Sherman Joseph Alexie Jr. was born in Spokane, Washington on October 7, 1966. Like Arnold Spirit Jr. (“Junior”) in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie was born with congenital hydrocephalus: he had excess spinal fluid on his brain. As a complication of this condition—and of the resulting surgery—Alexie had regular seizures throughout his early childhood. His enlarged cranium earned him the nickname “The Globe” from the other kids in the town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he grew up. In addition to being teased, Alexie was often physically beaten and bullied for his awkward appearance and precocious intellect. He had read all the books in the Wellpinit School Library by the age of twelve. Alexie’s father, Sherman Joseph Alexie Sr., was an alcoholic who sometimes disappeared from home for days or weeks at a time. Alexie’s mother, Lillian Agnes Cox, did most of the work raising Sherman and his five siblings. She supported the family with a day job at the Wellpinit Trading Post and by sewing and selling quilts.
At the age of fourteen, Alexie left Wellpinit to attend an almost all-white public high school in the town of Reardan, Washington, twenty-two miles from home. He became the star player, captain, and the only person of American Indian ancestry on the Reardan Indians’ basketball team. After graduating, Alexie was awarded a scholarship at nearby Gonzaga University. He pursued medicine, then law, but he also struggled with social anxiety and alcohol abuse. As a result of his alcoholism, Alexie dropped out of school and moved to Seattle in 1987. He began working as a busboy, and, after being robbed at knifepoint while he was in a drunken stupor, he resolved to quit drinking and re-enroll at Washington State University. Alexie took a creative writing class with the Chinese-American poet, Alex Kuo, who told him to write and to read the poetry of other American Indians. Encouraged, Alexie soon began composing his own poems and stories. He published his first collections, I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancydancing, in 1992. Critics immediately recognized Alexie as a promising American Indian writer and placed him among the ranks of such well-known authors as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Mormon Silko, and Louise Erdrich.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Alexie’s first young adult novel. He claims to have written it as a response to pressure from kids and librarians to create something directed toward a younger audience. It began as a work of non-fiction, but quickly shifted into a semi-autobiographical novel. Alexie’s fictional stand-in, Arnold Spirit, Jr., has fewer siblings than Alexie and slightly different ambitions. Junior wants to be a visual artist and cartoonist, a plot detail that led Alexie to collaborate with the visual artist and illustrator, Ellen Furney. (Furney is responsible for all of the drawings that appear in the book.) From its debut, TheAbsolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was a popular and critical success. It was a New York Times Bestseller and the winner of the 2007 National Book Award. Nonetheless some schools and libraries across the country have added it to their banned books lists. Some cite the book’s racial and homophobic slurs as inappropriate content for its target audience. But Alexie has contended that the bans themselves have been thinly veiled racism and, against the intention of the book-banners, have only made the novel a greater popular success.
In addition to prestigious literary awards like the National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award, Alexie has received recognition for his oratory. He has won the Taos Poetry Circus World Heavyweight Championship multiple times, and his audiobook performance of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Library Association’s Odyssey Award in 2009. In 2008, Alexie’s screenplay Smoke Signals, based on stories from his collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, became the first all-Indian-American movie—all of the actors and production team members responsible for the film were American Indians. He is a board member and founder of Loghouse Media, a non-profit educational organization that teaches American Indian kids the basics of filmmaking and production. Alexie still lives in Seattle, WA, with his wife Diane Tomhave and their two sons. He continues to produce poems, stories, screenplays, and novels prolifically.
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