I wrote this post last week for Colorado State University’s new MFA blog.
The Colorado State University diversity symposium this fall began their week with keynote speaker (and author, poet, screenwriter, producer, and performer) Sherman Alexie. I was informed by the diversity symposium’s website, that “Alexie uses irony throughout his work in an attempt to dispel myths about the conditions of Native Americans living on reservations…” and that he would be bringing “his unique humor” to CSU that night. I thought, yes, I have read some of Sherman Alexie’s novels, stories, and poems, and yes, he is very funny. How I am looking forward to seeing him speak. But I was not expecting the two hours of straight stand-up comedy to which Alexie treated his audience that night. Bring his unique sense of humor? Boy, did he ever.
As with all good humor, his comedy was serious—seriously funny, and at the same time, earnest as hell. Between stories about growing up on a Spokane reservation and telling us the myth of the man who kept putting his penis in everything, Alexie said to students “Some people might complain that because people laughed this wasn’t serious. But it’s exactly the opposite.” What Alexie gave us was a belly-laugh-aching social critique that addressed the core wounds one might expect a keynote speaker to address in something called a “diversity symposium”, in the most unexpected ways. He never shied away from the controversial. He asked us to face stereotypes about Native Americans (and their storytelling wisdom, among many common assumptions), to look at poverty in all of its grotesque detail, and to question the rhetoric of victimhood and oppression that so often finds a place in events such as that symposium.
And although some of the more controversial statements were launched right after a joke, so that the audience was caught unawares in the midst of our own laughter, in other moments he made a point to screw with us. During a lecture full of digressions, he asserted, “The tangential can be sacred—write that down!” only to continue with a metanarrative satirizing his own authority. “What a wise thing to say. Was he serious, or was he just covering up because he forgot where he was? Or was that part of his storytelling routine…?” There was never a moment the audience was not enthralled by his particular brand of storytelling, an eccentric blend of narratives that eventually led us back to the same urgent questions about the politics of identity.
In the end, addressing yet another serious topic, the idea of doubleness and the negative connotations of the “difficulty of living in two worlds” that is so often applied to minorities, Alexie reminded us that nobody live in just two worlds—in his words, “there are hundreds”. We get too wrapped up in one identity, he says, and the trick is to “surround your adversaries with your identities.” A lesson that he taught by example, because surrounding us with the force of his many wonderful identities was exactly what Alexie did that night.