Sense Memory, Sherman Alexie

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

I was probably seventeen the first time I saw the movie Smoke Signals. I didn’t know then that it was based on a short story called “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” from Sherman Alexie’s book, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I just felt strangely touched by the story. Even though the circumstances were far removed from my own, I felt a connection to both the characters and the story. I also felt uncomfortable talking about that connection because even then I was aware that there was a fine line to tread when it came to showing interest in cultures that have been assimilated or destroyed by what are essentially western European values. I can’t remember whether or not the idea of cultural exoticism specifically came to mind, but I do know that I was concerned that sharing this affinity I suddenly felt for a culture I barely understood would seem disingenuous at best and pretentious at worst.

When I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a few years ago, those feelings returned in a rush. I was reading a book about a life very different from mine, but I had an understanding with Junior nevertheless. He was tougher and more resilient, and he had to work infinitely harder for everything he wanted and got; I knew without a doubt that this kid’s baptism by fire had made him a fundamentally better person than me. I was able to stop short of fetishizing his brutal life because it wasn’t that he was a stronger person that fueled the connection. It was actually his weaknesses – the way he saw pain and handled grief. His heart felt things in a way that my heart did. He became one of those fictional friends we all find from time to time; we don’t plan to look to them after we’ve finished their stories, but they stay on our heels nonetheless.

Since then, I’ve started following Alexie on twitter, read quite a few of his short stories, and come to the conclusion that as a writer, he must just exist on resonant emotional bandwidth. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s more than being a gifted writer, although he is that. The characters he writes might be strangers to me, but they are strangers who feel and see things in a way that is uncannily familiar.

Every so often, he posts a link to free short stories that have been put online at The Stranger. I always read them and then bookmark my favorites; “Sense Memory” was one that has stuck with me for the last few months. It’s a tiny story, really, almost more of a poem, and I just love it. He has a blunt style – straightforward to the point of reminding me of essays written by pre-teen boys – that is, of course, if those boys had the finesse for emotional devastation that he possesses (which, in my experience as a pre-teen girl, they rarely did).


If you’ve read back in the archives, you may have seen a response I wrote to Alexie’s reaction to an article concerning censorship for young readers. He is as eloquent when he is speaking to this issue as he is when he’s writing fiction, and it would be difficult for me to give any but the highest recommendation to an author who is willing to speak out about  the rights of children and young adults to read freely and passionately. It’s fortunate for my reputation, then, that he also happens to be excellent at what he does.


To learn more about Sherman Alexie and his work, head over here.

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