Alexie, a Spokane/Couer D’Alene Native American, places emphasis on native identity in his writing, and is known mostly for his National Book Award-winning YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Hershon, who lives in Brooklyn, is a co-editor of the literary magazine Hanging Loose Press, which was founded in 1966 and is one of the oldest independent literary publishers still running in the United States. Hanging Loose Magazine was the first literary magazine to publish Alexie’s work, and Hershon and Alexie have known each other since then.
The event was organized by Wang Ping, professor of creative writing at Macalester, who has been friends with Alexie and Hershon since her time living in New York. “It’s almost a parent and child relationship,” she explained. “Sherman calls Bob [Hershon] his ‘Jewish father.’”
Last spring, when visiting Hershon and his wife, Donna Brooks, Wang wondered aloud how she might be able to get Alexie to visit.
“We were just chatting and I said, ‘How could I get Sherman to come to Macalester? Because Sherman is really busy and also his price is very high.’ And then [Brooks] said, ‘Maybe, if he comes with Robert together, with a certain amount [of money], he might be able to come.’ So Bob emailed Sherman right away and Sherman said, ‘I’d be glad to read.’”
The English department agreed to pay for the event, which was organized by Wang and Jan Beebe, the department coordinator.
Earlier on Monday, the department held a lunch for Alexie and Hershon on the fourth floor of Old Main. It was attended by roughly 30 students, many of whom are students of Wang and visiting professor Anitra Budd.
The poets were candid and casual, opening the floor for questions immediately. Although he has gained fame primarily through his novels and short stories, Alexie talked about his affinity for poetry and the perpetual, spontaneous happening of a poem.
Among other causes for inspiration, Alexie cited a recent trip to the airport, where he spotted a man wearing SpongeBob Squarepants pajamas and sporting a meticulously trimmed and combed mustache.
Hershon talked about his longstanding relationship with Alexie, recounting anecdotes from Alexie’s first trip to New York. Both discussed the developing phenomenon of young adult literature.
Leyla Suleiman ’16, already a fan of Alexie, attended the lunch, afterwards describing the conversation as “fascinating dialogue.”
“It was really awesome. I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “He [Alexie] was so friendly. He was like, ‘oh my god, I love your shoes!’”
At the reading that night, Hershon went first, reading four or five poems from his most recent publications. During and between poems, he often caused the audience to break into loud laughter, even quipping that those of younger generations wouldn’t understand his references. Taking the stage to introduce Alexie, Wang said, “Wow, Bob, I didn’t know you were a stand-up comedian.”
In the hour he spent onstage, Alexie read only four poems, interspersing them with jokes and stories about his career and family. He also poked fun at the audience, thanking the few native audience members for attending and comparing his view from the stage to looking at the Brady Bunch.
A central thread of Alexie’s reading was his mother, who died in July, and with whom he had a difficult relationship. All of the poems he shared have been written since then, and will be published as a collection next fall, something Alexie noted with a sense of dark humor. Sometimes, he stepped back from his place at the podium to laugh at his own jokes, several of which were stories of his mother’s death and burial, and prompted laughter from the audience as well.
“I knew Alexie wrote poetry beforehand; I just assumed it wasn’t as good as his other work because he’s not known for it,” said Xander Gershberg ‘17. “I think his reading substantiated his poetry as significantly better…which I was surprised to find out.”
After the readings were over, the poets moved to tables in the back of the room, where the Highlander sold copies of both poets’ work, and students lined up for autographs. Notably, both Hershon’s and Alexie’s novels sold well; as fans trickled out, the authors’ stacks had dwindled significantly.
The audience also happened to include renowned children’s fiction writer Kate DiCamillo, author of Newbery Medal-winning The Tale of Despereaux, who is a friend of Wang’s and whose presence Wang announced before introducing Hershon.