Sherman Alexie Talks Radical Happiness
Printed by ABQ Free Press: May 18, 2016
Sherman Alexie’s first poetry collection was published in 1992. Every since, the author has been celebrated as a singular voice in the diverse family of American Indian cultures.
Over the ensuring 24 years, Alexie has proven his versatility with the success of his poems, short stories, novels and even an award-winning screenplay. While his voice adapts to various genres, the same themes manifest over and over: reservations and isolation, dual identities and death, alcoholism and a tribalism that can fracture people as much as it can unify them.
In other words, Alexie’s themes are often dark. That’s why his young adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” earned him both accolades (including a 2007 National Book Award) and censorship (as school boards and libraries engaged in a national debate over its place in curricula and on shelves).
With his first picture book, Alexie shifts his attention and related themes toward an even younger audience. “Thunder Boy Jr.” tells the pointedly happy tale of a young Native American boy’s positive identity in a happy family. Glowing reviews piled up prior to the work’s May 10 release, and “Thunder Boy” seems destined to become an uncontroversial hit.
ABQ Free Press spoke by phone with Alexie about what differs when writing for such a young audience.
“The pressure to make it good,” Alexie says, laughing. “There’s very few picture books featuring Native Americans and almost none featuring contemporary Native kids. So it seems like there’s a lot of pressure attached to it —to make it great because of that. And also to portray a loving family. That was really important: a loving Native American family.”
There’s no shortage of love in Thunder Boy’s narration. While he respects his father, Big Thunder, the eponymous protagonist resents the petty ring of his own nickname, Little Thunder. His search for an original moniker reveals a strong sense of self-worth and great affection for his sister and parents, especially his ever-present dad.
“Being a good father is the most radical thing a Native American father can be,” Alexie says. For that reason, “Thunder Boy” is as much political statement as it is colorful kid’s entertainment.
And the book is prismatic, glowing with award-winning artist Yuyi Morales’ vivid illustrations. Her visual interpretations bring Little Thunder’s dilemma to life with pictures that expand on Alexie’s descriptions, sometimes in unexpected ways.
“I didn’t want to just put images to the manuscript,” Morales reveals via long-distance telephone interview form her studio. “I wanted it to be what I love about picture books — that they really become a narrative in two voices.”
In this case, the second voice is Mexican-American: Morales immigrated in 1994 from Xalapa, the capital city of Veracruz, Mexico, to northern California. At the time, she was a new mother who barely spoke English, and reading picture books to her son provided comfort and inspiration.
Through frequent library trips and evening classes, Morales found her calling as a children’s illustrator. Within a decade, she was publishing beautiful books and winning prestigious awards for them.
In “Thunder Boy,” Morales infuses Alexie’s distinctly American Indian characters with elements of her own Mexican heritage. From page to page, “Thunder Boy” dances at a powwow, bikes past a Mayan temple and jump-ropes through garage sale toys. His family participates as his skids effortlessly across different aspects of his identity, tying them into a single, joyful existence.
“Yuyi Morales brought in images from her culture and various indigenous cultures,” Alexie says. “It was her idea, and I thought it was brilliant. I just stayed out of the way and let her do her things.”
Morales agrees that weaving together diverse imagery makes Little Thunder’s story at once more unique and more accessible to readers.
“People might not be Mexican or they might not be Native American or they might not be from Sherman’s culture or my culture,” Morales says. “But because we’re giving them a character that has wants, that has dreams, that has fears, that has all these things that are very specific, I think that’s what is going to make people connect with it.”
Alexie notes that he writes for everyone, not just children who share his ethnic heritage. At the same time, he is explicit about his desire to represent racial minorities in his work.
“Seeing a brown-skinned character in a picture book has a lot of power,” he says. It’s not coincidence that Morales served as the work’s illustrator. “That’s why I chose her to begin with. I wanted somebody who understood what it means to be a brown person in the United States and somebody [who’s] well-versed in their own culture.”
Alexie visited Albuquerque later this month to promote “Thunder Boy Jr.” It seems fitting that he’ll read at the KiMo Theatre, whose Pueblo Deco style fuses elements of local indigenous architecture with design trends from other cultures. the result simultaneously honors tradition and forges a fresh, forward-looking identity — not unlike Alexie and Morales’ work.
Alexie speaks from 7–9 p.m. on Thursday, May 26, at the KiMo Theatre (423 Central NW). For info on tickets and scoring a signed copy of “Thunder Boy Jr.,” visit bkwrks.com/sherman-alexie.