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Sherman Alexie brings his 'fancydancing' to Emory

Acclaimed writer Sherman Alexie uses "fancydancing" — a flashy, competitive style of Pow Wow dancing — as a metaphor for his writing. His skill was clearly on display as he offered up plenty of "punch lines" and "highly biased anecdotes" for Emory fans.

The cursing. The tangents. Laughing at his own jokes. Talking a long time about a water bottle that he somehow balanced on its cap, without meaning to, at his Emory Conference Center Hotel room. What kind of respectable, “writerly” talk was this?

Welcome to the world of Sherman Alexie — equal parts high and low theater. Alexie visited Emory for two events this week: He spoke at the Michael C. Carlos Reception Hall on Monday, April 4, on the topic “The Business of Fancydancing: Poems, Stories, Punch Lines and Highly Biased Anecdotes,” then gave a reading on Tuesday, April 5, also in the Carlos Reception Hall.

The term "fancydancing" refers to a flashy, competitive style of Pow Wow dancing often seen at Wild West festivals. Alexie uses it as a metaphor for his writing, relishing the irony.

Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is also a writer of uncommon talent who has published 30 books, including "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"; a book of poetry titled "What I've Stolen, What I've Earned"; and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," a semiautobiographical novel for children, which was named to TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time.

His first novel, "Reservation Blues," received one of 15 American Book Awards in 1996. His 2009 collection of short stories and poems, "War Dances," won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. As the irreverent Alexie shouted during his Emory talk, “I’m a f---ing millionaire poet.”

A brain that just won't behave

What was on Alexie’s mind on Monday night owed more to the trailing items of his title: “punch lines” and “highly biased anecdotes.” The central theme was his health and the fact that his brain just can’t seem to behave.

Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, underwent a surgery at six months of age and was not expected to survive. Doctors predicted that he would have intellectual disabilities as a result; instead, he spent his childhood battling seizures. Quite the opposite of having compromised intelligence, Alexie learned to read at age three and went on to more grown-up stuff —"The Grapes of Wrath" — by age five.

Recently, the problem was a meningioma that was removed in a nine-hour surgery. There may be no richer material for any writer than a brush with death, and Alexie told the story every which way — funny, terrified, sad, resigned, confused. And cursing, always cursing. He spoke of the oddity of seeing the doctor pull up his brain on an iPad and show him the troublesome white region that represented the tumor.

Perhaps most amusing in his recounting were the twists and turns associated with the timing of the surgery. First, the doctor was going to just watch the tumor. That left Alexie in a state of high anxiety that he fought by planning family trips. Impulsively, he spent some $12,000, only to have the surgery quickly moved up, which meant the hassle of seeking refunds while contemplating his mortality.

After hearing the news about his condition, which began with hearing loss, Alexie had tried out various clichés, such as “live for the moment.” However, upon finding out that the surgery was imminent, he declared, “Live for the moment. That is bullshit. Waiting is what is beautiful.”

The night before the surgery, consumed with worry, Alexie decided that he should write poems to his “beloveds,” of whom he has 17. (Count up yours, he recommended.) Wanting to go fast, he says that he wrote 17 “death haikus.”

Other amazing moments followed on in this rambling talk, including the atheist Alexie praying with his surgeon, his being given a drug to relax him that “made me feel like a white man,” and being lucky enough to have a hip nurse who was also a fan.

There are no straight lines, pun intended, in an Alexie narrative, and so the tale of the meningioma ranged everywhere, from the “racist” Atlanta Braves to a forest fire on his reservation that was approaching an old uranium mine ("There is no genocide emoji yet”) to the poem his son wrote in the second grade (“The Dark Cloud of Knowing”). With that lineup, as one might imagine, came every range of emotion.

Most memorable was his search, post-surgery, for his old self. He asked the hip nurse over and over again if he was the same, saying, “I don't know if I am pretending. I don't know if I am better or worse. It is amazing. It is like a reset.”

The beauty of how he got through this harrowing ordeal and indeed how he gets through every day? As he says, “If you’re going to be a writer, you can’t be afraid to say anything.”

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