Sherman Alexie to visit Whitman College

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On April 15 poet, short story writer, novelist, screenwriter and director Sherman Alexie will be the featured guest of the Visiting Writers Reading Series at Whitman College. Alexie will read excerpts from his recent work at 7 p.m. at Cordiner Hall. The public event is free.

Sherman Alexie, of the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Tribe, was born in October 1966.

He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash., about 50 miles northwest of Spokane. As a teenager, after finding his mother's name written in a textbook, he decided to attend high school off the reservation in Reardan, Wash., about 22 miles south of Wellpinit in order to get a better education. In 1985, he received a scholarship to Gonzaga University. After two years at Gonzaga, he transferred to Washington State University, where he majored in American studies.

Encouraged by his poetry teacher Alex Kuo, Alexie found he excelled at writing and realized he had found his career path. Shortly after graduating from WSU, he received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992. Just one year after he left WSU, his first two poetry collections "The Business of Fancydancing" (1991) and "I Would Steal Horses" (1992) were published.

A prolific writer, he has published 12 books of poetry. His most recent book, "War Dances" (2009) contains both poems and short stories and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award earlier this month. In addition to his poetry, Alexie has written three short story collections, four novels and the screenplays for two movies.

His first short story collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," (1993) won the PEN/Hemingway Award. In these 22 interlinked tales, Alexie paints a portrait of life in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. Against a backdrop of alcohol, car accidents, laughter and basketball, he depicts the distances between American Indians and whites, reservation and urban American Indians, men and women, modern American Indians and the traditions of the past. His other short story collections are "The Toughest Indian in the World" (2000) and "Ten Little Indians" (2003). His writing helps non-American Indians understand the modern Indian experience.

If you are not familiar with Alexie's work, his young adult autobiographical novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (2007) may be a good place start. Arthur (Junior) Spirit, a bright 14-year-old Indian, breaks with tradition when he transfers from the reservation school to the all-white high school in a nearby town. The book gives the reader a look into the poverty and daily struggles of reservation life and the courage it took for Junior to venture off the "rez."

His other novels include "Reservation Blues" (1995) about an all-American Indian Catholic rock band from the Spokane Reservation and "Flight" (2007) where a troubled urban American Indian teenager named Zits travels back in time and witnesses brutal violence through the eyes of whites and American Indians, fathers and sons, and begins to understand what it means to be the hero, the villain and the victim.

If you enjoy a good mystery, try Alexie's "Indian Killer" (1996). A murderer is stalking and scalping white men in Seattle. Racial tension is fueled by a local conservative radio host. A group of young white men start beating up the American Indian homeless that populate Seattle's downtown core. In retaliation, a group of American Indians torture a young white hitchhiker. Is the killer John Smith, an American Indian raised by white parents who finds himself hearing voices and filled with rage? Alexie keeps you guessing.

Another way to become acquainted with Alexie's work would be to view one of his films. In 1997, Alexie collaborated with Chris Eyre, of the Cheyenne/Arapaho Tribe, to make the all American Indian movie "Smoke Signals." The screenplay for the movie was based on stories from Alexie's collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire leave the Coeur d'Alene reservation by bus and head for Phoenix to collect the ashes of Victor's father. Well-placed flashbacks tell of their contentious friendship and constitute the core of the story.

In his second film, which he wrote and directed, "The Business of Fancydancing" (2002), Seymore Polatkin, who has gained fame as an American Indian poet, returns to the reservation for the funeral of a friend. Seymore's success resulted in accolades from non-American Indians, but his childhood friends and relatives on the reservation question his motivation for writing American Indian-themed poems and selling them to the mainstream public. The film examines several issues that contemporary American Indians face, including cultural assimilation, stereotypes and substance abuse.

Sherman Alexie currently lives in Seattle with his wife, Diane Tomhave, and their two sons. To learn more about Alexie, visit fallsapart.com.

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