor and profound sorrow in this novel, and brilliant renditions of each, there is not enough structure to carry the dreams and tales that Mr. Alexie needs to portray and that we need to read…. But the talent is real, and it is very large, and I will gratefully read whatever he writes, in whatever form."
In an interview with John and Carl Bellante for the Bloomsbury Review, Alexie commented on his progression from poems to short stories to novels as occurring "pretty naturally because … my poems are stories. It felt natural for me to evolve to a larger form. Not to say it wasn't difficult for me at first, though…. I had this thing about going beyond one page, typewritten. I'd get to the bottom of a page and freak out, because I wouldn't know what to do next. But the stories kept getting bigger and bigger…. They began to demand more space than a poem could provide."
Comparing Alexie's novels to his short stories, Ken Foster suggested in the San Francisco Chronicle that the author's longer works have "an odd, aggressive, middlebrow sensibility to them." Conversely, according to Foster, the 2000 short-story collection The Toughest Indian in the World "blessedly lacks" such qualities. The nine stories in the collection retrace Alexie's familiar territory of Native-white conflict while sustaining "a consistently dark comic tone," in Foster's opinion. The author "doesn't feel the need to instruct his readers in the details of contemporary American Indian culture, and why should he? The lives he portrays are so finely detailed … that even the most culturally sheltered reader is transported."
The title story in The Toughest Indian in the World finds its narrator, a Native journalist who feels all-too-assimilated in the white world, deciding to reconnect with his heritage by seducing a young Native fighter. At the end of the story, "the narrator is no more gay than he was at the start," noted Foster, "and yet the attraction between these two men, on this particular night, seems apt and true." In "Dear John Wayne" a young Navajo woman engages in a brief affair with the cowboy star during the 1950s filming of John Ford's epic western The Searchers. Interracial themes also figure in "South by Southwest," about a white drifter who takes a down-and-out Indian with him on a "nonviolent killing spree" across the West. What Denver Post contributor Ron Franscell found impressive in these two entries is the way Alexie "puts himself inside the heads and hearts of non-Indians. The result is tender, touching and erotic." The Toughest Indian in the World "proves once again that [Alexie is] the real deal: a master stylist, a born storyteller as well as a writer of inspired formal innovations and experiments," declared Emily White in a Seattle Weekly review.
While Alexie has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, White commented that the author "nevertheless manifests a palpable hostility toward whiteness; it's clear that the idea of the great melting pot he is paid by publishers and grant committees actually makes his blood boil." Indeed, being a mass-market author is not in Alexie's plans either: "Good art doesn't come out of assimilation—it comes out of tribalism," he was quoted as saying in the Denver Post.
Alexie broke further barriers when he helped create the first all-Indian movie. Smoke Signals, for which he wrote the screenplay based on his short stories, was produced, directed, and acted by Native American talent. The plot follows a young man living an aimless life in Idaho. Victor Joseph, who has lost contact with his Native roots, embarks on a journey to "discover his past and accept his present," as Los Angeles Magazine writer James Greenberg put it. The finished film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival; on the occasion of its 1998 wide release, Alexie told a Time interviewer that he hoped Smoke Signals would open doors for Indian filmmakers. He pointed to African-American director Spike Lee as a role model: "Spike didn't necessarily get films made as much as he inspired filmmakers to believe in themselves. That's what's going to happen here. These 13-year-old Indian kids who've been going crazy with their camcorders will finally see the possibilities."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bloomsbury Review, September, 1992; May-June, 1993, p. 5; May-June, 1994; July-August, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1993.
Denver Post, May 21, 2000, Ron Franscell, "Alexie's Tribal Perspective Universal in Its Appeal."
Kenyon Review, summer, 1993, p. 182.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1996.
Kliatt, May, 1994, p. 23.
Library Journal, November 15, 1993; October 15, 1994, p. 72; August, 1996, p. 109.
Los Angeles, July, 1998, review of Smoke Signals, p. 107.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995.
New Yorker, May 10, 1993.
New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992; October 17, 1993; July 16, 1995, p. 9; May 21, 2000, Joanna Scott, "American Revolutions."
New York Times Magazine, October 4, 1992; January 18, 1998, p. 16.
Prairie Schooner, spring, 1996, p. 70.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1996, p. 70; April 17, 2000, review of The Toughest Indian in the World, p. 52.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2000, Ken Foster, review of The Toughest Indian in the World.
School Library Journal, July, 1993, p. 112.
Seattle Weekly, May 11-17, 2000, Emily White, review of The Toughest Indian in the World.
Time, June 29, 1998, review of Smoke Signals and interview, p. 69.
Western American Literature, fall, 1994, p. 277.
World Literature Today, spring, 1994.
Sherman Alexie Web site, http://www.shermanalexie.com/ (April 7, 2004).