I have a complicated relationship with literature. Sprouting from that is an even more complicated relationship with authors. In both cases the relationship is one sided–it’s me grappling with the facets of my literary needs and trying to reconcile them.
In essence there are three sides to my literary life and each one has its own consumptive demands to satisfy. My reader-self is the least picky: I like a good yarn. Give me some characters, a reasonable plot, and some semblance of style and it’s a go. Most recently Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins filled the void: readable, compelling, and sweet.
On the academic side, I search out texts that inspire both a critical and pedagogical approach. Do I want to discuss the complexity of the narrative and cultural significance for hours with my fellow professors? Am I eager to get it into my classroom to guide students through the complexities and beauty of the work? Many of my colleagues and students have listened at length to me analyze, contemplate, and sometimes even make little “Squee!” noises over works like Joyce’s “Araby.”
The writer whines for inspiration. A work doesn’t have to be readable, highly intellectual, or even flawless. It just has to make me think about craft. “Signs of Life” by Miriam Kuznet is the first modular work that truly resonated with me.
Feeding these three needs is harder than it might appear. When I find authors that feed all three, I geek out. I crush on their novels, stories, poems, and screenplays like a crazed tween girl. My fever pitch of adoration tires even my most loyal friends: “Yes, you love Margaret Atwood. We all get it.”
A girl can’t help it. I am so passionate about all aspects of literature, I go a bit crazy. Knowing that, imagine my giddiness as I await the October 2 release of Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy.
My acquaintance with Alexie’s writing originated in grad school. Prior to a discussion over Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, my professor had us read “I Hated Tonto (Still Do).” Her reasoning, I suppose, was to provide a counterpoint to the Indian stereotype, particularly in light of the Comanche war party in Blood Meridian. (Incidentally, that scene remains one of the most graphic and disturbing I have ever read.)
When I finished reading the essay, with its cheeky picture of Alexie sporting the Lone Ranger mask, I was all in. On my own time, I tore through The Business of Fancydancing. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven soon found itself highlighted and dog-eared. (I might name a pet after Thomas Builds-the-Fire if I didn’t think it would be perceived as disrespectful.) It was like discovering The Great Gatsby all over again.
My first semester of college teaching, I launched the Comp I semester with “Superman and Me.” Smoke Signals found its way into Comp II. When our department changes books, I have a list of writers that must be in the text for me to consider it. I am lucky that Alexie is widely anthologized, so I can check him of my Must Have List with ease.
What is the draw? Alexie’s self-deprecating response in an interview–I’ve read many, so I can’t recall which one exactly–was to call himself an “important brown guy,” implying some sort of literary affirmative action. Bah.
Fundamentally, he’s a damn good writer. His work, even when fictional, tells truths that people sometimes don’t want to acknowledge. He’s insightful in his writing and commentary. Even when challenging conventions or dealing with weighty issues, he is witty and ironic without being smug. He’s the only poet I read for fun.
There is something more that I can’t articulate in a single post–buy me a beer sometime and I’ll talk your ear off about it.
It’s hard for me to name my favorite Alexie work because I go through phases. Right now I am fixated on “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” In a few weeks I’ll be teaching “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” For those looking to sample his work, you might click on one of the essays above or visit his website where he often publishes exclusive works. Although short, they give a feel for his style. Otherwise, pick up a copy of The Business of Fancydancing.
What other authors feed the needy three? Stay tuned . . .