Sherman Alexie On Writing A Banned Book: “You’re Offending The Right Monsters”

Nov 21, 2013

Sherman Alexie returns to Miami Book Fair International on Tuesday night
Credit Chase Jarvis / Grove Atlantic

When Sherman Alexie comes to Miami Book Fair International, he enjoys the visuals.

“It’s like putting a bunch of geeky English professors in Bermuda shorts,” Alexie says. “I like the notion of all that energy surrounding books.”

Alexie is the author of award-winning novels, poetry and short-story collections about Indian characters living on and off modern-day reservations. His protagonists frequently share a deep, obsessive love of books and basketball.

Alexie returns to the book fair Tuesday night at 8 p.m. for a much-anticipated author talk — his last appearance at the fair in 2009 was a wildly engaging performance of his stories with a heavy dose of stand-up.

Alexie joined us from a studio in Seattle for a conversation on why, in an age of e-readers, books — and book fairs — matter.  You can listen to that interview here:

He also talked about his young-adult audience — and what it means to author a banned book.

Sammy Mack, WLRN: How is writing fiction for young adults different than the kinds of stories you wrote before "Flight" and before "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"?

Sherman Alexie, author: I didn’t write "Flight" for teens. It just worked out that way. I still don’t think it’s for  teens, necessarily. It’s a book that contains a 12-year-old girl genitally mutilating a Cavalry soldier. I don’t remember that in the last Harry Potter novel.

I think the fact that "Flight" does get taught is great. But I never meant it to be that. In writing "True Diary," I didn’t necessarily think of it that way either.

Teens, young readers, are going to sniff condescension right away. So I always go by the definition my editor has for young-adult literature: Young-adult literature is whatever a young adult happens to be reading at that moment. 

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" deals with some real, often rough, subject matter: alcoholism, domestic violence, poverty, teenage-boy sexual frustration. They’re subjects you’ve tackled in other works. What does having a teenage protagonist allow you to do in that kind of story that you haven’t done before?

I don’t think I talked about masturbation in my work as much as I did in "True Diary." He mentions it three times. He mentions it three times; he doesn’t do it. And that’s enough to get it banned in some schools.

I think those sort of teenage obsessions are something I get to write about because I’m writing about a teen, but it’s also fun.

It’s a New York Times bestseller, it won a National Book Award, and like you mentioned, it’s also been banned in a few places. What does that tell you?

That I wrote a great book. I wrote the book that needs to be read. Percival Everett, the writer, always says that if you’re getting banned, then you’re offending the right monsters.

Which monsters are those?

Repressive, conservative, religious freaks who want to control everybody’s reading material, not just their children’s.

What are the stories that you read as a kid that have stuck with you?

Oh, my gosh. Stephen King, who was always writing about underdogs, and bullied kids, and kids fighting back against overwhelming, often supernatural forces. The world aligned against them.

As an Indian boy growing up on a reservation, I always identified with his protagonists. Stephen King, fighting the monsters.

You have children of your own, right?

Yup. Two boys, 16 and 12.

What are the books you’ve handed them?

Those days are long over. They are free agents in the reading world. Their recommendations now come from their peers.

I know my younger son has really been getting into John Green, which is great. John Green is awesome.

And my older son is very much a World War II and John F. Kennedy assassination buff right now. He goes on the Internet to look for what he should be reading and then he asks me if I have that book. I end up being a resource, a lending library rather than the librarian.