Sherman Alexie discusses Ďhardest thing Iíve ever had to writeí

June 6, 2016 

Does it matter to author Sherman Alexie that heíll be discussing his new childrenís picture book just a few miles from a school district that targeted one of his books a couple of years ago?

"No, not at all," Alexie said, chuckling.

Over the years, Alexie has developed a thick skin. His work has made the American Library Associationís list of most-challenged books and earned bans at many libraries and school districts.

In 2014, the Highland Park Independent School District in University Park, Texas, took his book "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," along with six others, off the districtís approved reading list before reversing its decision a few weeks later.

Alexie couldnít specifically recall details of the Highland Park ISD incident. But at the time, he tweeted that the "real reason" his book gets banned is "because itís about the triumph of a liberal Native American rebel."

"Bans create more interest and more love for my book," Alexie said in an interview. "You want to make sure every kid in your community reads a certain book? Tell a kid he canít read it."

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," a young-adult novel, is marked with strong language, including racial slurs. Alexieís book tells the near-autobiographical story of a teen who grows up in Washington state on the Spokane Indian Reservation but leaves to attend an all-white high school in a farm town.

The book, which made The New York Timesí best-seller list and won the 2007 National Book Award for Young Peopleís Literature, is typical of Alexieís style. From his books to his poems to his screenplay of 1998ís "Smoke Signals" movie, his work takes an unvarnished look at the pains and humor that mark the contemporary world that American Indians face.

Being an illustrated childrenís book, "Thunder Boy Jr.," doesnít have his biting social commentary, but Alexie believes it might be the first picture book about a contemporary American Indian family. In a recent Cooperative Childrenís Book Center study detailing multicultural representation in books and authors, American Indians were the least-represented ethnic group.

"Thunder Boy Jr." is a 518-word read over 40 colorful pages that were designed by Mexico-based artist Yuvi Morales. While not controversial, the book sends a message about children seeking their own identities.

"Iíve lived with the magic and loss of being named after my father my whole life," said Alexie, a Seattle resident.

Alexie talked about "Thunder Boy Jr." and other topics ahead of his appearance at the DMA. Here are highlights from the conversation.

Q: Where did you find your inspiration for "Thunder Boy Jr."? Are you Thunder Boy Jr.?

A: Heís named after his father. Heís Thunder Boy Jr. Iím Sherman Alexie Jr. Iíve lived with the magic and loss of being named after my father my whole life. The original impulse came at my fatherís funeral in 2003 when they lowered the coffin and I looked at his gravestone that had my name on it. Thereís a gravestone on my reservation that says Sherman Alexie. So the weight of carrying my fatherís name really hit me at that moment in a way it hadnít before. And I knew then, that I would write about it. So, Iíve been carrying around [the idea], trying to figure out how to write about it. I couldnít have predicted it would be in a picture book.

Q: Did the finished product meet your expectations?

A: What I wanted to do was to have a really positive, loving book about an Indian kid in search of his identity. I wanted it to be a beautiful positive adventure. Not something done out of loss but something done out of personal identity, something magical and wonderful and loving.

Q: Is writing a childrenís book a challenge?

A: It was the hardest thing Iíve ever had to write. You only get so many words. Youíre writing for the kid but also for the adult whoís reading to the kid. Itís a really difficult combination.

Q: What part of the story was the most difficult to convey?

A: One of the challenges was how the father accepts the sonís desire to change his name. And we went through various ways of portraying that. That was the most difficult part Ö to show a loving father reacting to his son wanting to change his name. We really worked on that. There were a lot of drafts of that. There must have been 20 drafts of that particular page, trying to figure out how to make it work best.

Q: Is naming your children after yourself a bad thing?

A: Itís very possessive and very colonial. From the beginning, itís a case of parenting that Iím not into. Iím not into the idea of my kid being like me. Or doing what I do, or loving what I love. Iíve always wanted them to follow their own paths. I guess when you name your kid after yourself, youíre already trying to determine their future. Itís always men doing it. And I refuse.

Q: How do you deal with this with your own children?

A: I donít push anything on them. I present them options and they choose. Growing up Native for me and my peers, there was so much negativity attached to it. You dealt with so much awfulness and so much racism around you. My kids have not dealt with that. My kids have not been forced to feel or made to feel or have the need to feel inferior because theyíre Native. Thereís a quiet confidence about them in their Native identity. Theyíre urban kids. Theyíre not from the "rez." Theyíre not dancers or singers. Being Native is who they are, but itís not their entire identity. Theyíre guitarists, saxophone players, video game players. They sing a cappella. They love American history and comic books.



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