On Monday, April 3, an assortment of students, professors, and Oxford citizens alike swelled into the high-ceilinged auditorium in Shideler Hall. As the lights dimmed, voices suddenly hushed in anticipatory silence; a few pairs of eyes searched the room, others whispering about potential extravagant grand entrances. As the author of the National Book Award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie is known worldwide for sparking laughter, tears, and contemplation among his readers. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker, currently working on the film adaptation of the novel. His talk, “The Partially True Story of the True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” was an “[externalization of his] creative process,” interlaced with gallows humor.
Alexie’s visit was sponsored by the Margaret Peterson Haddix Fund for YA/Children’s Literature and the Clark Family Capstone Fund. Assistant Professor Daisy Hernández of the Department of English suggested bringing the author to campus, and it worked out, despite initial concerns that Alexie “was out of [their] league.” A book signing immediately followed the talk, as well as a standing ovation.
In introducing Alexie, Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Department Dr. Cathy Wagner noted that he “has published 25 books that have won many awards and accolades,” including the recent New York Times Best-Seller children’s book, Thunder Boy Jr. In August 1998, Alexie spoke at Miami University’s Convocation, the summer after the university had changed the mascot from Redskins to Redhawks. Wagner left the stage with heartfelt remarks: “I’m really honored to have him here tonight.”
Alexie began with a casual statement, stirring laughter in the crowd: “Cathy has made me laugh all day, three almost-spit-takes.” He seemed to glide through the front of the room, uttering after a short pause, “I don’t remember being here in 1998.” The chuckles and chortles that followed lingered throughout the entire talk, creating a sense of ease and comfort like that a close friend can invoke.
He briefly described the “alphabet soup of mental illness acronyms” he lives with, claiming that “three brain surgeries equals poet.” Alexie then led us into the story he has told hundreds of times, the very first story of his life; his mother immediately knew something was wrong when they took him home, but the doctors kept dismissing her, even when she brought in a graph of his abnormal head growth over time.
As a believer in “interpreting coincidences exactly the way you want to,” Alexie seamlessly transitioned back and forth between this central story and discussions of narrative concepts throughout the evening. “In the days before safety,” his cousin set him in a U-shaped swing; already-horrified expressions scattered the auditorium. Alexie then diverged from the story to discuss how people always inquire about his books in relation to oral tradition; his response: “Not a whole lot, because I type them… and I’m really quiet when I type them.”
He then discussed how others will still associate him with ancient traditions of his particular culture, remarking, “I didn’t know the names for the ways I communicate until I met white people. I can be Crazy Horse and Socrates, because I don’t operate under the impression that it’s difficult to walk in two worlds.” However, in writing The Absolutely True Diary, he found it extremely difficult to avoid the tangents that are present in adult literature, as well as in his talk; young adult novels have “far more of a focus on straight-up narrative [and] a real structure.”
“Young adult literature is very primal,” Alexie stated, after performing a noise similar to the one his cousin made when she realized that pushing him might have been a fatal mistake. The tension in the room increased as he described how she pushed him, how his tiny hands held onto the chains, how he pinwheeled through the air. The audience collectively winced, and Alexie teased: “You all got dramatic, and you liberal arts majors got even more dramatic, because you don’t know shit about physics.”
Referring back to his thoughts on coincidences, Alexie described how his tribe had applied for a grant to make the playground safer just before the incident, meaning that thousands of saw chips lay underneath the playset; the impact left him with dozens of cuts, slivers, and scrapes. When people would ask what happened, he would say with seriousness, “Ceremony.” The punch line would stop all inquiry, and as a young adult author, he has to be careful that questions are still being asked in his books.
After one of many comments that induced laughter among the audience, Alexie pointed to a man in the center section and said, “That’s my goal in life – to make handsome men in beaded necklaces smile.”
Drawing attention to his “giant head,” he brought a woman from the front row on stage to prove how large it actually is; he then commented on how if a coroner looked at his skull, he would declare it Mongolian. His mother’s concern was valid – it was the “fling out of the swing” that diagnosed his otherwise fatal condition, idiopathic hydrocephalus, or the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. The situation can be adequately summed up in a few words: “Real life can feel completely implausible.”
Alexie was part of the first generation to receive the surgery commonly used to treat hydrocephalus, which involves drilling burr holes in the skull to relieve the pressure; upon describing this, he guessed that we were “starting to get that vomit-y taste,” and he wasn’t wrong. “The power of stories is that it can make people throw up,” he asserted.
Stories can invoke such powerful, controversial emotions that some are inclined to ban the novels that contain them, as The Absolutely True Diary was by schools across the country. Alexie spoke with a young girl in the audience, exchanging fist bumps and saying, “I have to worry more about your adult feelings than kids’. Kids don’t ban books.”
The topic of conversation turned to unrequited love, whereupon over half of the audience raised their hands when asked if they had ever experienced it. There was a collective gasp when one audience member was asked, “How many heartbreaks?” and replied with, “Six and a half.” “Adults aren’t taking [kids’] heartbreak seriously enough,” Alexie declared.
In writing a book, the trick is to “add the real detail,” whether that’s a woman’s muscular arms or how “she farted a lot.” According to Alexie, if “you want to tell a good story, you have to tell the truth.” However, he also commented that he could say anything regarding his childhood, and we would have to believe him. “We’re all amazing,” he went on. “Everybody has an amazing story.”
Self-described as an “immigrant into the land but also into the culture,” Alexie articulated how “[our] racism is even more complicated than [we] can understand.” In 1966, the doctor who saved his life was a Greek Muslim first-generation pediatric neurologist. “The anti-immigration fervor has blinded us to our own greatest narrative. The basic narrative of the United States is immigration.”
“Politics is about competing narratives, about the mythology you choose to believe in,” Alexie added. When the doctor spoke to his mother before entering the operation room, he said, “Your son’s going to die during this surgery. If he doesn’t die, he’ll become a vegetable.”
After a tense, dramatic pause, Alexie discussed how the ending of the story was in question; after the past hour-and-a-half of stimulating discussion on a myriad of topics, anything could happen. He threw it to a vote, with the audience split in half between a happy and a sad ending. “This is what happens to you in the process [of writing],” he said. “There’s an extreme pressure for the redemptive ending.”
“You feel that?” The stillness of the room was a paperweight. “That’s narrative tension.”
So, how do you make a story told through another’s eyes still have power? How do you make it matter? Alexie’s confident answer is to “put yourself in the same emotional space.” In remembering his first son and his medical issues, he told the audience how the doctor wasn’t even supposed to be there; the surgeon was in a tuxedo and only in the hospital because he’d forgotten the opera tickets in his locker.
Alexie’s mother replied, “What kind of vegetable?”
English Department Ambassador
Creative Writing and Professional Writing ‘20