By: Erin Callahan – Chief A&E Writer
He has been described as “one of the major lyric voices of our time” by The New York Times book review, “the world’s first fast-talking, wisecracking, mediagenic American-Indian superstar” by Men’s Journal, and was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 top writers for the 21st century. On Nov. 11, the University of Dayton can find out why.
Author, poet, and screenwriter Sherman Alexie will visit campus Tuesday as part of the University of Dayton Speaker Series. He will attend a private reception in the Kennedy Union Presidential Suite at 5:30 p.m. with a public lecture to follow in the KU Ballroom at 7 p.m.
He is best known for his irony, humor and wit, and has a personal connection to his writing.
After growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington and cultivating his skills as a writer at Spokane’s Jesuit Gonzaga University and Washington State University, he has made a career of telling stories of contemporary Native American life.
Alexie’s works have been highly praised, earning him numerous awards and recognitions including “Smoke Signals,” based on his book, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” which won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a 2007 National Book Award winner in Young People’s Literature; and he most recently won the 2014 Literature Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He released his 24th book in November 2013.
Thomas Morgan, associate professor of English, proposed Alexie to be a part of the Speaker Series, and his visit will also fall in coordination with the Native Peoples of the Americas Colloquium.
“It’ll be a good chance to make conversation on campus,” Morgan said. “The speaker series this year is focusing on peace, and thinking how to build a more just and equitable world. This is a time to think about the kind of role poets and authors can have in beginning to think about these sensitive issues, in addition to other public figures.”
Morgan read much of Alexie’s work in graduate school, has taught on the subject in multiple classes at UD, and is currently teaching a senior capstone course exclusively on the author. He said he believes there are valuable lessons to be learned from Alexie through classroom study and attending his presentations.
“You can gain the kind of understanding that comes from leaving the spaces of safety where you know how everything works,” he said. “He’s a Spokane Indian, and also has experience within the Catholic Church, so his religious practices draw from both traditions. His poetry engages those elements and offers students the chance to think about the multicultural complex world that they live in. They don’t have to change their faith, but they’re seeing how others are engaging with theirs.”
Students who have studied Alexie’s work in Morgan’s poetry class had similar thoughts. Eileen Comerford, a senior English major recalled reading Alexie’s “The Summer of Black Widows” and watching “The Business of Fancydancing” her sophomore year, two works that focus on the Native American lifestyle, and said his modern tone paired with his flowery language stood out to her the most.
“He emphasized the beautiful, wonderful, powerful aspect of nature and the Native American’s connection to it,” she said. “However, he’s a realist, not mushy-gushy. He approaches topics in a funny, ironic and fresh way.”
Alyse Krevh, also a senior English major, said studying Alexie in Morgan’s class supplemented her ethnic and racial minorities class she took during the same semester.
“It really sparked my passion to help people, to realize that racism is still very much alive,” she said. “I learned about the many challenges Native Americans still face today. Attending Alexie’s presentation will help give a voice and a face to this author – all of our class discussions will be more understood.”
Morgan and his students, Comerford and Krevh, agree this is an opportunity to take advantage of. Not only is he a big name in the world of literature, they said, he also has a broadly resonant message anyone could relate to.
“I can guarantee it will be lively and exciting,” Morgan said. “While he’s dignified and famous, he’s the type of person that is very much interested in engaging with his audience and not just talking to them. He has quick wit and humor, designed to make people think along the way, and he helps create good ideas of discussion for the larger community. It’s that combination that makes him engaging and interesting.”