Exclusive - Sherman Alexie Extended Interview

May 9, 2016 - Sherman Alexie 05/09/2016 Views: 6,695

Sherman Alexie explains how his father's funeral inspired him to write the children's book "Thunder Boy Jr." and weighs in on Native American representation in the U.S. (7:13)

Watch Full Episode

My guest tonight is an authorwhose new book is called

Thunder Boy Jr.

Please welcome Sherman Alexie.

(applause and cheering)

Thank you so muchfor being here.

Oh, thank you.It's great to be here.

-Uh, let's talk about the bookimmediately. -Yes.

I mean, I'm a very quick reader.

-I read it in one day.Um... uh... -(laughter)

Did you take a course?Speed reading?

-I did. I did. I did.-Okay.

I looked through the picturesand, uh, I was like,

"I've got this.I've got this book." It's a...

Yeah. It's like 125 words.

It's very differentto your normal work.

Why go from being an authorto writing a kids' book?

Uh, what I really loved was,with my young adult novel,

I would get letters from teenssaying things like,

"This is the first bookI ever read,"

or, "This is the first bookI ever loved."

And that was so amazingto hear that

that I thought,"I want to write, you know,

something for kids even youngerto get that feeling."

And also, as a fatherof two sons,

I mean, I still havethe picture books

I read to them memorized15 years later.

-Yeah, yeah.-You know, "My name is Maxi.

"I ride in a taxiaround New York City all day.

"I sit next to Jim.I belong to him,

but it wasn't always this way."

-Wait. "I belong to him"?-(laughter)

Yeah. Well, that's...It's a dog.

What was...? Oh.

-(laughter)-I was like, "That's a..."

-Oh, sorry, sorry.-"That's one of those books

that needs to be outof circulation, and, uh..."

-Yes, yes.-(laughter)

-"I belong to him"? Like, damn.-Well, well, I'm older than you.

-I'm older than you. Yeah.-That's why I was like, "Okay."

Sometimesyou need an outsider to be like,

"Hey, I don't knowif that's, uh, uh..."

-(laughter) -But this book isthe complete opposite.

This book has none of thatin there.

-Yes, the complete opposite.-Yes.

Um, this is a bookabout a young boy

who has the name of his father,right?

And you had the same thing.

-I am Sherman Alexie Jr.-Yes.

And the genesisof this book came

at my father's funeral in 2003,

where I happened to be standingat the foot of the coffin

as they lowered it,and as they lowered it...

I mean, if there's a soundtrack,it would have been 2001.

Right? ♪ Ah... And they lowered it,

and there was my name...on the tombstone.

-Oh, yeah, you see your name.-So half a mile

from my childhood home

is a tombstonewith my name on it.

So the weight,the existential weight

of having my father's namehit me at that moment

in such a way I thought...

-"I need to write about this."-Because you now need to die

-so that the tombstonedoesn't get wasted. -Exactly.


or we get...or they bury me on top of him.

-Yeah.-This is... I can feel that.

But in the book, though,the kid--

this is the story abouta young boy, and his name...

-his father's name is Thunder,is Thunder Boy, -Yes.

-and now he's gonna beThunder Boy Jr. -Jr.

Why? But, I mean, Thunder Boy's,like, such a super cool name.

Why is Thunder Boy complainingabout being called Thunder Boy?

Because it's still not his name.And as he says,

it doesn't measure somethingthat he's done and who he is.

Now, going back to someancient tribal traditions,

the naming ceremonywas so important

because it was a transitioninto adulthood.

-So that's in Native Americanculture, yes. -Native cultures.

And in other cultures as well.

It would measure your transitioninto adulthood,

and it would celebratesome accomplishment of your own.

I mean, for instance, uh...

the amazing Lakota warriorCrazy Horse,

his childhood name was Curly.

-Which...-Which is not as cool.

-No, not nearly as cool,'cause, I mean... -(laughter)

can you imagine, you know...would Custer have been afraid

if he heard Curly was coming?

