Falling in love with Sherman Alexie at BookFest St. Louis
In introducing Sherman Alexie, who was about give the first ever keynote of the first ever annual BookFest St. Louis, the event mediator ended her spiel by welcoming the talented author, poet and performer to the stage. It did not take me long to realize why the mediator had chosen to add that final title: Alexie’s energy and charisma spread like wildfire through the audience the moment he bounded onto the stage. We were in for a show.
I had very little knowledge of Sherman Alexie going into the evening talk that took place on Friday, Sept. 22 in the Central West End. I had not even read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Alexie’s highly celebrated young adult novel that won him a National Book Award and the attention of some of his now most loyal, dedicated readers. I also was not aware of the wide range of his oeuvre: Besides authoring novels, collections of short stories, a picture book and many poems, Alexie has also served as a screenwriter and public speaker. St. Louis was one of the stops of his current book tour, in which the writer is promoting his new memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”
Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is known for exploring the tensions between the Native American and white worlds in his works. He has always drawn on personal experiences in his writing about alcoholism, violence and family relationships. The new memoir—which delves into Alexie’s relationship with his mother, who passed away in 2015—is a more explicit look into his life. The author’s talk, while frequently drifting into unexpected, fascinating directions, orbited around his life during the last months of his mother’s life, his return to his reservation for the funeral and the kinds of negotiations with himself and his past that this visit back prompted.
It was not at all the sort of author talk I had imagined it would be—it was far better. Alexie did not read at all from the book he was there to promote. Instead, he gave the impression of speaking about wherever his mind took him in the conversation between his thoughts and the finished memoir, a copy of which each audience member had received as part of the $40 ticket. It was as though we were all holding the road maps of Alexie’s journey through complex and troubling family dynamics, and the author was our oral guide for the evening. He was excelling at the performance, reading the mood of the audience perfectly and feeding off its energy. We, meanwhile, were hanging onto every last syllable.
Even though Alexie’s works frequently deal with emotionally tasking topics, he is known for injecting everything he does with loveable humor and wit. The first 20 minutes of his talk were essentially a stand-up comedy routine, full of evocative jokes with personal and political resonances. They touched on everything from pretentious literary speaker practices to spouse swap parties to pertinent political issues, including the recent protests on the Delmar Loop. He spoke boldly about the “monster in the White House” and about the frequently misinformed perspectives of white people. Yet—even when he was addressing the persistently troubling status of minorities in our community—his tone, though somber, was never vindictive. There was a lightness even in his gravity, a generosity of spirit in his manner of confronting others’ abuse. It seemed impossible to me in that moment that anyone could ever dislike this kind, humble man with the powerful voice.
Even as Alexie delved deeper into the sometimes dark and sometimes joyful stories of his own life, the personal and political layers continued to overlap. While encouraging everyone in the audience to keep resisting, and to resist according to their talents, he meditated openly on whether writing actually has any practical effect on political realities in contemporary America. He made a joke about poets who think they are dramatically shifting the world with their words when they only have 25 people come to their readings (18 of whom are waiting for their turn at open mike): When people are being killed in the streets, it can be difficult to conceive of a poem as an effective tool of resistance.
Yet, what has been so remarkable about touring for the memoir, Alexie told us, is that people have reciprocated his openness and honesty with their own concessions to vulnerability. Throughout the tour, people, feeling impassioned by everything Alexie shared in his memoir, have been sharing their stories of their own relationships with their mothers, both the good and bad. For Alexie, it seemed that, in the midst of such frustrating times politically, one form of resistance might in fact be to make those connections between those struggling from similar forms of abuse—whether they be in the home or in our daily interactions with the world—more palpable, more real. There is strength in that interaction, that exchange of experiences that alerts us to the ways that we are both similar and different.
Needless to say, I am a new fan of Sherman Alexie’s.