Teaching Sherman Alexie in the #MeToo Era
Updated: Dec 17, 2018
By Dana Huff Worcester Academy, MA
In the aftermath of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a groundswell of women from all industries shared their own experiences with sexual abuse and harassment on social media using the hashtag #MeToo. In January 2018, School Library Journal published Drew Himmelstein’s “Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in its Ranks,” and the floodgates opened in the post’s comments (note: the article has since been scrubbed from the SLJ website). Commenters alleged that popular YA authors such as Jay Asher, James Dashner, and Sherman Alexie, among others, sexually harassed them. Teacher Lauren Porosoff was in the middle of teaching Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian when she heard the news about Sherman Alexie. She wrote in Teaching Tolerance that she is “furious with Sherman Alexie,” and that she “would stand by the women of the #MeToo movement and would not contribute to Alexie’s popularity or bank account by teaching his book next year.”
Like Lauren Porosoff, I love Sherman Alexie’s powerful writing, and the allegations against Alexie disappointed me. I shared Porosoff’s article on social media with the question, “What do you do if you’re in the middle of reading Alexie with students?” What are our responsibilities as teachers when we learn the authors we teach have engaged in sexual misconduct? Should we remove these authors from the curriculum? If we do remove these authors, are we engaging in censorship?
McMinn County (Tennessee) High School English teacher Jillian Ratti remarked, “Now I’m reviewing the scene where Junior is watching Penelope play volleyball.” She added, “I won’t stop teaching [Alexie’s work] (or at least making it available) but it’ll be different now.” Shurr High School (Montebello, CA) teacher Ami Szerencze says, “I would still teach it and would continue to teach it in the future. The book’s value shouldn’t change when we learn about the author’s biography.” However, Szerencze also wonders if she should share the news about Sherman Alexie with her students who choose to read his books. “It’s really disappointing,” she adds. “He is an engaging presenter and one of the most read authors in my classroom library.”
Authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Derek Walcott have remained staples of the English curriculum in spite of troublesome histories. Peter Waldron, Supervisor of the Writing Center at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC, argues that “it could be turned into another identity lesson. What does it mean when we learn a talented and beloved creator or writer is not a good person? I don’t think the book has to be lost.” However, does incorporating the work of an author accused of sexual misconduct in the classroom mean teachers are not supporting the #MeToo movement? Christine Taylor, English Department Chair at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge, NJ, wonders if we hold writers of color to a higher standard of conduct than white authors. “In no way do I condone anyone (authors included) enacting sexual (and other) violence against people,” Taylor 2 The NEATE News Fall 2018 argues. However, she adds, “I do, regularly, teach books by authors who have enacted violence (racial, sexual, social, etc.) against others. Largely, these are white male authors. No one has an issue with these. Yet come an Indigenous author, a person of color, and he is automatically held to a higher standard, and how ‘dare we’ include his work in our curriculum.”
The allegations against Alexie are particularly troubling in that many Native American writers contend that Alexie exploited Native American women writers. Because of Alexie’s high profile, many were encouraged to obtain his endorsements for their work. Elissa Washuta, member of the Cowlitz tribe, alleges that Alexie accused her of plagiarism after she spurned his sexual advances. Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee writer Erika Wurth alleges that Alexie attempted to sexually assault her when she was 22. In her article “Why Reading Sherman Alexie was Never Enough” for Yes! Magazine, Jaqueline Keeler, Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota and editor of The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears, says “After #MeToo, we can honestly say we live in an altered world,” and as such it is “time to purge some of our cultural furniture or at least move it around.” She also wonders, “What would the Native American literary landscape look like today” if Alexie had offered his support to more Native American women writers. Elissa Washuta claims, “for so long one writer has had a disproportionate amount of [publishers’] attention to the exclusion of other native writers.”
Can we separate the art from the man when so many women allege Alexie’s profound detrimental impact on exposure of other native voices? Is he experiencing more backlash as a person of color than he would as a white man? If we choose to teach Alexie, our students should be aware of his troubling history. Perhaps the question of how to respond to a beloved author in light of sexual misconduct allegations is best left to our students.
Alexie issued a statement on February 28, 2018 apologizing “to the people I have hurt” and rejecting the “accusations, insinuations, and outright falsehoods” made by Seattle-based author Litsa Dremousis, who called for women who had been victimized by Alexie to share their stories. Lynn Neary’s March 5, 2018 story for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered spoke with ten women regarding the allegations against Alexie. He declined the Carnegie Medal he received from the American Library Association.
Works Cited Alexie, Sherman. “For Immediate Release.” Document Cloud, Falls Apart Productions LLC, 28 Feb. 2018, assets.documentcloud.org/documents/4391069/Sherman-Alexie-Statement.pdf. Accessed 16 July 2018.
Himmelstein, Drew. “Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in its Ranks.” School Library Journal, Updated 14 Feb. 2018. 3 The NEATE News Fall 2018
Keeler, Jacqueline. “Why Reading Sherman Alexie Was Never Enough.” Yes! Magazine, 12 Mar. 2018, www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/why-reading-sherman-alexie-was-never-enou gh-20180312. Accessed 16 July 2018.
Neary, Lynn. “‘It Just Felt Very Wrong’: Sherman Alexie’s Accusers Go On The Record.” All Things Considered, 5 Mar. 2018. NPR, www.npr.org/2018/03/05/589909379/it-just-felt-very-wrong-sherman-alexies-accus ers-go-on-the-record. Accessed 16 July 2018.
Porosoff, Lauren. “Why I’ll Never Teach This Powerful Book Again.” Teaching Tolerance, 2 Mar. 2018. Teaching Tolerance, www.tolerance.org/magazine/why-ill-never-teach-this-powerful-book-again. Accessed 16 July 2018.