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Sherman Alexie speaks at the public library Credit: Rhino Wang

For the hundreds of people who packed into the Free Library of Philadelphia at 19th and Vine streets Wednesday night, listening to Sherman Alexie may have felt more like a stand-up comedy show than a speaking event by an American Indian author.

As the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian — this year’s “One Book, One Philadelphia” selection — Alexie’s talk was the capstone event for the 2011 program, a joint project between the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Office of the Mayor.

Alexie spoke mainly about his position in American society as a popular “ambiguously ethnic” author, and how his unique childhood on an Indian Reservation shaped his identity. At times, his narration elicited explosive laughter from the audience.

But he also expressed a great deal of emotion — even beginning to well up after hearing a musical number inspired by his work. “We really don’t need another crying Indian,” he joked.

The nine-week program encompasses group discussions and musical performances. In Alexie’s words, “No other city does it like this — I mean, the mayor showed up!”

Mayor and Penn Alumnus Michael Nutter helped introduce Sherman Alexie and discussed the event in the context of illiteracy in Philadelphia.

“We have both an economic and moral imperative to work on this problem, given that there are 550,000 adults who face challenges with literacy in this city,” Nutter said. He then announced that his administration has committed $1 million this year for adult literacy programs.

The programs for the series are chosen so they may be studied by various types of readers. Siobhan Reardon, the director and president of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said that Alexie was chosen in particular “because his works are readable at a 10th grade level, but also because they’re so wonderful to read.”

Alexie’s works are so accessible that they’re used as learning devices for non-native speakers of English. Marlo Reyes, who only arrived to the United States from Venezuela six months ago, read The Absolutely True Diary with his class at the ELS Language Center in Philadelphia. “This was my first book in English,” he said.

Alexie’s works also appeal to well-versed students of literature. English Undergraduate Advisory Board member and College senior Anne Huang described Alexie’s work as “engaging and moving,” but also appreciated several points that he made during the event.

“I agreed [with him] that it is amazing that he is paid and celebrated to criticize the country in front of groups of people,” she said. “It’s not something that people worldwide are entitled to.”

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