Literary readings haven't been traditionally funny. Thought of less as light entertainment, and more as "high culture," authors have a stigma of stuffiness to contend with. Like opera or the ballet, literary presentations aren't expected laugh-heavy—after all, learning isn't fun—they're meant to expand minds, especially presentations from a highly respected, culturally aware, and decorated author like Sherman Alexie.Right?
Wrong. Native American tradition and contemporary issues are certainly no laughing matter. Reservation politics, alcoholism, and coming of age are all extremely serious topics, but Alexie approaches these dark themes and dissects them with a deft and often comedic hand in his poetry and prose. His writing and speaking often push the limits of contemporary understanding and comfort with the issues he addresses.
Take for instance, Alexie's awkward teen-age protagonist's masturbation monologues."[...] if God hadn't wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn't have given us thumbs," writes Alexie of his Native protagonist in "The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian." "So I thank God for my thumbs."
While masturbation is mentioned a grand total of twice in the novel, that painfully funny line saw the book banned in many school districts.
Beyond his prose and poetry, Alexie's presentations are as much standup comedy as they are traditional page to podium reading.
"[Alexie] practices a form of humor that makes people really uncomfortable," said Andrew Proctor, executive director of Portland's Literary Arts, which books some of the largest lecture series in Portland. "It is really smart and plays with your own social discomfort. It is comedy that is really social commentary and requires you to reflect."
Alexie has admitted that combining comedy and storytelling isn't a new idea, but is a tool for engaging audiences in deeper thinking about contentious topics.
"I realized that humor is pretty amazing in its ability to transcend differences, politically, ethnically, racially, geographically, economically," said Alexie in a 2013 interview with Big Think. "There's something about it that really opens people up spiritually, I think, and they listen. They pay attention. And it's also a great way to offend people."
While offending readers may not always be priority number one, Alexie is amongst many talented contemporaries who weave humor into their writing and presentations. Fatwas are in no way funny, but Salman Rushdie often writes and speaks about his illogical, door-locking reaction to the news that his life was being threatened by the Iranian government. Junot Diaz also writes in a fragmented style, somewhere between comedy and tragedy through a pop-culture lens, and in "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," Diaz compares the fall of horrifying Dominican President Rafael Trujillo to that of evil overlord Sauron in JRR Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" series.
These authors fit in as well in banter-filled interviews with Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert, as they do presenting in traditional literary lecture halls, and inspire the same laughs in both settings. In fact, Alexie was one of the few guests to render Colbert come-backless back in 2008 when he described the giant statue of Christopher Columbus looming outside his hotel room that "The Colbert Show" had booked for him, and with some less than savory genitalia jokes about John McCain's campaign.
In "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," Alexie explains the blurred lines between tragedy and comedy.
"When it comes to death," he says, "we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing."
The same might be said for Alexie's writing and presentation. Both view disparaging realities through a comedic lens. Alexie refuses to shy away from complex issues like race, sexuality and inequality, and the reality that those issues, presented in the right light, can be laughed at. The duality of his readings mirrors the themes of his poems and stories, living between the reservation and the city, contending with ambiguous identity, and the struggles of being an indigenous immigrant. Like his writing and Alexie himself, his presentations live somewhere in the borderlands between standup comedy and traditional literary reading.
Friday, Jan. 24. 7 pm.
Bend High School, 230 NE 6th St.