The great enemy, a Buddhist sage once observed, is complacency. Accept things as they are, settle comfortably into pattern and habit, and you surrender. But there are many other enemies, as a cursory scan of the headlines shows: hatred and ignorance, indifference and poverty, bullying and silencing.
All of these enemies have, at one time or another, entered the arena of the now-renowned writer Sherman Alexie, who has been anything but complacent as he enters his fourth decade of writing professionally and his sixth decade of life. As the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene author recounts in his autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published in September 2007, he was sickly, picked on, and accused of putting on airs. He fought back with basketball and pencil in hand, blessed with a long memory and more gentleness than might be expected—considering.
The first thing we learn about Junior, his alter ego, is that he was born “with water on the brain,” a dangerous condition requiring complicated surgery. “My head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it,” Junior jokes bravely, but even after the doctors’ work, he suffers from seizures, poor vision, headaches, and a profound sense of being an outsider, multiplied by events as he grows up, “damaging my damage,” as he says.
Like Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao, a contemporary, Junior finds ways to get away. He finds books, which Alexie credits with saving his life, and art, and music. He finds that he has a formidable intelligence, which doesn’t endear him to the tough kids all around him and certainly not to the teachers, who, it turns out, can stand to learn a thing or two from him, not least about petrified wood (“I didn’t name the stuff. But I know how it works”). And even though his family doesn’t quite understand him, they somehow go on together even in the face of hardship and tragedy.
Earlier this year, Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, appeared to much praise and some concern, for he lay Junior’s world a little barer and showed it to be even more challenging in fact than in fiction. Sharing his hero’s nickname, he was reckoned to be a weird kid, as a cousin told him, adding, “But you’re weird in a good way. Nobody gets you yet. I don’t get you. But people are gonna get you someday.”
Those words were prophetic, and Alexie has been living up to them with a long shelf of books of poetry, fiction, screenplays, and other works that affirm the power of the outsider to endure, and even prevail. What does one do in the face of the world’s ugliness and the dragons that lurk in its folds? So those books ask. If you are Sherman Alexie, you speak up, sometimes fiercely. If you are Junior, you pick up a pencil and draw. If you are anyone else, you battle them bravely as well, and you call them out when you see them—without waiting to be told to do so, without hesitation, and without an ounce of complacency.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.