The Absolutely True Story of a Devoted Reader

I didn’t discover Sherman Alexie until well after college, but when I did, I felt at home. He was the first author I read that talked about the experiences of going to Indian Health Services, of being different from both white people and his own family and tribe, and of the struggles of modern Natives in the U.S. I laughed aloud when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and then I basically demanded everyone I know read it. I gobbled up everything that Alexie produced. He was my favorite author, and I aspired to be like him someday.

There’s not a lot of representation in literature from Native voices. It’s getting better, but there’s still a shortage in the number compared to more traditional or even other minority literature authors. There were books on myths and history and a couple of authors I knew who seemed like they were writing about the past. Of course, there were also those stomach-turning books that paint Natives in stereotypical ways: savages or, on the other hand, naïves; sexualized women; Disneyfied freaking Pocahontas and John Smith; or any old timey Western. None of these represented my experiences. They weren’t stories that I could relate to because that’s not what happened to my family, my tribe, or really anyone I knew.

That’s what I loved about Sherman Alexie: his stories felt true.

Then my world of literary contentment shattered. I was heartbroken when it came out that Alexie had committed various inappropriate acts against a variety of women, using his fame and influence as a tool for sex. He reminded me that no man was god and whatever pedestal I’d created for him was shattered.  I was lost, turning away from my favorite author and from the stories that had dwelled in my heart for so long.

It took a while for me to discover other books that brought me even close to what I felt in reading Alexie. The first was Tommy Orange’s There, There, a book which shot to fame and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Next was Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah, which I heard about on an NPR podcast and immediately bought on my Kindle. I revisited Louise Erdrich and N. Scott Momaday, books I hadn’t touched since my undergrad days.  I started consuming poems by Joy Harjo and discovered Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, different forms of Native storytelling that spoke to me and my experiences, that made me laugh and cry.

I may never forgive Sherman Alexie for what he did and for how his actions changed my relationship with his works. Every time I see a meme from Smoke Signals, the film he wrote and that my family still quotes, or when I stumble across his name in an anthology for a class I’m teaching, it reignites a raging debate inside me: can I justify separating the artist from the artwork? His stories still feel like home, but I also feel icky reading (or teaching) them, like I’m contributing to the problem. And while I mourn the loss of the innocent joy I originally had for his works, I also celebrate the new authors I found, the new forms and inspiration and voices.

I can’t go back to having Alexie as my favorite author, but I can say he still inspires me. I still want to write works that make people feel the way his made me feel when I first discovered them. Now, though, I have a broader swath of other voices that are also inspiring me. I don’t have a favorite author anymore; I have works I like and love, and in each one, I find some different little splinter of life, of truth, I relate to. Instead of a single voice, I now have a choir to choose from, to sing amongst.