In this episode in honor of Banned Books Week, co-hosts Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy recorded a special edition of the podcast in front of a live audience to talk about why we celebrate Banned Books Week and the importance of the freedom to read. They are joined by Wichita Public Library Director Jaime Nix and Watermark Books & Café owner Sarah Bagby. Joining them virtually as the special guest is Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, published in 2007, which has consistently appeared on the list of frequently challenged books since 2008. Sherman talks about his experience as an indigenous writer, how he feels about writing a book that has been frequently challenged and even joins Sara and Daniel for a couple of banned book games!
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DANIEL PEWEWARDY: Hi, welcome to this special episode of Read. Return. Repeat. I'm Daniel Pewewardy.
SARA DIXON: And I'm Sara Dixon. We're recording live at the Advanced Learning Library in Wichita, Kansas, celebrating the end of our week-long celebration of Banned Books Week. While there isn't a ReadICT category specific to banned books or challenged books this year, it is still a very prevalent topic in our society. Daniel, tell our friends and our listeners about Banned Books Week.
DANIEL: All righty. Banned Books Week celebrates our freedom to read and spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and school. It brings the literary community together in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas. This year, the Wichita Public Library celebrated the week through programming, displays, and public engagement that focused on our freedom to read and championing those who make that happen. This included movie screenings, displays in the Advanced Learning Library -- that included displays and programs at the Advanced Learning Library and neighborhood branches. And there was also a medallion hunt.
SARA: Yeah, it was pretty fun week all around. Joining us in our celebration of Banned Books Week, our community partners for this event, the Mid-America All-Indian Museum and Watermark Books. The Indian Museum provided us with the prizes for tonight's games. And Board of Trustee Chair Dal Domebo couldn't be here with us today, but he did ask us to share an important message with you all about the importance of unlimited access to reading.
DAL DOMEBO ON RECORDED VIDEO: Hello, my name is Dal Domebo, I'm the chairman for the Board of Trustees for the Mid-America All-Indian Museum. Books are an important resource to us all because books allow us to be interactive with the stories, characters, and content. They demand us to think. Whether they are fiction or nonfiction, books widen our consciousness. They give us new ways to think and new ideas by expanding our minds and inspire us to use our own thoughts. Books help us develop critical thinking skills. When you read a book, that book is read by you. There is nothing that controls or demands a reaction you may have when you read it. You decide what you think about that book and its contents with no one looking over your shoulder, telling you how you should think. According to a report released by PEN America, between July 2021 and June 2022, more than 2,500 book bans were enacted in 138 districts and 32 states, resulting in the removal of more than 1,600 titles from school libraries and classrooms that serve roughly 4 million students. And that is likely an underestimate.
The subject matter of most of these banned books vary: anything from subjects that address today's social lifestyles, to characters that represent the growing population within our country. Out of the books that were banned, four out of 10 were banned because they had characters of color. In the Native American community, storytelling is a huge part of our culture. It develops listening skills, memory, and imagination, and supports social and emotional learning to develop the whole child. In addition, it also allows us as Native people to not only entertain, but to also preserve our history and culture for the next generation. For centuries, our stories have lived through storytelling. And now we are fortunate enough to have Native authors who are putting our stories to print for all to learn from. The act of banning books is a type of censorship that harkens back to a time in the not-too-distant past where we as Native people were targeted for extinction. If book banning continues, we as a country will no longer be free to think but we will be conditioned on how and what to think.
DANIEL: I'd like to thank Dal for those powerful words. And if you ever get a chance to visit the Mid-America All-Indian Museum, it's right down on Seneca and visit www.theindiancenter.org to find out information about their classes, programs and their visiting hours. So check it out if you can.
SARA: Yes, awesome. So next up, we are happy to welcome – ooh, if I could speak words – we are happy to welcome Sarah Bagby and Jaime Nix from the Wichita Public Library and Watermark Books. I said that backwards but you get it.
DANIEL: It's so lovely to have you here with us today.
JAIME NIX, WICHITA PUBLIC LIBRARY: Thanks for having us.
SARAH BAGBY, WATERMARK BOOKS: Thank you for the invitation.
JAIME: We were just talking earlier, I'm totally going to lose the game. But --
SARA: I don't think you are. I think we're gonna help you out as much as possible. We are encouraging winners.
SARAH: It's kind of scary.
DANIEL: Kyle's just gonna hold up answers.
SARA: All right, well, hey, I got the first question. Oh, and well, that's okay, we'll just go into it. So first question is actually going to be for you, Sarah. We know that Banned Books Week is a uniquely library related celebration. But how does Watermark Books, our independent bookstore, celebrate Banned Books Week and the freedom to read?
SARAH: Well, we are... you know, it's a sobering thing, banned -- celebrating banned books, it's a... it's such a confusing thing. We do displays, we do a lot of social media. You know, independent booksellers are a little bit... there's a lot of activism with them. And so we are very tuned in to what's going on with banned books. And we appreciate being able to choose what we have in our store. But we don't appreciate all the negative attitudes about a story that might tell about someone who's different than you. And we're pretty passionate about that.
And so that's what we do. And we have -- this year, we've had a lot of support from publishers with just, you know, materials. You know, things for social media. And so it's been a... I mean, on the one hand, it's been a good year for banned books displays. But on the other hand, those PEN numbers that he mentioned, are a little sobering.
SARA: And can you tell our listeners -- because we do have a live audience, obviously, but we are also a podcast primarily -- tell our listeners what your what your t-shirt says.
SARAH: It says, "bans off my books and my body."
DANIEL: That's a great message. It's really exciting to see like, how people are responding to Banned Books Week outside of like a library setting. And it's really awesome that we're having community backing and support throughout the community for this, this week of advocacy.
Next question is for you, Jaime. So you've probably seen a lot of banned book challenges working in libraries in here and... and Tacoma. Can you tell us about your most interesting experience of a challenged title a little?
