Alexie, whose latest book is a collection of stories, Ten Little Indians, was named one of the "20 writers for the 21st century" by The New Yorker and one of the best American novelists under age 40 by Granta. He made the films Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing, and he is working on a project to publish an anthology of Native American writers born since 1960, he told students at a dinner before his talk.
Native American author and filmaker Sherman Alexie
But his presentation at Colby, titled "Without Reservations: An Urban Indian's Comic, Poetic, and Highly Irreverent Look at the World," was more performance art in the tradition of Spalding Gray than it was a literary reading.
Improvising on a narrative that began with the discovery that his grandfather was a bona fide hero in World War II, Alexie traced the effects of his grandfather's death in the war on his father's generation and on his own "Rez-to-riches" life story. The narrative examined issues of race, politics, religion, sexuality and imagination and ended with a description of Alexie, delirious with flu symptoms, accepting his grandfather's war medals from an Army general during The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Describing himself as racially "ambiguous," he said that can be tough, particularly since 9-11 and particularly in airports. ("Random search, my ass," drew a big laugh.) Alexie recalled crossing a city street in Washington state, where he lives, and having a white driver roll down his window to yell, "Why don't you go back to your own country!"
"It wasn't so much a hate crime," he said after the laughter subsided, "as a crime of irony."
In the end he told the crowd that we all have to live with contradictions. "I'm a pro-abortion, Catholic Indian," he said. "You need scientific notation to measure my guilt."