You've heard it; we've all heard it. The walking in two worlds mantra repeated ad nauseam mostly by folks who have spent their lives in one—comfortable, country club, mainstream—yet they continue with their fractured fairy tale in a disingenuous attempt to earn victim points. There's much much too much of that.
But then there is that rare individual who really has overcome adversity. Life-threatening health challenges. Racism, alcoholism, poverty, family dysfunction and abuse; any one of these that might cripple a lesser individual. But no. They prevail; they take their damaged bodies and injured psyches and begin their lifelong journey and make it through the morass, or better yet, hammer the lowly expectations of mediocrity. It's even more remarkable when this person becomes one of the most talented, articulate voices of their generation.
This has been the journey of Sherman Alexie.
Sherman Alexie, he will tell you, is a poet. An Indian-don't call-him-Native-American author, he has gained the sort of literary notoriety usually reserved for the chattering class. Progressive but not predictable and, I found out, funnier than most stand-up comedians. In addition to his poetry, short story anthologies and novels, he penned the screenplay for Smoke Signals, adapted from his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, as well as wrote and directed The Business of Fancydancing and the short film, 49. In the past year he has released two novels, Flight, and more recently The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, winner of the 2007 National Book Award.
Aimed at young adults, Part-time Indian is about a teen who leaves the familiar bleakness of the reservation to attend an academically superior all-white school. It is this paradigm, in a parallel to his own life, which brought the 41-year-old author before a packed ballroom of college kids, unctuous academics, and Alexiephiles earlier this month at Eastern Michigan University. It's called a book tour, a weird name conjuring up images of Sun City retirees in straw hats riding the Blue Line bus.
Anyhow, at these sorts of events, (minus the retirees in straw hats and Blue Line) the speaker usually preens with a repartee of self-deprecating jokes stir-fried with self-aggrandizement and the *wink wink* mocking of the usual suspects: Bush, Iraq, rich white folks and religious white folks. But something unexpected happened. Something that surprised this ol' cynic who has attended probably one too many talks by one too many gasbags.
He didn't. Granted, he launched a few shots at the far right's hypocrisy—dead on and deadpan; sure, no verbal dust bunnies mussed the message. Yet amidst the jokes about middle age sex and identity politics, Sherman Alexie revealed he is a true radical thinker.
In keeping with the novel's theme, he shared his experience of being an urbane-urban Indian generally viewed as being "vaguely ethnic" versus his past self—the impoverished, isolated, physically challenged rez kid viciously taunted by students when he transferred to the all-white school. The resentment, the confusion…the fear. After all, how is a sensitive and precocious child supposed to respond to being told that Indians are the spawn of blacks mating with buffalo?
"Rez…urb…rez…urb," he said, pacing the stage. Which is he?
His inner battle is apparent in earlier works, particularly the 1998 novel, Indian Killer, a raging literary colonoscopy about a Native serial murderer. Whereas creating a revenge story may have been cathartic for the young author, it was ugly—scoping someone's bowels is not a pleasant sensory experience—and this desire to strike back is a recurrent theme in most of his writing. It is a dance, or to borrow from Alexie directly, a "fancydance" that has arguably limited his artistic growth.
Until now. The story of Arnold in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian finally releases his guilt for actually succeeding in the mainstream world. Alexie today comfortably acknowledges he's made it; he has a loving family and wondrously fulfilling career. Despite the virulent racism; despite all the obstacles and people who told him there was no way in hell a sick, poor Indian kid with alcoholic parents could do it.
He is freed and his writing is freed. Testament to his new found freedom, he stood before the crowd of college kids, unctuous academics and Alexiephiles and jabbed both the liberal and conservative establishments as a refreshing antidote to the parrots of political correctness.
"Be careful with your hypocrisies," he concluded, paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald. "The sign of a superior mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and not go crazy. I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying. And I suggest you start trying, too."
Rez…urb…rez…urb. Sherman Alexie, poet, is both. And a true radical thinker.