On tour for his latest book, War Dances, the 43-year-old author-comedian squared off with the audience, joking about everything from the murals on the outside of the building (“Did we just walk through a vagina? I mean, I don’t mind, but … ”) to Friday’s announcement of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Not to mention the fun he poked at himself, his family and his Native-American community. Clad in a blue suit, plaid tie and square-framed glasses, Alexie performed excerpts of War Dances, an eclectic collection of short stories, poems and micro-prose that plays on both humor and nostalgia for tradition.
Born on a reservation in Spokane, Wash., a land of forests and salmon, Alexie said, “You can measure the strength of an Indian by the animal he worships.”
The writer, who comes from Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribes, is author of more than 20 published works including Indian Killer, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the 2007 National Book Award Prize for Young People’s Literature. Based on one of his short stories, Alexie also wrote the Sundance-award-winning film Smoke Signals.
In front of a crowd of at least 200, Alexie bounced deftly between joking about growing up on the “rez” and addressing serious issues Native Americans encounter, such as casinos, alcoholism and identity.
“We are dirty-mouthed. I have no idea why you guys don’t know that already,” he said. He kidded that offstage Native Americans talk about vaginas and then get to stage straight faced and speaking slowly. “Greetings. I come to you from the Spokane Nation. I bring you greetings from there even though I haven’t lived there since 1989.”
Much of Alexie’s work depicts his childhood on the reservation, which he called in his National Book Award acceptance speech a time of “gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation.”
Between tangential riffs, Alexie read “Blanket,” a section from a story in War Dances. The scene takes place in a hospital after his father has had part of his foot removed. The narrator goes on a search for other Indians in the hospital, who might have a blanket to warm his shivering dad.
Alexie called his dad a “crazy, charismatic father,” an alcoholic “who dominated the narrative our lives.” He said regretfully that “a solid, always-had-a-job mom doesn’t have the same romance.”
Lorna Valencia, who drove from Los Angeles for the reading, mmm-hmm’ed, yes’ed, and belly laughed all the way through the evening, declaring, “He’s on fire.”
“I drove because I had to,” she shrugged. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted his stuff. My cousin is going through a hard time, and I send her texts: Sherman Alexie says the sky is blue because … ”
Alexie, who lives in Seattle, also shared two tactile, nostalgic poems looking back to the days of mixtapes and payphones, and speaking to a generation and readership much wider than the Native-American community.
Although Alexie was recently chastened for slamming the Kindle reading device, he is not a Luddite. “I have a 72-inch plasma TV at home. I have a giant, stereo man penis in my man-cave,” he said, spreading his arms.
But before he read “Ode to Mix Tapes,” Alexie lamented the time of records. Now, he said, “There’s no anticipation. We hadn’t seen their videos, didn’t know what they looked like, what drug rehab center their kid just got out of.” To the young people: “You’re missing mystery.”
Alexie’s young readers seemed to be listening. Isaac Ehle, an eighth grader at Rooftop Alternative School, was there. He clutched his copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, hoping for an autograph after the show.
Ehle likes Alexie’s “funny writing styles” and said that Flight, Alexie’s novel about a teenage Indian boy on a violent search for his identity, puts you in the character’s shoes and feels “absolutely true.”
After the show, Black Star, a Native woman who grew up in San Francisco, had tears on her cheeks. “Being a Native is a hard way to be,” she said. “We’ve learned to laugh at our sorrow. Tears of pain or tears of laughter come from the same place. It’s important to laugh at our pain, to embrace it and to laugh with it and cry with it.”
“He’s somebody that needs to be heard,” added Black Star. “Maybe not his voice, but his message. And he’s able to do that with humor. But there’s still sadness.”
“A lot of what he writes gives meaning to my little life,” said Valencia, after meeting Alexie, jumping up and down in her green army hat covered in pins.
“Everything I wanted and more?” grinned Valencia. “Absolutely.”