JAIME: Well, every instance when a community member questions whether or not a book should be in the library's collection, we take it very, very seriously. It's an important conversation to have at a service point and to be empathetic and listening. I will say that -- I'm going to tell you three stories, all three of them please know that I... it was incredibly important with each customer, but each one was a little bit kind of special.
So as a baby librarian, and the very first book challenge that I received was, I guess it was in like 2001 or 2002, just at the time where urban fiction was starting to be published, there was a customer who demanded that this book by the author Zane get removed from the collection. "It was awful," she said. "It's an awful book, it should never be purchased for one, it should never be in a library collection." And I started to kind of probe a little bit. I wasn't familiar with this particular author at the time. I think just asked the question, what about this book is rubbing you? And she said it was bad literature. And so I asked, what is good literature? Well, "The Odyssey, of course." And I'm saying, so okay, so we ended up in a conversation about you know, how every book has its reader, not every reader has the same interests, and that I would be glad to help her find some real interesting Greek history books, if that would be interesting. But she wanted to go through a formal process. So we put together a committee, we did a lot of reviews. And ultimately, we determined that the book needed to stay in the collection because it met our selection criteria.
There was one that happened many years later, it was a picture book that was offensive to a mom. And the book was about Walter the farting dog. And, again, that conversation was like, what's... what's going on with this book? So Walter the farting dog in this particular edition found himself in a band of criminals, bank robbers, who were robbing a bank at gunpoint, and they were smoking a cigar. And so what's the issue with this particular book? It's not that the dog farts, it's not that there was a robbery, an armed robbery. It was the smoking. And so we again --
SARA: Oh, that didn't go how I thought it was gonna go.
JAIME: I know, I know. I was predicting how it was going and --
SARA: I really thought it was going to be the farting.
JAIME: So we talked a lot about, you know, images and how things are changing. And again, I mean, like in both of those instances, my answer ended up being -- and it's gotten stronger every time I've had this conversation – just shut the book and return it. It's free at the library. If it's not something you enjoy and you like to read, return it, it's free.
So there was one last one that was really fascinating. And again, that same thing played through because books themselves are definitely under attack. But so are movies, right? And visual depictions of things that are perhaps not as pure as we'd like. This was during COVID and this was especially tricky because we... customers weren't able to shop the shelves, right? We were in this pandemic and librarians were responsible for going and finding things that people'd enjoy. And one of my staff members grabbed a couple of movies for library customer that... one of which was... oh, what's her name? Was Jolene, Jessica Chastain's first movie. I've never seen it. It was based off of Dolly Parton's song, Jolene. But apparently it's kind of risqué. And so in talking with this customer, one, she told me that she was... this was kind of a challenging conversation. You know, she was a founding member of that particular library in Washington, helped fundraise so felt that the movie was offensive to the nth degree, no one should ever check it out. She was refusing to return it to the library because she didn't want anyone to have access to it. I kept saying just put it in the bookdrop. Just put it in the bookdrop. And, and I was like, "Did you stop watching it? At some point did you just push stop?" She didn't. And so I gave her permission to push stop anytime in the future, gave her the process for if she did believe that that movie had no bearing in our collection. And I thanked her for her contributions and her love for the library.
But at the same point, we have a process that we go through and it's really important that we stick to that process and that policy because it ensures that one, we're selecting material that meets the community needs and interests and that we're fundamentally ensuring that people have access to information. So in those three instances, each of the materials stayed in the collection, but it was really interesting conversations.
SARA: And also, you're wearing a dramatic shirt today as well, that actually Daniel and I are also wearing because it's a WPL thing. But Jaime, can you tell our listeners what your shirt says?
JAIME: Absolutely. It says books unite us, censorship divides us.
SARA: Thank you. Now, Sarah, you had something you wanted to mention before --
SARAH: Oh, I just think Jaime made a really important point and with wisdom, gave this woman permission to just stop. And she must not have thought she had that choice. And that was profound. I mean, that is a really important aspect. And if they're listening, they will.
SARA: I mean, I think that is actually a thing that people don't realize that they can do, right? I mean, how many people have like powered through that book that intimidates you -- hey, category number nine or eight, something like that -- but they, you know, they don't know that they can just shut the book and return it. Like --
DANIEL: Also, it's just, it's... it seems, you know, being a librarian, I've had challenges too. And it's just like, how people can't think outside of their own subjectivity sometimes and think that like, well, you know, like, I don't like this so it shouldn't be here. And then once they talk to a librarian and then they kind of realize the bigger picture, sometimes they will like, be like, yeah, okay, I understand how libraries work.
SARA: It's usually a... it's the start of a really important conversation a lot of times.
JAIME: Mm-hmm, absolutely. I think in that conversation, too, you know, just being able to listen and engage in different points of view, that's really awesome that a book can do that,t to compel a conversation that's really tough and tricky. And I think that's what we as librarians would love is if something's like compelled someone, positively or negatively, let's talk about it.
SARA: Absolutely. Now, Sarah, when a ban -- when a book gets banned or challenged in the schools and libraries in the news, do you see an increase in sales?
SARAH: Well, now, interestingly, I just read an article about this in Publishers Weekly today. And if you're famous, if an author is... if it's a classic or the author's famous: Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, what have you, those sales increase. If you're a mid-list writer or like a debut author and your book gets banned, you really lose any opportunity to kind of get that book out there. So it... on this hand, yes, they do increase. But on this hand, it could be harmful to an author because all of a sudden their book is not available and they haven't even really started in their career. So it's tricky. I would love to say it does. But I mean, across the board. But yes, we do see a bump and we love that.
SARA: Nothing wrong with that. You know, and it's the same thing with libraries. I think if you look at our like circulation statistics, probably they're jumping up during... during big news stories.
DANIEL: Any time a book's mentioned, like -- and I wanted to put it on hold, there's always like 20 people waiting for it. Like at one point Persepolis and Maus were kind of getting in the news. And I was like, oh, I want to check out Maus again. And then it was like not even a day and there was already like, 30 holds on it.
I have a question for the both of you. Why do you think it's so important these days to celebrate the freedom to read?
