Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, a PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Sherman Alexie is a poet, short story writer, novelist, and performer.
He has published 26 books including his recently released memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, his first picture book, Thunder Boy Jr, and young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, all from Little, Brown Books; What I've Stolen, What I've Earned, a book of poetry, from Hanging Loose Press; and Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, from Grove Press.
He has also published the 20th Anniversary edition of his classic book of stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Smoke Signals, the movie he wrote and co-produced, won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
A Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
Alexie has been an urban Indian since 1994 and lives in Seattle with his family.
2. Is dark young adult fiction harmful or beneficial for readers?
3. Alexie starts the book by describing the disabilities Junior suffered because he was born with hydrocephalism. How does he respond to these problems? Is he bitter? Amused? What role do his physical weaknesses play in the novel? Is overcoming his physical disabilities the point of the story? Can we learn anything from the way Junior deals with his illness and disability?
4. Junior comments on the fact that there are many different ways that people choose to deal with pain and problems. How does Junior deal with his pain and problems?
5. Why does Junior draw cartoons? How does it help him live his life? Does he ever show the drawings to anyone? Does he use the drawings to communicate with others, or just to help him visualize his own thoughts?
6. Does Junior identify himself primarily as a Native American? In what ways does he accept certain Native American stereotypes? In what ways does he reject them? How is the stereotype of the "stoic Indian" supported or dis-confirmed by Alexie's portrayal of Junior's father? Are there other places in the book that disrupt this (or other) stereotypes?
7. How does Junior feel about life on the reservation? Is Junior angry and bitter? Is he able to keep a sense of humor about things, or he is simply depressed? Discuss how Junior conveys the poverty and hopelessness that exists on the reservation. Have you ever had to suffer because your family was too poor to do anything else (like the death of Junior’s dog)?
8. How does the author deal with the problem of alcohol use among Native Americans? Why do you think there are problems with drinking for many Native Americans? What are the consequences of alcohol dependency and abuse? What behaviors generally reflect how people living on the reservations feel about themselves, their lives and futures? How does Junior respond to life on the reservation? How does he feel about his future?
9. What aspects of reservation and family life does Junior like?
10. Discuss Junior’s relationship with his father. In what ways has Junior’s father disappointed him. Discuss the ways Junior’s father supports him. How does Junior deal with his family disappointments? Discuss Junior’s relationship with his mother. How is that relationship similar to and different from his relationship with his father.
11. When Junior's father calls him a warrior for going to Reardon, "It was the best thing he could have said." What do Native Americans in this book mean when they call one another "warrior"? What words or phrases do you use to convey similar meanings? What would be the "best thing" someone could say to you in a scary or challenging situation?
12. Why was Junior upset to see his mother’s name in his textbook? Junior’s teacher told him to leave the reservation, a piece of advice he acted upon and that changed his life. Do you think an experience like that can really have such an effect? Have you ever had someone believe in you and suggest you change the direction you were going in your life? Did you take the advice and make the change? If this hasn’t happened to you, do you wish it would?
13. Junior’s decision to go to school off the reservation was unusual. Why do you think that was? It made his best friend, Rowdy, furious. Why do you think that happened? Have you ever made a change in your life that caused friends to abandon you? Have you ever failed to make a change that you wanted because you were afraid friends would abandon you? Why are these decisions so difficult?
14. Why are "the rules" so important to Junior. Were there unspoken rules at Reardon?
15. When Junior started school, he was completely ignored by the other students. Why do you think that was? Have you ever been in a place where everyone ignores you? How did that feel? If it changed, was there anything particular that caused it to change? Have you ever seen another person ignored like that? Why are some people treated this way?
16. Things change for Junior when he seeks out Gordy, the smartest person in the class. Did he need to have courage to do that? Why is reaching out to others difficult? Have you ever reached out to make contact with someone like that? Have you ever wanted to reach out, but were too embarrassed or frightened to do so? What difference did it make?
17. When Junior played the basketball game against the reservation team so well that they won, why didn’t he feel pure joy? Have you ever “won” something that actually made you feel bad, instead of good?
