Sherman Alexie

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At a Glance

Sherman Alexie read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at the age of five, despite the fact that doctors predicted he would be mentally challenged. Alexie was born with hydrocephalus and underwent several brain surgeries, but he grew up to be exceedingly intelligent. As a child, he lived on a Native American reservation near Spokane, Washington, and ended up transferring to an all-white school when his peers bullied him for being interested in education. Alexie has used that experience in much of his writing, focusing on the harshness of reservation life. In 1993, an award-winning collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published. He has gone on to write sixteen novels as well as numerous short stories, poems, and screenplays.

Facts and Trivia

  • Alexie originally hoped to become a medical doctor, but he decided to change career goals because he kept fainting during human anatomy class.
  • Alexie left college before completing his degree because he claimed he didn’t finish his U.S. History course. He said that once discussion of American Indians stopped in the first few weeks of class, he left.
  • Alexie competed in the World Poetry Bout Association in 1998 and won the World Heavyweight division. He became the first poet to successfully hold the title for four years in a row.
  • Alexie occasionally performs stand-up comedy and was the featured performer at the Vancouver International Comedy Festival in 1999.
  • Alexie collaborated with Chris Eyre, a fellow Native American, on the film Smoke Signals, based on a short story by Alexie. The film won a Christopher Award.

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Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sherman Alexie was born in Spokane, Washington, on October 7, 1966, the son of Sherman Joseph Alexie and Lillian Agnes (née Cox) Alexie. Alexie was hydrocephalic, necessitating brain surgery at the age of six months. The surgery was successful, but he had seizures throughout his youth which were likely related to the birth condition. The seizures, a long history of bed-wetting, and a voracious appetite for reading all conspired to separate him from his childhood peers.

Alexie frequently acknowledges both his Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribal heritage, even as he notes that he is a “breed,” not a “blood,” being 13/16 (as the poem of the same name from The Business of Fancydancing describes) Indian. Alexie’s alcoholic father was absent most of Alexie’s youth, while his mother worked in the Wellpinit Trading Post and sold her handmade quilts. It may or may not be true that he had read all of the books in the Wellpinit school library by the end of the eighth grade. He attended Rearden High School, where he excelled academically and on the basketball court, earning a scholarship to Gonzaga University. After two years at Gonzaga, a drinking problem and a girlfriend at Washington State University caused him to transfer there, and he received his B.A. in English in 1991, benefiting there from the mentorship of one of his teachers, Alex Kuo.

Within a year of graduating from college, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. Alexie has said that receiving the two fellowships, followed by a book contract with Hanging Loose Press to publish The Business of Fancydancing, motivated him to quit drinking and that he has remained “sober” ever since. The following decade revealed his talent and determination to excel in a number of different literary genres, and he was named on multiple lists as one of the most promising writers under the age of forty.

Following strong critical praise for The Business of Fancydancing (1992), Alexie published a number of poetry chapbooks in addition to four full-length collections of poetry: First Indian on the Moon (1993), Old Shirts and New Skins (1993), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), and One Stick Song (2000). He has published three collections of short stories, all to critical acclaim: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in...

(The entire section is 3,576 words.)