SARA: Question of the moment.
SARAH: Okay. Well, because they're stories and because there are so many voices out there. And individuals, and people who identify as certain... have different identities, are allowed to tell a story. And, you know, just to be on the surface here, I'm a very curious person, which probably makes me kind of a good bookseller. And if I didn't have the option to read other people's stories, I think I would go mad. If I just had to read a story over and over and over that was, that was encouraged by the people who will ban books, because it will protect the innocent of young -- innocence. I mean, what kind of stories would be left? Not very interesting ones, not very important ones, certainly stories that marginalized communities can identify with and that need to be told, they need to be told.
JAIME: I think in a lot of ways, too, when we read these powerful books, the... the nature of empathy comes up over and over again, to be able to not just see the world through someone else's lens, but to feel it and to see it described, to hear it, to be able to journey with them. I think one of the coolest things about public libraries, especially, you know, with the freedom to read, I mean essentially it's saying that we're not going to judge you for the words that you choose to read. And that's powerful. I think that that's, that's the probably the coolest thing about public libraries is that it's a judgment-free zone.
SARAH: Same. And we have a thing where we say we are going to trust our customers. I mean, because they're myriad people. And you just have to trust them.
SARA: Yeah, amen. So we have just a little bit more time with you right now. So we want to get to the game. But we also want to give you a chance to share your favorite book that most frequently shows up on the banned books list.
SARAH: Okay, hard to choose a favorite, but I will say I love The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. And one -- and there's, there's a description in there that describes what it feels like to read a book and it's... well, okay, it's kind of orgasmic, okay. And one time I met Sherman Alexie and I said, I wanted to do a mural of that description on my bookstore. But I couldn't, I would have gotten a lot of trouble. Just because of my landlord. Okay? I'll blame them.
SARA: All right, fair enough. Jaime?
JAIME: You know, probably only because my teenage daughter read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and we've like traversed through that story and the film. I think that one's... that one's on my... on my mind right now.
SARA: Nice. Well done, good choices. Both. And you know, maybe Sherman heard you just say that your favorite banned book was his book.
JAIME: She stole my choice.
SARA: Okay, so now we're inviting you -- we're gonna give you the option to say no, but we're not expecting you to. So we're gonna ask you to play a little game with us today to celebrate Banned Books Week, would that be right?
SARA: Daniel, can you explain the rules?
DANIEL: Oh, I get to explain the rules. Awesome. We're going to give you a quote from a book that's frequently found in the banned books list and you'll have to guess what it is.
SARA: No shouting out to our live audience but if you know it, lock it in.
JAIME: Can I Google?
SARA: You cannot Google. You may deliberate amongst yourselves and come to the right decision. So what else do I have to tell them?
DANIEL: You cannot phone a friend.
SARA: Cannot phone a friend. No Google.
SARAH: Can I have a lifeline?
DANIEL: No. You're each other's lifelines.
SARAH: That's true.
JAIME: Telepathy. Come on, give me signs!
DANIEL: Also, you'll be playing for a member of -- one of our audience. We need to go ahead. Just pull a number?
SARA: I think so. But it might take a little while.
DANIEL: All right, I'll see what happens. Want a good one too in case --
SARA: Yeah, that's okay. Everybody get like a whole slew of them. Everybody gets a whole six tickets. You got six tickets to yourself, that's great. But everybody that's listening to the podcast and not joining us, the whole room is full. Whole room.
DANIEL: So yeah --
SARA: Could you hear all the laughter from all of our jokes?
DANIEL: That Saved by the Bell joke killed, totally.
This will all be edited out of the podcast.
SARA: Absolutely will be.
[Editor's note: At the live recording, there was an opening skit that was not included in the final version of the podcast episode.]
DANIEL: Go ahead and read your number and we'll see --
SARA: I feel like you picked yours first and that's not fair --
DANIEL: Okay, 406699!
DANIEL: What is your name, ma'am?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Kelly Cunningham.
DANIEL: Kelly Cunningham. That's who you will be playing for today.
SARA: Okay. oh, I'm sorry. I'm supposed to go.
SARAH: The pressure's on.
SARA: Okay, so I am going to give you the quote. I would like you to give me the title if you would, please, or some version of the title. We're not, you know, your English teacher so it's fine. "I know what I want. I have a goal, an opinion. I have a religion and love. Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I am a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage."
They're deliberating. Just it's secret, they don't want you to know what they're saying.
JAIME: So we think it's a female author.
SARA: I think that's probably a really good option.
JAIME: We're really, really astute. We were deliberating is it Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison?
SARA: Would you like me to give you -- I have another, another quote from it and I will maybe help you out.
JAIME: Feed us a little.
SARA: "Who else but me is ever going to read these letters?"
SARA: Did that change your --
JAIME: Is it Willa Cather?
JAIME: Just give it to us.
SARA: No, nope. Can't do that because you're playing for one of our audience members. So it takes place in Amsterdam.
JAIME: Anne Frank? True diary or not --
Absolutely true diary of Anne Frank.
SARA: That's right, it is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. All right, got that first one, hey!
DANIEL: One down!
SARAH: Thought it was a memoir.
DANIEL: All right, let me put a little southern, southern into this next one. "Persons attempting to find a motive in his narrative will be prosecuted. Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished. Persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
JAIME: Hmm, To Kill a Mockingbird?
SARA: Let's give them a second clue.
DANIEL: All right, second clue. Second clue. "Right is right and wrong is wrong. And a body ain't got no business doing wrong when he ignorant and knows better."
JAIME: Of Mice and Men?
SARA: Let's give them another setting clue.
DANIEL: Our friends to the east.
SARA: And what's the river that...
SARAH: Oh yeah, is it Mark Twain?
SARA: Well, which one by Mark Twain?
DANIEL: Yeah, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!
SARA: These games, we're not helping them out at all.
DANIEL: If you can get this next one, you will be the brand new owner --
SARA: Of some really cool stuff.
DANIEL: Really cool stuff from our community partners at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum. All right, Sara.