18. At the end, Junior asked his old friend, Rowdy, to leave the reservation, but he just brushed aside the suggestion. They played one-on-one basketball, without keeping score. What was the value of that game? Why didn’t they keep score?
19. Junior left the reservation in search of a dream. He felt a stranger in a “white” world and may always have to work to overcome people’s thoughts and actions because they think he is different or “other.” In what ways is his experience the same or different from that of immigrants to this country?
19. Alexie was accused in 2018 of sexual impropriety by several women (see NPR article below titled “It Just Felt Very Wrong”). Does knowledge of someone’s personal life change how you view that person’s accomplishments? In other words: Is Kevin Spacey less of an actor? Is Wagner less of a composer? Is Picasso less of a painter? Should we keep a person’s personal life out of our evaluation of the Arts as the New Critics of the mid-20th century claimed?
'It Just Felt Very Wrong': Sherman Alexie's Accusers Go On The Record
Writer Sherman Alexie last week issued a statement admitting he "has harmed" others, after rumors and allegations began to circulate about sexual harassment. Without providing details, Alexie said "there are women telling the truth," and he apologized to the people he has hurt. Now, some of those women have come forward to speak to NPR about their experiences with him.
Alexie may not be a household name, but he is one of the country's best known Native American poets and writers, with a charismatic personality and a large following. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, and he wrote the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals, based on one of his stories. So the news about him has rocked the worlds of both Native American and children's literature.
If you are an aspiring author and you go to a reading of someone who is famous and beloved ... and he suddenly takes an interest in you and your work ... and then suddenly it turns out all he wanted to do is have sex with you. Those writers are left utterly devastated.
In those circles, "well, he's a rock star," says children's book author Anne Ursu. After the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story broke, Ursu decided to survey women in the children's book business to see if they had experienced such problems — just as many media companies, including NPR, have. Ursu's story, which she published in February on the website Medium, contributed to the whisper of sexual scandal that was already building around some well-known authors — including Alexie. Ursu says some of the most popular kids book writers used the power of their celebrity to seduce women.
"If you are an aspiring author," Ursu says, "and you go to a reading of someone who is famous and beloved and whose work you admire, and he suddenly takes an interest in you and your work, and he thinks you're special, and you start emailing, and he wants to mentor you — and then suddenly it turns out all he wanted to do is have sex with you. Those writers are left utterly devastated."
The rumors about Alexie were already growing louder when, about a week ago, Seattle-based writer Litsa Dremousis began tweeting about him, calling on women to share their stories. NPR — like other news organizations — reached out to her. She told us she'd had an affair with Alexie, but had remained friends with him until the stories about his sexual behavior surfaced. In his statement, Alexie denounced Dremousis. But before that, NPR began interviewing the women she referred to us.
"It's a story about power, and abuse of power," says Jeanine Walker, one of three women who came forward on the record, and whose stories NPR has corroborated with several sources. In all, 10 women spoke to NPR about Alexie, who is a married man. Most of the women wanted to remain anonymous, but a clear pattern emerged: The women reported behavior ranging from inappropriate comments both in private and in public, to flirting that veered suddenly into sexual territory, unwanted sexual advances and consensual sexual relations that ended abruptly. The women said Alexie had traded on his literary celebrity to lure them into uncomfortable sexual situations.
"Of course, I was really excited, I mean, Sherman Alexie, he's interested in my poems," Walker says. She's a poet and teacher who was managing a Writers in the Schools program in Seattle when she arranged to have Alexie visit a classroom. Afterward, Alexie said he had checked out her poetry online and asked her to send him a manuscript.
Alexie never got back to her on the poems, but they did become friendly. Walker says it was strictly platonic. One day, they met to play basketball at a court in his office building. Afterward, Walker went to change her clothes in a restroom in his office. "When I turned around he was right behind me, and just like physically very much in my space. And leaned toward me and said, 'Can I kiss you?' I said no and backed away, and he kept moving forward and was like, laughing and smiling and sweaty and whatever, and he said, 'It's just, we're playing basketball, you remind me of the girlfriends I had in high school.' And I just said, 'Well, we're not in high school, Sherman.' "
Alexie later apologized, and Walker says she stayed in touch with him for a while. She sent him her poems again, but never got anything but a quick comment and a promise of more to come. She says Alexie is a big deal in her hometown of Seattle.
