Monday, December 6, 2010

Background of Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is a Native American author who was born in 1966 in Wellpinit, Washington on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He found a passion for reading after being isolated by his peers who called him "The Globe" due to his enlarged skull. This was the result of his miraculous recovery from surgery after being born with access fluid in his brain. He also attributes his tough early years to giving him a good since of humor.  He states, "You make people laugh and you disarm them. You sort of sneak up on them. You can say controversial or rowdy things and they'll listen or laugh" (Belasco and Johnson 1503). He went to high school in Reardon, Washington and was the only Native American in his class. After graduation he went to Gonzaga University and then transferred after two years to Washington State University. He majored in pre-med but quickly turned his attention to writing after taking a poetry workshop.  Alexie received his degree in American Studies from WSU and then was honored with the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992. Shortly after this, The New York Times published "The Business of Fancydancing" and reviewed him as, "one of the major lyric voices of our time”(Nelson). After his career launch, he started publishing collections of poetry and short stories relating to the life of Native Americans. He branched out to film and wrote the screenplay to "Smoke Signals", a movie based on his short story "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. He also directed the film version of "The Business of Fancy Dancing"  in 2002. "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" was first published in 2002 in the New Yorker and then later in a collection of short stories called "Ten Little Indians". It was admired and placed in both The Best American Short Stories 2004 and in the O, Henry Prize Stories of 2005. Sherman Alexie continues to write and currently lives Seattle, Washington with his two sons and wife. 

The background of Sherman Alexie has been summarized by information found in The Bedford Anthology of American Literature by Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson pages 1502-1504. The links have been provided by and Full documentation is notated in Works Cited.

Factors Contributing to Alexie's Perspective

  • Learned to read at the age of 3 and started devouring books at an early age
  • Experienced life on a reservation
  • Suffered from alcoholism until becoming sober at the age of 23
  • A passion for comedy led him to compete in various stand-up competitions 
  • Early fame and recognition landed him a position as an important spokesperson for Native American culture
  • A desire to reach a large audience prompted him to embark into the film industry
  • His favorite authors are John Steinbeck and Stephen King
  • He believes he must honor his writing by living the principles he glorifies. 

Quotes from Alexie

"John Steinbeck was one of my earliest heroes because he wrote about the poor. Stephen King became a hero because he wrote so well of misfit kids, the nerds and geeks" (Nelson).

"Most of my heroes are just decent people. Decency is rare and underrated. I think my writing is somehow just about decency" (Nelson).

"If you write about pain, you can end up searching for more pain to write about, that kind of thing; that self-destructive route. We need to get away from that. We can write about pain and anger without having it consume us, and we have to learn how to do that in our lives as individuals before we can start doing that as writers" (Nelson).

"What You Pawn I Will Redeem"

Summary: The story is told through the character of Jackson Jackson. He is a homeless alcoholic of Spokane Indian decent who finds his grandmother’s regalia at a pawn shop. He sets out on a quest to raise $1000 and gain back this family heirloom. The story focuses on the obstacles Jackson faces and the humor he uses to get through his difficult position. Alexie is very similar to Jackson as he is a Spokane Indian, suffered from alcoholism, and also is known for his quick wit.

The Theme of Generosity:

The boss at the newspaper mission gives Jackson fifteen papers for free in order to help him out.

The cop that wakes him up from the railroad tracks ends up giving him $30 after hearing his story.

Jackson himself is very generous on several occasions. The money he accumulates is spent on alcohol for his friends at 7-11, and then later at the bar where he buys shots for all the Indians with his lotto winnings. He takes out three Aleut men he met on a bench for breakfast. He also shares the money he won with Kay as a gesture of kindness and says, “It’s an Indian thing. When you win, you’re supposed to share with your family” (Alexie 1512).

The pawnbroker is generous at the beginning of the story when he gives Jackson $20 to start off his mission, and then at the end when he returns the regalia to him without a payment.

At the end Jackson thinks, “Do you know how many good men live in this world? Too many to count!” (Alexie 1520).


Jackson’s character might be viewed by some as lazy or stupid based on the choices he makes with the money he is given. The first thing he did after leaving the pawn shop is “buy three bottles of imagination” (Alexie 1508). Throughout the story Jackson spends every penny he comes across as soon as he gets it. This leaves the reader frustrated with the cycle, but also aware of his debilitating addiction. Despite his homelessness and problems, Jackson is truly hopeful to regain the regalia. The thought of his grandmother melts his heart and the need to honor her memory overwhelms him. This hope alone is why he receives the regalia in the end. If he gave up, knowing the unlikelihood that he would earn the money, then nothing would have been accomplished. Instead he continues to preach his mission and is not defeated by the situation. He finds humor when most would not imagine having a smile. One of the striking lines of the story is when he tells the cop, “The two funniest tribes I’ve ever been around are Indians and Jews, so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide” (Alexie 1516). Jackson may never beat alcoholism or find a home, but he will continue to see the good in the world. His outlook is a priceless attribute. 

How Alexie's Personal Story Contributes to "What You Pawn I Will Redeem"

  • Different tribes of Indians are mentioned throughout: Spokane, Yakama, Aleuts, Duwamish, Crow. Alexie’s personal knowledge allows him to remark on various stereotypes and trademarks of all kinds of Native Americans. He also shows how Native American’s emphasize their tribes, but still have a bond and consider each other “cousins” (Alexie 1513).
  • His knowledge of Native American culture educates the reader on facts like: “Because they don’t want to be perfect, because only God is perfect, Indian people sew flaws into their powwow regalia” (Alexie 1507).
  • His own insight into Native American mentalities, lifestyles, problems, and history lets him create a developed character in Jackson. Jackson is not just a stereotype, but instead a thought provoking narrator who captivates the reader.
  • Alexie also had a drinking problem early in his life which forced him to drop out of his first college. This personal detail enables him to add the right amount of sympathy and also reality to Jackson’s alcoholism. 

Helpful Links

This link will take you to a very low budget independent film that was based on "What You Pawn I Will Redeem". It is a production of Seattle Central Film and Video 2010. short film

A complete list of Sherman Alexie's work is here.

The Official Sherman Alexie website is here.

Works Cited

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman."What You Pawn I Will Redeem." The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Belasco, Susan and Linck Johnson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. 1505-1520. Print.

Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson, eds. “Sherman Alexie.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 1502-1504. Print.

Nelson, Cary, ed. Modern American Poetry. Oxford University Press,
            Jan. 2000. Web. 6 Dec. 2010.

The Official Site of Sherman Alexie. FallsApart Productions, July 2010.
Web. 6 Dec. 2010.