SARA: Last one. "We were the people who are not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories." And I'm gonna go ahead and read the next one. "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
Do you want some help from the audience?
SARA: Does someone from the audience want to help out?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Handmaid's Tale?
SARA: Would you like to go with The Handmaid's Tale?
JAIME: I think I might.
SARA: You'd be right!
Thank you for your help. There you go, there you go. Okay, so Daniel, how many did they get right?
DANIEL: They got three out of three right.
SARA: That makes them a winner! Yay!
Good job. Well, thank you so much, Jaime and Sarah. We were so thankful that you could join us for this opening of our special podcast episode.
JAIME: Thanks for having us.
SARAH: Thank you. Thank you so much.
DANIEL: It was great talking to both of you.
Brief transition between segments
DANIEL: Welcome back, and before we keep going -- get into our interview with Sherman, we're gonna, we have some book recommendations from community partners that we're gonna play. And the first one's up, and this is from our ReadICT partner, Suzanne Perez, with her book recommendation.
SUZANNE PEREZ, RECORDED: Hi, my name is Suzanne Perez, and I'm a reporter with KMUW and the Kansas news service. So the book I'd like to talk about is George by Alex Gino. Now, this is a middle grade novel that has been on the challenged books list several times for several years. It's the story of a little boy named George who doesn't feel like a boy, he feels like he's a girl. But he can't really explain that to people. Then there's a play at his school and he, they're putting on a play of Charlotte's Web and he really, really wants the part of Charlotte. But everyone thinks he can't get that part because he's a boy. So this is about how this child who's dealing with this identity crisis sort of deals with that. It's interesting to note that Alex Gino, the author, has since re-issued this book with a different title. And the title is Melissa, which is the name that the character of George sort of identifies as. So I think that that's really interesting. It is a fabulous look at sort of an LGBTQ character struggling with her identity. So I really recommend it. That's George by Alex Gino.
SARA: Awesome. Thank you, Suzanne, for that wonderful recommendation.
DANIEL: Definitely have to check that one out.
SARA: And for our listeners that are not watching with us, Suzanne was also wearing a banned books t-shirt -- there's so many of them out there -- and hers just said "I read banned books." So that's fun.
Okay, main event time! We are now very excited to welcome our next guest. He's the winner of the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Award. And Sherman Alexie is a poet, a writer and a filmmaker.
DANIEL: He's the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, a book that frequently shows up on banned and challenged lists around the country. His most recent book, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, is a memoir that came out in 2017.
SARA: He's a member of the Spokane tribe and was raised in Wellpinit -- I might have said that wrong -- Washington, but Sherman can correct me in a second, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He's joining us from Seattle and I'm gonna get him up on the screen.
DANIEL: Awesome. Please welcome Sherman Alexie.
SHERMAN ALEXIE: Hello, hello. Hello.
DANIEL: Hello. It's really awesome to meet you
SHERMAN: Oh, thank you. It's good to be here. And you pronounced Wellpinit pretty well.
SARA: Oh, good. Okay, I always worry about that. Thank you. How's the weather in Seattle?
SHERMAN: High 60s, low 70s. Perfect.
SARA: Oh, that's warmer than it was here today. Oh, no, it warmed up, didn't it? I haven't been outside.
DANIEL: We were getting triple digits today here in the great state of Kansas.
SHERMAN: That's why I don't live anywhere like that.
SARA: That's fair. All right, well, let's just jump right into the interview. We're so excited that you're joining us. For our first question: how does it feel to have a book that often shows up on most challenged lists? I recently saw that your book in 2021 even was like sixth most challenged according to the ALA website. What was your reaction the first time you heard that it had been challenged?
SHERMAN: Yeah, the ALA announced also a couple years back that it was the most banned book from 2010 to 2020. So yeah.
SHERMAN: Thank you. You know, on one hand, it's great. It means you're writing something honest. People get scared of honest books. And it certainly helps sales. It's the best PR imaginable, but like what was stated earlier and I read the same article, I hadn't considered in my own narcissism, right, being happy about my books getting banned that new authors and less established authors are going to be hurt by a book ban. And that had not entered my mind. But now I'm certainly going to be speaking of that all the time. So, on one hand, I'm happy I had the banned book. On the other hand, I wish this wasn't happening for new and mid-list authors.
SARA: Yeah, I didn't... you know, you don't really think about that. You think, oh, it's probably, I just assumed there was a spike. We were hoping it was an easy question. But I'm glad that Sarah brought that up.
DANIEL: Yeah, that's relatively like a new concept. But yeah, that's awful that that happens. And yeah.
So I'll go ahead. I have a question for you. So there isn't a lot of indigenous representation in young adult literature. What made you want to write a young adult novel?
SHERMAN: Well, this is gonna be a rowdy answer. Most, most of the young adult books about Natives don't really focus on day-to-day life. There's a lot of spiritual stuff, a lot of talking animals and very little to do with, let's say, being an eighth grader. There's not a whole lot of those books where you have sort of a realism literature of young Native Americans, and I saw something was missing there. So I wrote it. So I filled the gap that I saw.
SARA: Isn't that always what they say? Like if you want to see representation, like if you... if the book that you want to tell is not out there -- I've messed up that quote massively, but write it yourself, right? And so I think that's great when you're contributing to those stories.
DANIEL: I think it's yeah, like I'm actually... my dad's Native and I'm Native and I went to a mostly white school. So like, I felt heard by Diary and it was an awesome read when I got to read it. So thank you so much, meant a lot to me.
SHERMAN: Oh, thank you. And, you know, I was highly influenced by some other young adult novels. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13½ was one of the big ones. And then an adult novel called The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll. So those two books were highly influential for me.
SARA: Very cool. Now in your book, Part-time Indian, after -- I'm gonna spoil it for you if you haven't read it, but it's been out for a long time so that's on you.
[SHERMAN ALEXIE LAUGHS]
After Junior's grandmother dies, he reflects that tolerance was her greatest gift. How do you think we can be more tolerant in this divisive age where we're banning books?
