After waking up from brain surgery to remove a tumor recently, Sherman Alexie was in his hospital room and his Indian doctor was at his bedside.
Alexie turned to him and said, “I bet this is the first time an Indian has scalped an Indian.”
No one laughed. The doctor just stared at him.
Alexie figured something must’ve gone wrong during the surgery and he thought he was saying things, but it wasn’t actually coming out of his mouth.
His wife then leaned over and said, “You’ve told that joke 11 times.”
“The lesson,” Alexie said, “is that everyone needs an editor.”
Alexie, a Native American who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is the author of four novels, 10 poetry books, seven short-story works and two screenplays.
He was in Lakewood on April 29th as part of the Pierce County READS program. The program, which is in its ninth year, chooses an author and then encourages anyone in the county to read a number of their works, schedules movies, talks, art shows and more about the author, their collective works or issues brought up in said books, and then caps the program off with a talk from the featured writer.
Alexie’s speech was irreverent and powerful.
He told his life story, centered around his numerous health issues as a child and as an adult, interspersing the tale with lots of swearing and stories that had some in the audience of 750 squirming in their seats.
“How can you be so funny about horrific things?” Alexie said he is often asked. “I don’t have a choice – I’ve had so many horrific things happen to me.”
Alexie was born with water on his brain and was in and out of hospitals throughout his childhood. He wasn’t expected to live, and he certainly wasn’t expected to become a critically acclaimed author, but with a little luck and a lot of hard work he overcame not just the health issues but the inherent racism toward the color of his skin.
Before he spoke to the audience Friday, he met with a group of Native American students and was asked a question he said he gets a lot: How do you resist?
Alexie said he didn’t want to give a political answer, full of platitudes that are mostly bullshit. He also said he didn’t want to make the answer autobiographical because not everyone will get to live his life.
Instead, he gave an answer that is both profound and simplistic in nature.
“The only answer is pretty simple how to make things better – how to make the country better,” he said. “Books. Books. Books. Books. Books. Books. Books. Books. Books.
“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to the number of books you’ve read.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
So get to reading. And start with one of Alexie’s amazing novels like “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” or “Flight” or “Reservation Blues.”
– Craig Craker