I was at Elliott Bay the night that Sherman Alexie was scheduled to appear in his first reading. The room was full and expectant when an apparently inebriated and indigenous man staggered in, yelling “Where’s that Indian poet? I heard he’s going to be here tonight. Where is he? I want to hear that Indian poet?” He made it all the way up to the podium, stood in front of the microphone, and quite soberly asked the audience “How many Indian poets do you pass by on the street every day?” The exhalations of relief were palpable but I don’t think anybody applauded. 

That was the first time Sherman Alexie surprised Seattle but he continued to do it again and again, He became nationally famous, made two acclaimed movies about reservation life, wrote with a speed that guaranteed someone in Seattle was reading him almost every day, whether it was one of his books or a column in the free weekly newspaper, The Stranger. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, written for teenage readers, was on its way to becoming a classic. Then suddenly young women began to speak up and he vanished.

I know someone who was approached by Sherman Alexie. He propositioned her and then he threatened her with his fame and his literary power if she didn’t succumb. With her this didn’t work but it had been a successful technique in the past. He had betrayed and hurt women. When one of them spoke up, others had the courage to tell what had happened to them. 

It’s a story as old as Zeus and the Greeks had a word for it–hubris. However the punishment meted out to Sherman Alexie was up to that time unheard of. Many bookstores that had enshrined him stopped carrying his work. There were libraries that removed his books from their shelves. The Absolutely True Diary was no longer recommended reading in schools. In the parlance of our time, he had become “toxic.” He may have been the first person who was ever “canceled.”

The waters closed over his head and it’s as if he never existed.

He wasn’t the first acclaimed writer to have abused his fame. He might have been the first “Indian” writer to have done this and he was the first to be nullified through his books. There’s the tragedy. His future work–if not the past–was erased and I think that’s criminal.

“When we speak of diversity, we speak blurrily about race. But we rarely speak of class, education, and politics.” In one of his columns in the throw-away paper, I found this and kept it because Sherman had said something that struck me as true, something nobody else was saying. He had just recently hit middle age when he sank and he had so much more writing to do. Although he’s still alive, I think of James Baldwin’s sentence in Another Country, “He was a beautiful cat and we killed him, that’s all. That’s all.”

If we spoke about race in a way that wasn’t “blurry” and if we also took a hard look at “class, education, and politics,” perhaps we’d wonder why the two writers of our time who have disappeared in the wake of sexual accusations have been Brown men. When was the last time we read anything new from Junot Diaz? There’s more than one way to accomplish a lynching. Maybe the most effective technique is an enforced and sanctioned silencing. Kill the art, not the artist.