Allison's Book Bag

Born with Water on the Brain: Author Sherman Alexie

Posted on: February 25, 2016

ShermanAlexieHe’s the author of over twenty books, the producer of a movie that won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and winner of a variety of book awards including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and now lives in Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll review his best-selling The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Save the date: February 26!


Born hydrocephalic (fluid on the brain), and expected to die, Alexie underwent surgery at six months of age. Though he survived surgery, Alexie suffered with seizures and bedwetting until the age of seven and had to take drugs. Because of his health problems, Contemporary Literature reports, Alexie did not fit in well with his peers and instead spent most of his childhood reading everything from auto repair manuals to classic novels like Grapes of Wrath.

His father was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe and an alcoholic who often left the family alone for days. To support her six children, his mother who was of Colville, Choctaw, Spokane and European American ancestry sewed quilts and worked as a clerk at the Wellpinit Trading Post.


In the eighth grade, Alexie asked his parents to enroll him in Reardan High School, so he could better his education. The school was located twenty miles outside the reservation, and Alexie was the only Native American student. At Reardon, Alexie excelled not only in his studies, but he also participated on the debate team, was elected class president, and became a star player on the basketball team.

His academic achievements earned him a scholarship to Spokane’s Jesuit Gonzaga University, a Roman Catholic university in Spokane. Here, according to Wikipedia, he struggled to find his path. Originally, Alexie enrolled in the pre-med program with hopes of becoming a doctor, but found his anatomy classes made him squeamish. Law didn’t suit him either. The pressure to succeed led him to drink to cope with his anxiety. Finally, he Alexie found comfort in literature classes, as well as discovered an aptitude for writing.


In 1987, Alexie transferred to Washington State University, where he enrolled in a creative writing course. He began writing poetry and short fiction. His instructor, Alex Kuo, a respected poet of Chinese-American background, served as a mentor to him. Kuo gave Alexie an anthology entitled Songs of This Earth on Turtle’s Back by Joseph Bruchac. Alexie is quoted by Wikipedia as saying this book changed his life because it taught him “how to connect to non-Native literature in a new way”.

Alexie started work on what was published as his first collection, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Viviane Poems, published in 1992 through Hanging Loose Press. Poetry Foundation reports that, with that success, Alexie gave up alcohol at the age of 23 and has remained sober since that time. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies and shortly thereafter received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.


In his short-story and poetry collections, Poetry Foundation describes Alexie as illuminating the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often shape the lives of Native Americans living on reservations. In 1996, he was named to Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists list. Poetry Foundation notes that judges had liked Alexie’s work “because it had something to tell us. Native American life, life on the reservation, is a pretty under-described experience.”

Alexie also became active in film. Smoke Signals, written and directed by Alexie, was a major studio release and is considered the first all-Indian movie. The film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival.

As noted at the start, Alexie has been the recipient of numerous literary awards too. In addition, Alexie is a highly sought-after public speaker and has been a guest on nationally-broadcast radio and TV programs. In 2005, Alexie became a founding board member of Longhouse Media, a non-profit organization described by Wikipedia as being committed to teaching film-making skills to Native American youth. He now lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.

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