SHERMAN: Oh gosh. The first answer that came to my head is stop talking and start listening.
SARA: We're getting applause.
SHERMAN: You know, one of the things I've come to realize over the last few years is that my opinion doesn't really matter. Or to say that my opinion only matters as much as anybody else's, that my writing talent doesn't make me more wise, my writing talent doesn't make me more activist, my writing talent doesn't make me more correct about anything. I'm an individual human being who's great with metaphors. So that's my skill set. So I've been reading a lot and listening a lot. I go online a lot, and I just don't listen to my allies, I also listen to my political opponents. The thing is, everybody is right about something. And that's what you go looking for.
SARA: I really liked that answer, just to be a better listener. And I think we can all probably take some notes on that.
DANIEL: So my next question: a lot of the books on this year's list deal with anti-racism. What role do you think race and racism play into the books getting challenged?
SHERMAN: Well, you know, my book has been challenged now since it was published. So the challenges existed before the current political time. So it's hard to say how much of it is the current struggle and how much of it is just a constant. You know, I'm always amazed that my book gets banned. It's so misinterpreted. Number one, there's no sex in the book but you'd think I had written some, you know, lady reservations lover or something, and I haven't. And I keep looking at it. And I think it really is because it's about an Indian kid. And I think that freaks people out: a realistic Indian kid, Indian kid with hopes and desires and mistakes and magic and loss and it presents the kind of realistic Native American portrait that people don't necessarily want. They want some spiritual superhero and that's not what I write.
DANIEL: I never thought of that being like that. Like, if... like when you write from like a... like a, you give people new point of view, it shatters whatever they thought of that person. So like people might have an idea that like Natives or like, again, like tropes and things they've seen the movies. And so when you bring in like a realistic perspective, that is challenging, and I never, I've never really thought of that being kind of like a catalyst for making people uncomfortable. But that makes total sense.
SARA: I do think that that's -- oh, go ahead, please.
SHERMAN: I was gonna say one of the great ironies is that this book is about a Native American kid who finds love, acceptance, tolerance, romance, and friendship in a small, white, conservative Christian farm town. In other words, you know, everywhere 50 miles outside of Wichita.
SARA: Someone did their research.
SHERMAN: And, and it's... it's surprising to me that when I see these, my book get discussed in school board meetings that nobody stands up and says, you know, every friend he has in Reardan is a white kid from a farm town.
SARA: Yeah, yeah. But also, back to your point, Daniel, I do think that like that is maybe why books get challenged because people are not ready to change their mindset yet. And so that's when you have to have that discussion, like Jaime and Sarah were talking about earlier. I don't know, you know, it just starts with a discussion, it starts with being a listener. So we're just covering all kinds of great stuff tonight.
So let's switch for a second and talk about your film Smoke Signals, which many consider to be one of the best Native films for its Native -- or its, sorry, for its representation of modern Native people doing normal things, just like in your book. It was even selected by the Library of Congress recently for preservation for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Did you expect it to be as impactful as it was when you wrote it?
SHERMAN: No. I mean, we filmed it in 1997 and released it in 1998. And it was and remains the only major feature film written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans to ever receive a national and international distribution. It remains the only one. And you know, it was shocking. The thing that's shocking, I guess, is that it's still relevant two decades later, two and a half decades later. It's a constant meme in the Native internet world constantly. Pretty much every day I get a new one. Somebody sends it to me, so it has this incredible cultural power. Evan Adams who played one of the main characters, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, he likes to say, "It's like I played Scarlett O'Hara." I mean, that's how big, that's how big Thomas is in the Indian world. And making it into the Library of Congress, The National Film Registry was amazing. I mean, we went in the same year as Jurassic Park did.
SARA: That's awesome.
SHERMAN: So you know, it's T. rex and Thomas Builds-the-Fire.
DANIEL: I actually have, I've seen like... they'll do screenings and I'll see like pictures and there's Thomas dress-alike contests, like I think one of my nephews won one. Kids will show up dressed as like Thomas and Victor to, like, live screenings. And that's like, it's cool. It's like you have cosplayers from stuff you make. That's so cool.
SHERMAN: It's amazing. Every year for Halloween, I get photos of kids. The kids are so cute, you know, when they dress as Thomas and Victor from the film. And then adults do it too. My favorite one of all time was they had made a cardboard car like the 1965 Chevy Malibu in Smoke Signals that only drives backwards. But they put the four people -- there were two dressed as Thomas and Victor in the backseat and then two Native women dressed as Velma and Lucy in the front seat and they walked backward through the party. It was amazing.
DANIEL: I've been seeing Velma and Lucy showing up in the meme world now, the Native meme world. Like you always saw Thomas and Victor. I'm like yes, that's awesome, it's like it's expanded past the two main characters. And now you're starting to see more like you're starting to see more Smoke Signals like memes, templates. And it's like it's always fun to see those.
SHERMAN: The great one, the funny one and not-so-funny over the last few years is there's a line of dialogue in the movie and it got repeated in the memes where Lucy says, "Hope you got your vaccinations."
DANIEL: All right. My next question is: you have a lot of heavy topics in your books but there are lighter, funny moments as well. Some might argue that you've mastered this balance of comedy and tragedy. Is there something, is this something that comes natural to you?
SHERMAN: Well, I grew up in a Native American culture and in a Spokane Indian culture where everybody is funny. So I grew up where everybody is funny. You know, we had guests here the other night, some Natives from Oregon, in my home, and oh my gosh, my belly and face hurt from laughing so much. And, you know, the humor is wildly inappropriate, satirical, mean, gossipy. You know, in the Native world, gossip is a form of literature. That's a quote from Elizabeth Woody. And... but that said, a few years ago, I was reading at Barnes and Noble in New York City and a high school classmate, a white woman, was there and I came to realize it was this woman I went to high school with and somebody in the audience asked her a question. They said, "What was Sherman like in high school?" And she said, "He was very serious." Which I don't remember myself that way. But, you know, everybody's self-perception is off.