"And he's connected to the organization I work for, and if he had never expressed an interest in my poems, I probably wouldn't have pursued spending any time with him," Walker says. "But he did express an interest. And so then when I discover that interest is actually physical, it just felt very wrong."
Erika Wurth was a 22-year-old aspiring writer when she first met Alexie. As a Native American, he was a hero to her, and she hoped he might become a mentor. About a year after their first meeting, he suggested she come to one of his readings in Colorado. She went, and afterward walked back to his hotel with him. After chatting in the lobby, she started to leave, "and he jumps over the coffee table and begins trying to kiss me," she says. "And I went into a state of non-reality. I had almost no sexual experience, I couldn't believe it. And he's like, 'Come to my room.' "
Wurth did, and ended up on his bed. "He's kind of taking my clothes off and kissing me," she remembers. "And I'm kind of like stock still, trying to convince myself this is OK. It's not working, and eventually I say, because I am kind of scared of this situation, 'I'm a virgin.' But it got really weird, because then he's still trying to work me over, and I'm just stock still, and I think at that point, in my opinion, he realized that if he wanted to have sex with me he would have to violate me, he'd have to rape me. And he did stop.”
Wurth says she stayed in touch with Alexie, hoping he would still be her mentor — or at least apologize. Several years later, they had a second sexual encounter which also ended badly. Eventually, he did give her a positive quote for her first book, and a letter of recommendation — which she now thinks was to keep her quiet. Their relationship became contentious, and after a series of angry emails, Wurth decided to cut ties with him, disillusioned by the way he treated her. "Never admitting what he'd done, never apologizing. And I just was like, 'I don't ever want to be around this guy again. He's poisonous. He's not OK.' "
Alexie has enormous influence on the careers of Native American writers, and Wurth worries about what he may say about her to others in the business. So does Elissa Washuta. She met Alexie when she was getting ready to publish her first book, and she was hoping that he could help her with it. She went out one night with a group of people that included Alexie. She was chatting with him when, "seemingly apropos of nothing, Sherman told me that he could have sex with me if he wanted to," she says. "But he used a stronger word, beginning with F. You know, he had not said it quietly, he had not whispered it. It seemed that the men we were talking to could have heard it. I couldn't believe that somebody would say something to me like that. This older man who I didn't know, who was much more powerful than me."
Washuta says that although she was worried that the other men who were with them — all part of the local literary scene — had heard Alexie, she didn't have the nerve to say anything about it at the time. "I felt I really needed his approval and I needed his help in order to get this book off the ground," she says. "And so as uncomfortable as I was, I felt I could laugh off that comment in a way. But I still felt that he had so much power that I should probably not make a fuss about this."
Eventually, Washuta and Alexie became colleagues at the Institute of American Indian Arts. They got along, but she says that once, on a work trip to Santa Fe, he tried to lure her to his hotel room. Later, they had a disagreement over an essay of hers — Alexie implied she had plagiarized his work — and Washuta became fearful that he would ruin her career. When she got another job, she decided to cut her ties to the institute because Alexie was a powerful member of the faculty. "I think we did some really good work there. And I'm sure they continue to do really good work there. But I'm not a part of it. And that feels so lonely. I'm incredibly sad about it."
As the allegations against Alexie began to surface, the institute changed the name of its Sherman Alexie Scholarship to the M.F.A. Alumni Scholarship. Alexie has not responded to our multiple efforts to contact him. It is clear from his statement that he is angry at Litsa Dremousis, whose tweets prompted these women to come forward.
But if Alexie is angry, so are the women, which is why they're willing to talk. Their stories are complicated and messy, as much about the power they felt he had over them as they are about sex. And how to change that power dynamic may be where the conversation has to go from here.
This story was edited for radio by Rose Friedman and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.