Confessions of an Ambiguously Ethnic Indian

March 14, 2009

Sherman Alexie signs copies of his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian ACRL's Friday afternoon keynote was given by the popular Seattle poet, novelist, humorist, and filmmaker Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian whom The New Yorker described as one of the top 20 writers of our country. Alexie is also an accomplished speaker and knows how to please a crowd, even one composed of academics. His opening words: "I love librarian conferences. There are thousands of hot, near-sighted women here. . . . Those oatmeal sweaters just do it for me." Alexie's offbeat humor, however, is most often a mask for a serious take on race, humanity, assumptions, politics, and patriotism. In eastern Washington State where he grew up, most people are white and any Indian stands out. "But as I travel the world," he said, "I've become ambiguously ethnic. People generally think I'm half of whatever they are." When he walks into a library, the librarians don't know what to make of him: "They wonder, What kind of books might he like? What section should I steer him toward? Then they ask leading librarian questions to get me to reveal myself. "'Where are you from?' "'I live just down the block.' "'Well, how long have you lived there?' "My standard answer: '12,000 years.'" But it was the librarian on his childhood reservation that asked him, "What kind of stories do you like?" That's always the best question, Alexie said. "My answer was, 'Funny ones, usually about Indians.'" Alexie noted that everyone assumes all Native Americans love nature. "Not true! For me, the outdoors is one large hallway between buildings. I'm allergic to everything that grows. Crazy Horse didn't have to pause to take a Zyrtec while he was attacking Custer." After the session, someone asked whether he was working on another film, perhaps a sequel to Smoke Signals (1998). He said he had no plans for another movie,  but he's working on an idea for an HBO series about an all-Indian basketball team. "It's only at Stage 2 of about 9,000, so don't expect anything soon." Other projects include turning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) into a play produced by a Seattle theatre company: "It would be sort of High School Musical, but set in real life." And there is a sequel to True Diary in the works that he is calling The Magic and Tragic Year of My Broken Thumb. And here's one thing you probably didn't know about Seattle, courtesy of Alexie: "In Seattle, whenever there is a march — even against the Iraq War or in favor of gay marriages — eight people come dressed as sea turtles."