Lost in Cincinnati during the book tour for my young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I argued with the GPS in my rental car. After publishing 19 books for adults, and enjoying what some might call a distinguished career, I was now driving in circles and cursing at a machine. Why was I doing this to myself? Why did I publish a YA novel after all these years? I did it because so many librarians, teachers and teenagers kept asking me to write one. And I honored their wishes. Instead of feeling like an individualistic artist, I now felt socially responsible. To teenagers. And I was lost. So I called the private high school that was awaiting my arrival.
Hello,” I said. “This is Sherman Alexie. I'm almost there, I think. I'm on this road that's leading up a hill and I see a fancy building at the top. I think that's you. Where should I go? And who am I meeting?”
“It's so good to hear from you,” the receptionist said. “You're meeting the principal at the parabola in front of the administration building.”
“I'm sorry,” I said to the receptionist. “Did you say parabola?”
“No,” the receptionist said. “You need to meet the principal at the portcullis.” Portcullis?
I drove into the parking lot and saw a man standing in front of a building that resembled a lighthouse. So was that faux lighthouse called a parabola or a portcullis? Or perhaps it was a parabolic portcullis? I had no idea. But it was a gorgeous building. The entire school and campus were gorgeous. The staff and faculty were all gorgeous. And the students, well, they were all movie stars, and red carpets magically appeared wherever they walked. I wanted to put on a white shirt and tartan skirt and study Shakespeare with them. I wanted to get perfect SAT scores and early admittance into the Ivy League. I wanted to return to my teen years and live this glorious life with them.
My reservation school was an inglorious, ancient, gigantic and decrepit brick building stuffed with asbestos, mice, mold and Spokane Indian kids who would never take the SAT. Oh, those Indian kids were gorgeous, too, and could dance, sing and play basketball like poets, but we were not stars. We were extras. We were the dark faces peering around the corners. I fled that place for a better education at an all-white farm town high school. It might sound self-mythologizing, but my flight across the reservation border was an outrageous and heroic act. Even now, I can't believe I had the courage to do it.
But as that Cincinnati principal toured me through his school and then deposited me in front of the student body, I doubted these wealthy, privileged, genius kids were going to care about my story. Why did I write a young adult novel anyway? Why was I traveling around the country talking to kids who don't know or care who I am, and won't remember me after I've left?
The truth is, despite my insecurities, those rich kids did care about my story. So did inner-city kids in San Francisco, middle-class kids in the Chicago suburbs, and kids from the reservation, barrio, farm town and every other region of the country. Why have teens so embraced my book? I think it's because teenagers, of every class, color and creed, feel trapped by family, community and tribal expectations. And teenagers have to make the outrageous and heroic decision to re-create themselves.
Of course, there are certain adults who discourage and even punish teens for their outrage. I met a few of them during my book tour, but I met far more teachers, librarians, writers and parents who actively hope their students, readers, and children will grow beyond them. These adults know a secret: there is one great book for each of us. And that book, whether it is a novel, poetry, history or even an auto repair manual, becomes a sacred and profane how-to manual. So I write because I know there is a kid out there who needs my book. There might be one thousand, one hundred thousand or one million such kids. I want to be their favorite writer, craziest ally and honored guest.
|An award-winning author, poet and film-maker, Sherman Alexie is the winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.|