Sherman Alexie: Prairie Indian for the Masses

Read on, the better part of the review comes after the “official” reveiw:

“Spokane Indian poet, screenwriter and sometime-comedian, Sherman Alexie beguiled a small audience of graduate students, artists, Native Americans and a grab-bag of the Tempe community with his tales of second-hand store shopping in the gay neighborhood in Seattle, his displeasures with homophobes and Bible fundamentalists and his own quirky, but well-measured advice for how to maintain domestic bliss at the Tempe Center for the Arts Monday, February 7th.

The theme of the night, “People, Places and Stories,” suited Alexie just fine, as much of his work is location-based, and he’s no stranger to a good story. He dropped some religious critiques and spoke of the truths and falsities of our shared history. He also shared his notes on the ancients, language, philosophy, and he had some words of advice for young writers in the audience: “If it’s fiction, it better be true.”

Realism played a part in the reason why his young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was banned from so many junior high and high schools in states such as Illinois, Missouri and Oregon; too much masturbation.

Alexie argued that this topic was totally relevant to audiences in junior high and high schools.

“If I tell you a story, not only do I change you, I change me,” he said, suggesting that there is transformation of the teller when opening up for an audience. It is true, one often must lay oneself bare. But Alexie is a natural at storytelling, even if he seems reluctant to embrace the notion that he’s continuing the Native American oral tradition. His natural style in speaking is at once engaging and conversation. He is warm and funny, and not afraid to drop the f-bomb on stage, even before an academic audience. Plus, he’s got the comedic timing thing down completely, pausing just long enough for his audience to get the joke and respond, or to wonder what else might be going on in that enormous noggin of his. Alexie is like a Prairie Home Companion from the wrong side of the prairie (or the right side, depending on whom you ask).

And to top the night off with yet another layer of humanism, Alexie made an appearance in the lobby after his talk, signing books and shaking hands with his many admiring friends. Present was one of the crowned Miss Navajo Nation princesses in her full regalia, wearing a crown, a sash, beaded belt and slippers and all. For a free night out on ASU’s campus, it was worth every penny spent on gas money.”

 

This is a review I wrote to try to impress a certain local magazine editor. I guess it didn’t work because I never heard back from her. Guess I don’t blame her; it’s a total love-fest with all the edginess, all the truth left out.

When I reread this to myself, I recognize all the “journalistic” training that I paid so much money for to University of Arizona 12 years ago. I see the formula: the inverted pyramid style. The attempt at objectivity. The attempt at trying to have a voice while simultaneously disguising your “voice”; muting it.

What I didn’t tell you in the review, Dear Reader, was what a rock star Sherman Alexie was. I left out the part about how he had the audience in the palm of his hand all night. I chalk it up to timing, and his was superior. He had us on the edge of our seats waiting with bated breathe at his dramatic pauses. And he paused for some comedic reveals, the timing just right to result in an arena full of well-timed belly laughs at the funny parts.

Yes, we waited. Always waited on those obligatory pauses. For the pay-off; the punchline. And when they came we knew we’d gotten our gas-money’s worth.

In one of his poems, he gave a nod to the song “Because the Night,” and I wanted to stand up and cheer just because I love Patti Smith so much and he’d name-dropped one of my idols. Instead I gasped a little into my cupped hands.

Alexie was smart, colorful and funny most of the time. But the most impressive part, I thought, was the way he was able to catch everyone’s full attention and come off as so natural. He seemed to be himself the entire time. It’s something I value, personally, for a few reasons.

One of the big things about Alexie that impresses me is his ease of addressing his audience. I’ve always had a hard time with public speaking, personally. While I have plenty I want to put out there, I hate the feeling that someone is looking at me while I speak, analyzing me with a critical eye. My response used to be either to be shaken by bad nerves and stand there like a shy little kid with voice quivering, shaking all over; or to overcompensate with my delivery and come off as some personality completely outside of myself. It’s sometimes too scary to reveal the real You, especially to a roomful of strangers. So you put on an act; flirt too much or overdo it with bravado and come off as an arrogant asshole. I have played both of these parts in place of the shaky, shameful, nervous wreck. But in none of those parts have I felt comfortable. Alexie in front of an audience seems to exude comfortable. Not only do you automatically like the guy and feel calm, he makes you imagine befriending him. Meeting him on the basketball court one day, or going out with him and his family for fried chicken.

The other thing I never would have mentioned in my text-book journalism review of Sherman Alexie is that while he was speaking I was watching his aura, and I saw that man’s spirit shadow do some incredible shit!  First, during the reading of one of his poems, I saw the (black, not white) aura turn into a giant vulture (or eagle, but I think vulture) and spread its massive wings, then fly away from the reader’s body. Next, while Alexie was talking about himself and his family, and how he relates to other Indians, I saw his shadow mount a small pony and ride away, presumably into a sunset. It was incredible for me, because, usually I only see auras when I am concentrating; looking for them. And typically with a speaker, I only go there when I am bored with what the person is saying, or done listening. But please believe me, Dear Reader, I was so engaged at Alexie’s reading, I was listening the whole time. When his aura showed for me, I saw it effortlessly. To me this means I was so drawn in to his words and his person, that I didn’t need to do any more work. The man was being soul-baringly honest before us; he was letting us, as the Audience, in.

[You might be wondering just how I see auras. Sorry, but I’ll have to save that for another blog post.]

Back to the issue of journalistic review writing vs. writing the personal: because of the trained objectivity in “journalistic” writing (or the implied objectivity), most times, you, as the reader, are not getting the whole story. A good journalist is not supposed to tell you straight-up whether they like/love/loathe the subject they are reporting on. They aren’t supposed to indicate their political inclinations in a straight news story. When you get an assignment, you are supposed to cover that person/thing/event with fairness, being impartial, and reporting “just the facts, please, ma’am.” But when I teach writing to my students, I always feel obliged to mention that no matter how hard any one of us (writers) tries to be 100% objective, every person out there who approached the pen or keyboard is coming forth with their own build-in backpack of experiences” What you have live through and witnessed automatically taints an experience, no matter how much you try to avoid it. One can’t help but be biased on most issues; if you didn’t experience an emotional reaction to most things you witness you wouldn’t be human. You would be a robot. And no matter how hard my schooling has tried to “program” me to write like a journalist, no matter how hard I consciously try, I am still inclined to report things the way I see them. That’s why I appreciate poets so much. With poetics you not only get to be  honest, you can also be clever. And I think Sherman Alexie, with all of his ironic, dramatic pauses, witticisms and sometimes shocking opinions is, above all else, devilishly clever.

I regret that I didn’t stay longer at Tempe Center for the Arts and stand on the long, long line to shake the man’s hand. And I hope that the opportunity wasn’t the only one I ever get. Should I have the chance again, I know what to do next time.