-I don't think so, no.-Uh, you know,

Curly defeated Custer atthe Battle of Little Big Horn.

It sounds like a...like a rhyme, but it's not...

It's not nearly.But he got... and he got...

he got that namebased on-on-on tribal traditions

and family traditions

and the idea thathe was going to be very special.

That's an interesting thing thatyou bring up, because in-in,

uh... I-I know, in South Africaand in Africa a lot of names

are given to their children,uh, and it's meant to be

professorial. You give yourchild the name of the person

-you hope that they will become.-Yes.

Um... ironically, my mom calledme Trevor because she was like,

"I don't want you to be definedby one of those names."

But, as a Native American,names are very important.


How do you feel aboutnaming of things?

For instance, the Redskins--that's a discussion I always see

on TV and people on Twitterfighting about,

and the honest truthis I've never actually seen

Native Americansbe part of the discussion.

Well, we're never a part ofdiscussion about our lives ever.

Uh... (chuckles)We're colonized.

Uh, but the thing is I know that"Redskins" is a racial slur,

because it's never been saidin a positive way to me.

I've neverthought of it like that.

I've never heard,like, you know,

"Hey, way to, you know,

do well on your SAT, redskin."

I've never... That'sa great way to look at it.

It's like, has it ever beensaid to you in a positive light?

No, no, and also, for all thesefans of the Redskins

and the sports teams,I would-I would challenge them

to go into a tribal setting,you know,

go to a tribal council meetingand-and walk in

and yell out to the assemblednatives, "Hello, redskins"

-and-and see how that goes.-That is so funny,

'cause it's the exact samething if you go into

a black neighborhood,it's the same thing--

"What's up, my redskins?"You can't say...

It's the same...it's the same rule, basically.

-It's the same rule.-If you cannot say it

to the people's faceand walk away

with the same smileyou had coming in,

-don't say it.-Then don't say it, yeah.

That's an interesting...that is... O-Okay, let's-let's

talk about something else, then.Uh, Andrew Jackson.

-Andrew Jackson. -So, AndrewJackson on the-on the $20 bill,

people are going...Harriet Tubman on the front,

Andrew Jackson on the back,and people are going,

"Why are you taking AndrewJackson? He's an amazing

president. He's an..." And thenyou read up on his history.

-As a Native American...-He was a genocidal,


sociopathic monster.

But what was he really,though? Like...

I mean...I mean, really, really, for us,

seeing Andrew Jacksonon the $20 bill

is like a Jewish personseeing Hitler.

-Wow.-That is Andrew Jackson's, uh,

history among Native Americans.

Do you... do you ever feellike that is...

Because I-I know I-I comefrom a different world,

but it-it seems to me--it could be anecdotal--

it seems to meand it feels to me sometimes

that Native Americansare almost just not part

of the conversationsor the discussions or the...

It's just like a... Like,it's weird to get to a country,

and then go, like, "Where'sthe people of the place?"

Well, and the-the strangestthing is that we're everywhere

in pop culture. I mean, if-if...

Don't turn the channel,but-but if you turn the channel

right now, uh,there's probably 17 channels

with some Native Americanimagery going on.

-The headgear, the headdress,the... -The headgear.

-Yes, the... yes, the tribal...-A Western,

a-a commercial. There'salways something going on

featuring this ancient ideaof us.

But nobody ever thinks of usin a contemporary sense.

And we disappear as well.I mean, I come to New York,

and I becomeso ambiguously ethnic.

-What do people think you are?-I-I get spoken to

in 178 different languages.

I mean, every...everybody thinks I'm half

of whatever they are, so...

And all... and all I knowhow to say is "No habla."

-"No habla." Yeah. -"No habla."

-You know? "Lo siento. Indio de Spokane." -Oh, man.

Oh, man. Well, you know what,I'll tell you this,

you've got a home here,my redskin.

Thank you very much. Thank youso much for being here.

An amazing book. Thunder Boy Jr. will be available tomorrow.

It's a really great read for thekids. Sherman Alexie, everybody.

Thank you so muchfor being here.

(cheering and applause)