Sherman Alexie, Cristina García, Gish Jen, & David Foster Wallace
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Literary Arts

Sherman Alexie, Cristina García, Gish Jen, & David Foster Wallace

Past Event: Monday, February 2, 1998

Like any young writer who makes a striking entrance onto the literary scene, Sherman Alexie has drawn comparisons. He is the Jack Kerouac of reservation life for his chronicling of points high and low of contemporary Indian life—the despair, the self-destructiveness, the snares of the system, the simple pleasures of basketball, and dancing. Born in 1966, Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in Wellpinit, a small town on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alexie devoured books throughout his youth, developed a fiercely competitive style in the classroom, and had his nose broken five times for being the smart kid. After two years at Gonzaga University, Alexie transferred to Washington State University where he graduated in 1991. He was still a student at WSU when his first manuscript of poetry, I Would Steal Horses (1992), was accepted for publication. “I have a very specific commitment to Indian people,” said Alexie, “and I’m very tribal in that sense. I want us to survive as Indians.”

An entrancing and lively storyteller, Christina Garcia was born in Havana in 1958—a year before Castro rose to power—and immigrated with her family to New York City in 1960—a year prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion. Though her vita speaks to her experience as an American (Barnard College, B.A., 1979; John Hopkins University, M.A., 1981; reporter, correspondent, and Miami bureau chief, Time magazine, throughout the ’80s), her fiction resonates with the themes of her Cuban heritage. Garcia explained to an interviewer: “I grew up with a very bifurcated sense of myself. I worked to develop an American side, with my Cuban side being more private.” In her 30s, however, she was struck by her affinity to her homeland: “I became incorrigibly Cuban. It sort of hit me retroactively, this identity thing.”

Lillian (Gish) Jen was born in 1955 in New York City, raised in Scarsdale, and educated at Harvard (B.A., 1977), Stanford (attended business school), and Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop (MFA, 1983). Despite her own efforts to settle into a more secure career, Jen became a writer against her parents’ wishes, assuming her pen name from the actress Lillian Gish. Her first book, Typical American (1991), reveals how easily one can fall prey to the seductions of wealth and consumerism when “the sky’s the limit.” Yet readers should think broadly: “I hope Typical American will be viewed not only as an immigrant story but as a story for all Americans, to make us think about what our myths and realities are,” said Jen. “We are not a country that likes to think in terms of limits.”

Born in 1962, David Foster Wallace was raised in Illinois. He graduated from Amherst College (1985), where he was, in his words, “a math weenie,” received his so-called “master of flatulent arts” from the University of Arizona (1987), and studied philosophy at Harvard. Right out of the blocks, he received national recognition for his first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), and since that time has been appointed heir to the high comic tradition of Jonathan Swift. Among many honors awarded, Wallace was a recipient of a 1997 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. One thread of David Foster Wallace’s inventive, kaleidoscopic is his 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest(1996). Says Wallace of his rigorous novel: “In a time of unprecedented comfort and pleasure and ease, there was a real sort of sadness about the country. I wanted to do something about it, about America and what our children might think of us. That’s one reason for setting the book 18 years ahead.” A professor of English at Illinois State University, he resides in Normal, Illinois.

Excerpt from Indian Killer (1996), by Sherman Alexie John shook her hand again and waved as she pulled away. He stood there in the dark for a while, as cars filled with strangers passed him by, as the night sky became so clear that every constellation was visible. The Big and Little Dippers, Orion, Pegasus. John knew that stars were suns, that each was the center of its own solar system, with any number of planets dependent on its warmth and gravity. John, a falling star, brief and homeless, began the long walk back to Seattle, wondering what Olivia and Daniel would think of this adventure. Pragmatic people. When they swallowed the bread and wine at Mass, did they ever consider the magic of it all? There was magic in the world. John knew that real Indians felt it every day. He had only brief glimpses of it, small miracles happening at the edges of his peripheral vision, tiny wonders exploding while his back was turned.

Excerpt from The Agüero Sisters (1997), by Christina GarciaLast month, she awoke and discovered that her mother’s face had replaced her own. Since then Constancia has slept only four hours a night, and her energy has increased to an exhilarating degree. She finds the soft stretch of Mamá’s flesh over hers oddly sustaining, as if she were buoyed by a warm tidal power. Still, Constancia’s moods pendulate unpredictable, from this sense of contentment to an uncontrollable desire to scratch off her face. She wonders how long she must carry her mother’s visage, shoulder the burden of Mamá’s youth in full bloom (she was thirty-four when she died in the Zapata Swamp) alongside her own midlife perspective. What penance this is: to wear Mamá’s mouth, her eyes, like a spiteful inheritance, to suffer the countenance that scorned her, that banished her to a lonely childhood of uncles and horses. And the question persists: Where has her own face fled?

Excerpt from Mona in the Promised Land (1996), by Gish JenSeth Mandel is a shortish, bright-eyed, pony-tailed guy, with big broad shoulders and the surprise domestic side you associate with primates like the silverback gorilla. Not only is he the type to offer people back rubs of surprising penetration, but he’ll pick a piece of lint off your sleeve if he sees it, saying, Excuse me, I can’t help it; I’m driven by early training and the force of neurosis. And then his eyes will crinkle, and a crack will open in his red-brown beard, and you’ll know he’s smiling his wide crooked smile. He doesn’t laugh much–the enigmatic smile is more his style. But once in a while, he’ll let out a guffaw, shocking people, and then he will smile to see their reaction. For this is what he likes more than anything, to conduct little experiments–or as he puts it, to send up balloons. This is how you see the wind. That is, if you are interested in seeing the wind. He smiles again.

Excerpt from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster WallaceRight now it’s Saturday 18 March, and I’m sitting in the extremely full coffee shop of the Fort Lauderdale Airport, killing the four hours between when I had to be off the cruise ship and when my flight to Chicago leaves by trying to summon up a kind of hypnotic sensuous collage of all the stuff I’ve seen and heard and done as a result of the journalistic assignment just ended. I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21,000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as ‘Mon’ in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced and a tropical moon that looked more like a sort of obscenely large and dangling lemon than like the good old stony U.S. moon I’m used to. I have (very briefly) joined a Conga Line.

Selected Work

Sherman Alexie
The Toughest Indian in the World (2000)
Indian Killer (1996)Reservation Blues (1995)The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)The Business of Fancydancing (1992)

Christina GarciaThe Agüero Sisters (1997)Dreaming in Cuban (1992)

Gish JenWho’s Irish? : Stories (1999)Mona in the Promised Land (1996)Typical American (1991)

David Foster WallaceA Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997)Infinite Jest (1996)Girl with Curious Hair (1989)The Broom of the System (1987)

Alexie’s official web site
Reading group guide for Garcia’s The Agüero Sisters
Powell’s Books interview with Jen interview with Wallace