SARA: I'm just like, yeah, that would be weird if like your whole idea of your persona was just, you know, completely different to those around you.
SHERMAN: Well, I was... I mean, I think back I mean, I was like Arnold Spirit Jr. in True Diary. I was poor and desperate and trying to save my life. So it's pretty easy to see why I was serious.
DANIEL: It's always crazy running into people like in other cities that you've never seen before. And then that like that, yeah, those experiences.
So why do you think that it's so important for us to celebrate the freedom to read during Banned Books Week?
SHERMAN: Oh, wow. You'd think I know how to answer this question. Well, books teach us how to live in the world. Books teach us how to deal with magic and loss. They teach us how to deal with pain and grief. You know, they challenge us, they upset us. They, you know, enlighten us. They make us feel happiness. You know, all the human emotions. And that's what books do: they become these monoliths of humanity. And we learn how to be human beings through books, through those stories. You know, that's the thing that distinguishes us from all other life forms. We tell stories, it's the highest mortal calling. And reading those stories is the same thing. I mean, you can't write unless you read and you can't read unless you write. So the freedom to read and the freedom to write go together.
SARA: Yeah. Wow. Can we give him a round of applause for that answer?
DANIEL: Thank ou so much.
SARA: So of all the writing all the genres, all the formats that you've ever done, what do you think is the most fun for you to write?
SHERMAN: The thing I write all the time are poems, poetry constantly. It's interesting. During the pandemic, I started up an Instagram, which I didn't have before. And there's pressure every day to put something up. And I also started a Substack newsletter where I publish fiction, essays, and poetry and it's on the web: shermanalexie.substack.com. And you, I have to publish there two or three times a week. So I've actually written during the pandemic about 600 poems.
SARA: Wow. Wow.
SHERMAN: So -- and about 30 stories and about 30 essays. So it's poetry. I mean, I wrote three poems today.
SARA: That's amazing. I could never be like that.
SHERMAN: That doesn't mean they're all good.
SARA: But that's okay. Isn't that -- you're just supposed to write, isn't that how you get good? That's what people say.
SHERMAN: That's interesting --
SARA: You're already good. That didn't come out right. [LAUGHS]
SHERMAN: I'm writing in public. I'm rough drafting publicly.
SARA: Okay. Do people give you feedback on that?
SHERMAN: Oh, yeah. On the newsletter, there's responses. And sometimes I ask for it and sometimes I don't, but people give it anyway.
SARA: Yeah, I imagine they do.
SHERMAN: I've got, I've got some great readers on the newsletter who have given me great advice and great, great editorial suggestions.
DANIEL: It's kind of cool to see Instagram actually being this tool that's like reintroducing people to poetry. Like I read a Rupi Kaur book for a recommendation on last season of this podcast. And like I didn't know about Instagram poetry being this whole thing but like it's, it's really cool. Like, especially with the visual component of the photographs and like the text layout, it's just like I'm actually getting way more into poetry than even I used to because of Instagram, and I love it. So that's really cool.
SHERMAN: Well, I find on Instagram, people publish more accessible poetry more instantly. You know, poems that have meaning on the initial level. And then you can dig into them and find other meanings. But, you know, for non-poetry readers or those new to poetry, it's important to be accessible, to write something that everybody can understand.
SARA: Yeah, absolutely. Okay. So on the flip side of that question, what is the most challenging format for you to write?
SHERMAN: The most challenging thing I've ever written was my picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., which has maybe like 200 words, maybe less. That was so hard to write, to combine the art from Yuyi Morales and my work and to really narrow it down. It was like putting my whole life through this filter. And it was tough. It took me about three years to write 200 words that... that made for a pretty good picture book.
SARA: Huh. That's a... it blows my mind a little bit. I feel like people always think that picture books are so easy to write. But I imagine it would be really hard.
DANIEL: Because you have to pick the right words
SARA: You have to pick the right words.
DANIEL: You have to pick the right words. That's...
SHERMAN: You know, a novel you have 50,000 words and up. You can make a mistake. You can have a bad sentence in a novel and survive it. You can have a bad chapter. But you can't do that with a picture book. That's, you... I mean, you have to be every word, I mean, every letter has to be perfect.
DANIEL: I think it's funny you said children's book because I was reading Flight and it's like a time travel kind of, like -- your novel Flight, which deals with like a time travel element. And I was like -- and I was reading it. This is this has to be hard to write things when you jump around in different times. But then it's a picture book that's the challenging thing that I thought was funny.
SHERMAN: Well, Flight, I'm bipolar, and I am now medicated and therapized very well. Many bipolar people, perhaps nearly all of us, take many years sometimes to take care of ourselves. So I was in a heavy manic period when I wrote Flight. I wrote that novel, the first draft of it, in a week.
DANIEL: Oh, wow. That's ambitious.
SHERMAN: I discourage everybody from doing that. I'm much happier writing, you know, during... during the daytime only for three or four hours a day. It's much healthier for everybody in my life, most especially me.
But that said, there was a chapter in Flight -- like you said, it's about time travel -- I had a chapter where I put him all the way back into Neanderthal days and had him hunting a saber-toothed tiger as he's being hunted by a saber-toothed tiger. And I fought for it and fought for it with my editor. And finally, I took it out. And last summer, I found the manuscript with that chapter. And it's terrible. So, so bad. So she was right. And also, it doesn't mean you're gonna write something good when you're in mania, it just means you're gonna write fast.
SARA: Lessons. Well, thank you so much, Sherman. Those are all of our questions, I think. Right?
DANIEL: Yeah, I don't think we have any questions left, unless you want -- do you have any book recommendations of any banned books that you like, any personal favorites?
SARA: Oh, I like that. Let's do that.
SHERMAN: Oh, my gosh. Well, Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut, which actually was a big influence on Flight. Slaughterhouse-five is a World War II novel where the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, comes unstuck in time and jumps around all over the place. The aforementioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of my favorite novels. And The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, which is a set of loosely connected stories about his experience in the Vietnam War.
