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Stealing Sherman Alexie 

Identity issues keep Native author tossing and turning

Wednesday, Mar 12 2008

Last night, I dreamed about me. I was showering, getting ready to do a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle. I was hurrying, late as usual, but not panicked. In fact, I knew the crowd would wait for me. They’d grow anxious, sure, and maybe a handful of them would leave if I were to be, let’s say, half an hour late. But as I washed my hair, I wondered exactly how long the crowd would wait for me to show.

A few years ago, I took a train to Eugene, Oregon, to do a reading, but the train was delayed. I was 90 minutes late to the reading, but in the meantime, while I was sweating it out on the train, stopped at some switch, the crowd stayed. In fact, some of the audience members stood and read from my books. They decided to read for me until I could arrive to read for myself. Nobody left. That’s what the bookstore employee told me when I finally did arrive.

“Nobody left,” she said. “I can’t believe it. Nobody left.”

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She was breathless, amazed, maybe aroused. She was very attractive. I wondered if she’d have sex with me simply based on the fact that nobody in the audience had left. As I shamble through my literary life, I often meet women who’d have sex with me simply based on the fact that I’m good with metaphors. No, that’s not quite it. Women find me attractive because a lot of people have decided I’m good with metaphors. There’s been a consensus reached on my ability with metaphors. Can a consensus serve as an aphrodisiac? I don’t have sex with these strangers, but I do revel in the fact that I could have sex with many of them, dozens of them each and every year.

Still showering, I was now aroused. I’d sexually excited myself based on thinking about how sexually exciting my fans can find me. How narcissistic is that? But then again, doesn’t everybody know that narcissism is an aphrodisiac? I didn’t have time to masturbate, so I quickly finished my shower, got dressed and drove to Elliott Bay Book Company.

Whenever I read locally, fans will often wait outside the bookstore to greet me, to have a few minutes of private time, to give me gifts or tell me secrets or make offers or demand favors. It’s the price to be paid for a public life. I accept it. I’m always polite, but one has to keep moving, keep walking, don’t pause, don’t stop, or you’ll never break free.

However, I was surprised to find that nobody was waiting for me outside the bookstore. No fans. No matter how big my career gets, I also assume it’s going to end the next minute, next hour, next day, next week. Who knew that narcissism and self-pity are such close cousins?

Hurt, confused, I wondered if my fans had deserted me. I walked into the store, saw a few employees — familiar faces — standing behind the registers, and I waved. “The reading is downstairs,” one of them said. What a strange thing for her to say to me. Of course I know the reading is downstairs; I’ve read here 30 times. Maybe she’s just being funny.

So I walked down those gorgeous wooden stairs into the basement of Elliott Bay Book Company and I heard a familiar voice. It’s not that I’ve heard this particular voice before. But I recognize the rhythms, syntax and vocabulary. That’s a reservation Indian man talking. A rez boy. Am I that late? Has the crowd decided to read for me until I arrive to read for myself? Is this Indian guy exaggerating his Indian accent as he reads one of my stories or poems?

I feel honored by it. I wonder if I’ll get a standing ovation when I step into the room. But wait, that guy is reading a new poem of mine. A poem about Jimi Hendrix. How can he be reading that poem? Nobody has that poem. That poem is only in my computer and in the folder of poems I’m holding in my arms. Nobody has seen that poem except me. How did this guy get my poem? Is he some weird computer hacker/poem stealer? Jesus, what’s going on?

And then I turn the corner and see him, the Indian guy onstage. He’s taller than me. His skin is much darker. His black hair is twisted into perfect braids. I’m jealous. I mean, yes, I’m a handsome guy, but the man onstage is gorgeous. He looks far more Indian than I do. Everything about him screams Indian. I feel inadequate in his presence. How am I going to read my poems after he has already read my poems so well? But then he sees me. He stops performing.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he asks me. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

I’m confused. Why shouldn’t I be at my own reading? I look at the crowd. They’re confused. They’re looking at me as if I’m just some stranger. Why don’t they recognize me? Jesus, don’t these people know how much strength and love I have gained through their eyes, through the love and admiration that blasts from their eyes? Don’t they know how much power they give me by recognizing me? Why aren’t they giving me that power, their eyes, right now?

Jesus, I realize they don’t know who I am anymore. I’m nobody again. And then two police officers approach me.

“Sir,” says the bigger cop. “You’re going to have to leave the premises.”

Why am I being asked to leave my own reading? Fuck this. I curse at the officers and try to get to the stage. That’s my stage, damn it. That’s my poem he’s reading. That’s my life he’s living.

But the cops are too strong. They wrap me up and carry me out of the store. I punch and bite and kick so they beat the holy fuck out of me. They handcuff me, twist my arms until I feel my left elbow pop out of place, and then they throw me into the back of a police car. I scream and curse at them.

“I’m Sherman Alexie! I’m Sherman Alexie!”

One of the cops, the smaller one, picks up a wallet lying on the street. It has "Sherman Alexie" spelled out in red beads. How corny is that? I’d never have a stupid wallet like that. But the smaller cop pulls a driver’s license out of the wallet and slaps it against the window in front of me. I stare at that license. There’s my face. That’s me. But the name on the license, I don’t know that name. That’s somebody else.

“That’s not me! I’m Sherman Alexie! I’m Sherman Alexie!”

The cops don’t listen. They get into the front of the squad car and they drive. I curse and scream at them as we drive away from the bookstore.

And then I look back and see the other Indian guy, the gorgeous Indian guy, the better Indian guy, the guy who stole my stage, my poem. He’s standing in front of the store. Surrounded by his fans, my fans, our fans, he’s waving goodbye.

Goodbye, he waves to me, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Sherman Alexie is the author, most recently, of Flight (Grove/Atlantic) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown), for which he won the 2007 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.

Also read Matthew Fleischer's article, "Fake Memoirist Channels Sherman Alexie."

  • Identity issues keep Native author tossing and turning

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