illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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In "Superman and Me," how does Alexie's understanding of paragraphs help him comprehend the world?

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Sherman Alexie recounts a story of when he was a young boy, before he understood writing and the structure of an essay. He was examining one of his father's books and saw the delineations that separated the words into paragraphs, and he was struck by the structure. He realized that paragraphs were, as he said "fences" that kept words together, organizing them into coherent thoughts and pointing them in the same direction so that they could work together.

In this realization, he came to learn about the world around him. He recognized that groups of people, cities, and towns all acted as "paragraphs" to collect people together and guide them to a common purpose. More importantly, he recognized this structure in the reservation on which his family lived. This community held the people together and collected them into one place. In that place, they worked for a common purpose and supported one another, making a complete "paragraph".

His understanding of the concept helped him to structure and organize the world around him. Not only did it reveal the nature of language to him, it helped him better understand sociology and the behavior of groups of people—an important trait that he would use to explore human nature in his later writings.

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In his essay “Superman and Me,” Sherman Alexie recounts learning the purpose of a paragraph as a child. Even before he is old enough to know the word "paragraph," Alexie examines his father’s books, realizing that “a paragraph was a fence that held words.” Alexie realizes that these paragraphs “worked together for a common purpose” and that “they [have] some specific reason for being inside the same fence.”

What makes this epiphany remarkable to Alexie is its applicability. He begins to see the rest of the world in the same terms, noting that

Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States. My family's house was a paragraph, distinct from the other paragraphs of the LeBrets to the north, the Fords to our south and the Tribal School to the west. Inside our house, each family member existed as a separate paragraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us.

Although the second half of Alexie’s essay moves away from explicitly discussing the paragraph, we can see the effect that this way of thinking still has on Alexie. The conclusion of the essay focuses on the role that Alexie plays for Indian students who want to become writers:

The Indian kids crowd the classroom. Many are writing their own poems, short stories and novels. They have read my books. They have read many other books. They look at me with bright eyes and arrogant wonder. They are trying to save their lives.

Although they might not realize it in the same terms, these students are part of the same paragraph. For Alexie, they are inside the same fence—at times both literally and figuratively. As he puts it in the final sentence: “I am trying to save our lives.”

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Alexie cites his grasp of the paragraph as his way of organizing information in his mind:

I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs.

Alexie is able to apply the same "fence," or method of organizing information, to all kinds of different constructs in his life: his family, other families, the reservation, the state, and the country. Once he has a recognition of organization in place and understands how elements of his world connect, Alexie is able to extrapolate. He sees organization and structure in his Superman comic book and how its elements of picture, dialogue, and narrative work together. Alexie grasps how books are put together through the comic book's panels and pictures and sees how they combine to create meaning before he has actually learned to read words.

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