My Shaman Sherman

Article excerpt

Before I became religious I used to write stories. When I became religious I kept writing them, but I didn't know how to write about the Jewish stuff. They were about the science fiction geek part of me and the punk part of me and the insecure straight boy hanging out with gay girls part of me.


My friends told me that my first novel should be a straight-up Orthodox novel--so that I could be the definitive voice of "the Orthodox experience" and sell a million copies. I agreed, but I couldn't figure out why I wasn't writing about being Orthodox. I was living this life that consumed every second of my time and every third thought. Every time I checked the clock, it was time for a different prayer. So why wasn't I writing about it?

Only I was writing about it. I'd fill up pages and pages describing prayer, every thought that went through my head, all the things I hated about this world and wanted to ask God about, but I didn't know how, so I just took God's word for it that everything would wind up okay. I wrote about the power of ignoring your needs in favor of God's needs, the beautiful pain at the end of a day-long fast, the delicate unsureness of standing in the middle of the street and blessing the new moon. I'd take about 20 pages to get past the scene where the main character got out of bed and prayed. And it was meaningful. But who in the world wants to wade through 20 pages before your protagonist leaves the house?

That's when I started reading Sherman Alexie.

Sherman Alexie is an American Indian writer. He's known for being exactly that--mainly because there aren't many Native American literary fiction writers in mainstream publishing, and he was sort of appointed by default.

He got into my mind accidentally. I went to a reading where he was surrounded by 100 white people, listening to him be the Voice of the Native American, telling us about his culture. At the end, someone asked him a question about that very thing--about being the Voice of the Native American--and he went werewolf.

"You people don't understand what it's like," he told us. "I'm not writing so you'll understand what it is to be an Indian. …