Alex Heldrich, Reporter
Sherman Alexie was the keynote speaker at the annual Pierce County Reads event on April 29.
Although the event wasn’t physically held at Pierce College Puyallup, students and Puyallup community members could watch the speech via a live steam broadcasted from Clover Park Technical College in the theater of the Arts and Allied Health Building.
‘Sherman Alexie’ is a name that’s familiar to many young adults, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Growing up only four hours away from Puyallup on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Alexie is a Washington native and avid Native American rights activist. He’s the author of more than 20 books, each with heavy Native American themes.
His most well-known book is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a story that mirrors his own life and is commonly banned from schools. Alexie has also written screenplays for two movies: Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing.
As the clock ticked closer to 7 p.m., Pierce College Puyallup students and local residents began to filter into the theater of the AAH. The stream was playing an old video of Alexie being interviewed by a man that closely resembles Gabe Lewis from The Office, but instead of playing the audio from the recording, the stream was broadcasting a conversation between two unknowing women in the audience at CPTC.
Audience members at the Puyallup campus who had arrived early chuckled and made jokes about the audio as the theater manager frantically called and texted the people in charge of the live stream.
By 7 p.m., the theater was filled with people from all walks of life, all with one common interest. The age of audience members ranged from less than one year old to retired grandparents. Because the event was open to the public, there were many people in attendance other than just Pierce College students.
The presentation began with a long introduction by Georgia Lomax, the executive director of the Pierce County Library System. She gave shoutouts to all of the event’s sponsors, the Board of Trustees and even Pierce College Puyallup for hosting the live stream. A video was then played about a librarian who spent hours with kids from impoverished schools and brought them books to read. After the video, another woman introduced Alexie and then it was finally time for the show to start.
Alexie waltzed onto the stage and pushed the podium to the side. He began his presentation by telling his well known “water on the brain” story. He talked about how his mother knew that there was something seriously wrong with him because his head was too big, but the ‘rez’ doctors didn’t believe her. He told the audience of how it wasn’t until his common senseless cousin tried to push him on a swing at five months old and he ended up in the emergency room that he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus. In the process, he somehow managed to make at least seven sex jokes and 15 white people jokes. Alexie’s speech continued as he recalled his childhood of “white nurses and white doctors and white social workers and white physical therapists and white psychologists.”
Everything was going smoothly until a member of the audience at CPTC had a medical emergency and Alexie insisted on taking a 10-minute break. Visitors at the Puyallup campus dispersed into the lobby of the AAH to fill up on complementary coffee and fruit.
“I really like this so far,” student Hailey Cottle said. “Sherman Alexie is great and I had no idea what a funny guy he is.”
After the break, Alexie returned to sharing his stories and making the audience laugh. While talking about his recent medical woes, he asked all of the men more than 40 years old to stand. He then told all of the ones who have had a colonoscopy to sit while he yelled at the ones still standing to “go get your ass checked.”
Alexie has a way of flawlessly melding together the horrors of life and humor because the next thing he shared was his recent dance with death. He told of the ping-pong ball sized tumor that was found on his brain in December and the dangerous surgery he had three days later. He did all of this while still making the audience laugh until he shared how the first thing he asked when he got out of surgery was, “Can I still tell stories?” After wiping away a few tears, he concluded his talk.
Audience members at the Puyallup campus stuck around for a bit after Alexie’s presentation talking amongst themselves about what they had heard and how it made them feel.
“I mainly came at first because of extra credit for my poetry class,” student Ally Rose said. “Sherman Alexie is someone I’ve heard of before and I knew how important of a person he was. I don’t get the opportunity to come to these ‘motivational’ speeches very often so I knew this was something I didn’t want to miss.”
Everyone took away something different, but many were in awe of Alexie’s storytelling abilities.
“He taught me that you need to be able to laugh at things,” Rose said. “He’s had to deal with a lot of bad things, but he still has a positive outlook on it and you can tell that he’s happy with life.”
One of Alexie’s defining traits as an author and public speaker is his vulgarity. He’s on the list of banned books, after all. He’s avidly against filtering himself and beating around the bush so that people don’t get uncomfortable with what he has to say. He said that if people are too afraid to talk about topics like sex, it’s a question as to how they’re going to talk about the real issues in the world.
“He’ll say things that some people would be like, ‘oh my gosh, I can’t believe he just said that,’ but I’m glad he said those things,” Cottle said. “Nobody should tell you that you can’t say those things because everything is worth being talked about and I think that’s important.”
The jokes and personal stories will stay with those that came to listen to this talk with Alexie. Many left eager to pick up one of his books and to tell their loved ones more than 40 years old to get a colonoscopy.
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