SARA: That was our Big Read a couple of years ago here in Wichita.
SHERMAN: "The Things They Carried," the title story, is one of the top things ever written in the history of the English language.
SARA: I actually haven't read it, full disclosure. I'm so sorry, I haven't read it.
DANIEL: I'll have to check it out. It was a tough year because of...
SHERMAN: Well, you're librarians. I'm pretty sure you've read plenty of books.
SARA: You might say.
Well, so we love talking to you. We could talk to you all night about banned books, about your writing. There's lots to talk about, but we don't want to take up everybody's time for too long and this podcast episode can only last so long. So Sherman, would you like to play a game with us?
SARA: You don't really get to say no, but I like to give the appearance of it.
All right, so tonight you'll be playing for a member of our audience. Let's do it again, friends. We're going to read off a ticket number and hope that one of you have it.
DANIEL: All right. We got that up here?
SARA: Let's go with 406736.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: 406736.
SARA: Yay! All right. Can my prize -- oh, we have to play first. Sorry, you don't get your prize yet.
DANIEL: What's your name, ma'am?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Mercedes.
SARA: Mercedes. Thank you, Mercedes.
DANIEL: So you'll be playing for Mercedes. And she... I'll go ahead and explain the rules.
SARA: Yes, do that.
DANIEL: Okay, here are the rules. We're going to give you the title of a book that has been banned or challenged and three potential reasons this book was banned. You'll have to tell us which is the real reason and this is going to be tricky because it's often not what you would think. Are you ready?
SARA: "Are you ready?"
SHERMAN: I am ready.
SARA: Okay, who's going first? I think you go first.
DANIEL: All right. This is the title: Skippyjon Jones series. The author is Judy – is it?
DANIEL: Schachner, Judy Schachner. Skippy -- are you familiar with the series, Sherman?
SHERMAN: I am not at all, sorry.
SARA: It's a children's picture book about a dog, I believe. A chihuahua. Is that right? People who have read it, thank you.
DANIEL: So these are the three possible reasons and one's true. Number one: depicts negative and offensive stereotypes of Mexicans. Number two, contains LGBTQIA+ themes inappropriate for children. Or three, contains references to the occult and promotes satanic worship.
SHERMAN: Oh, wow. That makes me excited to read the books.
SARA: Only one of them is true.
SHERMAN: I wish it was all three. You know, satanic LGBTQ Mexicans?
SARA: Actually, that'd make for a good book.
SHERMAN: "I'm gonna write it!" No, I'm not.
So I'm going to say... gosh, I'm trying to think of if dogs can be satanic. I'm gonna go with that it insulted Mexican culture.
DANIEL: Ding-ding-ding! That was the first one! Yay!
SARA: Well done. Let's give him a round of applause, okay.
How many people in the audience knew that?
All right, good job.
DANIEL: A few people.
SARA: Okay, so book number two: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and I believe Oliver – what's his name?
DANIEL: Oliver something.
SARA: He's on a show.
DANIEL: He's a Daily Show correspondent.
SARA: But now he has his own show. John Oliver! Thank you, okay. It wasn't listed here. I think Jill Twiss must be the co-author. But The Life of Marlon Bundo, are you familiar with that book?
SHERMAN: I am not.
SARA: It is about a rabbit, another picture book.
SHERMAN: My picture book knowledge, it ends when my children stopped reading them. So, you know, Taxi Dog is my last experience with a picture book. Which if you don't know it is amazing. "My name is Maxie, I ride in a taxi around New York City all day. I sit next to Jim, I belong to him, but it wasn't always this way."
DANIEL: I'm gonna have to check that one out.
SARA: We'll put it in the show notes for anyone that wants to check it out later. So A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is the story of a rabbit that lives in the White House.
DANIEL: It's Mike Prince's rabbit, right?
SARA: I believe it is named after Mike Pence's rabbit. So the book was banned or challenged because it depicts harm against animals, because it promotes a healthy vegan lifestyle, or because it contains LGBTQIA+ content and politically biased viewpoints?
SHERMAN: [LAUGHS] Well, I don't... you know, I think rabbits have the reputation of being vegans, but they're not. You know, rabbits, They're not omnivores, but they're opportunistic eaters. So I don't think that's it. I mean, if it's John Oliver and it's set in the White House, I'm saying it's political reasons.
SARA: Okay, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned all of that. But yes, you are correct. Yay! All right, he's 2-for-2, Daniel.
DANIEL: All right, let's see if we can knock this one out of the park. The next book -- and we're moving past picture books. Now we're in the young adult fiction books. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.
SHERMAN: Oh, one of the great ones.
DANIEL: Alrighty, so these are the reasons. Reason one: contains violent and graphic narrations. Reason two: openly discusses sex and was believed to have an anti-Christian message. Or number three: references minority groups in a derogatory or offensive term.
SHERMAN: I mean, I want to say that Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is pretty much the foundation of young adult literature as it exists now. There was that, there's that book, you know, when you talk about the genesis -- religious term on purpose -- of young adult literature, then it's that book. I'm gonna say it's about sex and blasphemy.
DANIEL: That's the correct answer.
SARA: Yay! I'm not cheering sex and blasphemy, but you know. I'm glad that you won. So now you've won for our friend Mercedes. Yay!
SHERMAN: Well, sex and blasphemy make for a good Saturday night.
DANIEL: I can't laugh at that too hard. I'm surrounded by all my bosses.
SHERMAN: Well, I'm trying to get you banned.
SARA: So we're gonna take a quick break from Sherman for just a moment. We're gonna break away and have another book recommendation, this time from our own communication specialist Sean Jones, and he was also the head of our Banned Books Week planning committee. So enjoy his book recommendations and Sherman, we'll be right back.
