Sherman Alexie wins 2010 Pen/Faulkner fiction prize for ‘War Dances'

Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"War Dances" by novelist Sherman Alexie has won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the organizers announced Tuesday.

The prestigious annual award, presented by the Washington-based PEN/Faulkner Foundation, was given to Alexie because of his book's breadth of topics and innovative style, judges said. "War Dances" consists of short stories interspersed with poems.

"That book was the one we all liked immediately," said Kyoko Mori, one of the three judges. "There was something special about the range of characters. It was like watching a dance. I liked how some of the characters were unlikable but compelling."

Alexie was still absorbing the news Tuesday.

"It's so cool. You just look at the list of people who've won and it is legendary," he said. "Just having that status was incredible."

He acknowledged that the book's format is unusual. After publishing the young adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" in 2007, "I wanted to write a book that was a reverse of that," Alexie said. "I wanted to do a weird book and reestablish my independent, small-press roots."

Alexie, 43, likened his writing process to "mixing an old-school music cassette."

"When you construct a mix tape, the first song you come out with has to be a barnburner," he said. "You come out with Marvin Gaye."

Mori, a Washington-based writer, thought the juxtaposition of forms in "War Dances" made it rise above the other entries -- about 350 novels and short story collections this year. "I usually don't like books that combine prose and poetry," she said. "But here the poetry was like listening to an interlude and got you ready for the next story."

Al Young, another judge and the former poet laureate of California, praised the gumbo of story lines. " 'War Dances' taps every vein and nerve, every tissue, every issue that quickens the current blood-pulse: parenthood, divorce, broken links, sex, gender and racial conflict, substance abuse, medical neglect, 9/11, Office Narrative vs. What Really Happened," Young said in a statement.

Alexie, who lives in Seattle, won a National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007 and this week, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas. He is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian who grew up on a reservation 50 miles northwest of Spokane. Severely ill as a child, he overcame his conditions and set out for a life of reading and writing. In high school he was the only Native American and became a scholar-athlete, later writing about those experiences in "True Diary."

Many of Alexie's works have been honored, including a story collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," which was a PEN/Hemingway Award winner for best first book of fiction. The attention led to a film, "Smoke Signals," which won two awards at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

Alexie, who receives $15,000 for the PEN/Faulkner honor, will be saluted May 8 on the 30th anniversary of the program.

The other finalists -- Barbara Kingsolver, Lorraine M. Lopez, Lorrie Moore and Colson Whitehead -- will also be recognized.


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