SEAN JONES, RECORDED: Hello, my name is Sean Jones, Communications Specialist for the Wichita Public Library. My all-time favorite book happens to be one that has been banned and challenged several times since it was published in 1960. I'm also surprised by how many people haven't read it or haven't seen the movie. My favorite book that I'm recommending today is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The explosion of racial hate and violence in a small town in Alabama is viewed by a little girl, Scout Finch, whose father Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of rape. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in my high school freshman English class and was totally engrossed in the story. It's a story of honor and justice in the Deep South and the heroism of Atticus in the face of blind and violent hatred. Sort of resonates today, doesn't it? To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged for using the word damn and whore lady, because it's deemed a filthy trashy novel, because "it does psychological damage to the positive integration process, and represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature." And because it contains adult themes, such as sexual intercourse and rape. If you haven't read this book, or haven't picked it up in a few years, stop by Wichita Public Library or your local bookstore and grab a copy.
SARA: Thank you, Sean.
DANIEL: That was great hearing from Sean. The Banned Books Week programming, if y'all didn't know, was Sean's passion project. That was his first time kind of like orchestrating programs and he did a great job. So thank you so much, Sean. And we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. So thank you.
SARA: Alright, Sherman. We are back with you.
DANIEL: Sherman, you there? Oh, we got him.
SHERMAN: Here I am.
SARA: He went into ghost mode. We do that sometimes. Oh, let me put you on full screen.
SHERMAN: I'm noticing I need a haircut. I have very curly hair.
SARA: I was actually going to comment that I think your hair looks fabulous.
DANIEL: You have great hair.
SARA: That's great hair.
SHERMAN: We call this the Geroni-fro.
SARA: The what?
DANIEL: The Geroni-fro.
SARA: Oh -- okay.
SHERMAN: Oh, by the way, if you didn't know this, Crazy Horse's childhood name was Curly because of his hair.
SARA: Oh. Fun fact. Read, return, repeat. Okay. So next up, I think, Daniel, it's your turn.
DANIEL: All right. If you're listening to our episodes this season, you'll know that we usually close the show out with a short story or poem that fits with the theme of the episode. We normally will pull these from our short story program which you can submit to. And when you submit one of your short stories, we give them out through our short story dispensers that are throughout the city. And it's a great way to like get people to read your stuff and also to support local literary efforts. So check it out, wichitalibrary.org/shortstory.
But tonight, we've asked Sherman here today to see if he would have time to read one of his own poems. And is that okay, Sherman?
SHERMAN: Yes, yes, I have it here. My head was down. I forgot I was on camera. So I'm sorry you had a close-up of my scalp.
SARA: It's okay, great hair.
DANIEL: It was a great scalp, it was a beautiful scalp.
SARA: Beautiful scalp.
SHERMAN: Yeah. Although Indians probably shouldn't use the word scalp.
SARA: Oh, okay. Hang on.
DANIEL: This is my direct supervisor. Her supervisor's in the back room and the Director's right there. But yeah, having a great time.
SHERMAN: I'm bannable on many levels.
SARA, LAUGHING: My face is just a little red. It's fine. Our listeners can't see.
Sherman, would you like to read your poem?
SHERMAN: Yes, this one has a title, but I've forgotten it. It's on the Substack. But this is the... I have it here on my phone. And here it is, it's a shorter one.
Hiking through the reservation wilderness
I see a black bear standing on the bluff to my left
Then I see the deer standing on the bluff to my right
I watched them watching each other
I'm nervous to be standing between predator and prey
But I also feel blessed
Everything is gorgeous and dangerous
When you love it enough.
SARA: That's beautiful.
DANIEL: Thank you so much, Sherman. That was really beautiful.
SHERMAN: Thank you.
SARA: And thank you so much for joining us tonight. Can everyone please give Sherman another round of applause?
We just really appreciate you taking time out of your evening to share with us your thoughts, share with us your poem.
DANIEL: Yeah, it's a great... it's been a great like experience for me. I'm still kind of awe-struck because I read you all through high school and college and it's been really cool to meet you virtually. And if you're ever in Wichita, stop by the library. We'd love to have you.
SHERMAN: I've never been to Wichita. I'd love to come to Wichita.
SARA: We'll give you a tour.
SHERMAN: Yes, yeah. No, I mean, that's one of my favorite songs, Wichita lineman. "I was a lineman for the county."
DANIEL: I wasn't sure if you were gonna say that or the White Stripes song, but that's a classic thing, too.
SARA: Oh yeah, okay. I was like, "What songs have Wichita in them?"
DANIEL: There's like two.
Again, thank you so much, Sherman. And I think this concludes the show.
SARA: Actually, we're gonna keep reading some credits.
DANIEL: Yeah, we have to do the credits.
SARA: But if you want to bow out, Sherman, we won't make you stay for the whole thing.
SHERMAN: Yeah, I've got dinner going on. I have a date.
SARA: All right. Well, good luck.
DANIEL: Good luck.
SHERMAN: Okay, bye.
DANIEL: Thank you so much, Sherman.
A list of the books discussed in today's episode can be found in the accompanying show notes. To requests any books heard about in today's episode, visit wichitalibrary.org or call us at (316) 261-8500.
SARA: We have a lot of people to thank for contributing to this episode. Thank you to Sherman Alexie, first of all, for spending the evening with us. Thank you to Dal Domebo and the Mid-America All-Indian Museum.
DANIEL: Thank you to Watermark Books and Sarah Bagby. Thank you to Jaime, our director. We'd also like to thank Suzanne Perez and Sean Jones for their book recommendations. And thank you most of all for listening, and to those who showed up, thank you so much for coming to our live recording.
SARA: To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict. Stay connected with other ReadICT participants on the ReadICT challenge Facebook page. Find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks. To join the group, search #ReadICT challenge on Facebook and click join.
DANIEL: You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes on whatever platform you listen to podcasts on. If you liked what you heard today, be sure to subscribe and share and tell all your friends about Read. Return. Repeat. We'd love to have them.
SARA: We sure would. This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to our production crew and podcast team.
DANIEL: Thank you so much. Give it for Kyle!
SARA: Yay! And also Jenny Durham in the back. She helped us a lot with writing this episode.