Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre visit PCHS
Ryan Summerlin September 24, 2013
Author Sherman Alexie’s laugh filled the back bar of the Club Lespri and his gray-streaked hair bounced atop his head as he thought about school districts banning his novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."
"When I read the interviews of people seeking to ban the books, it is always obvious that they have not even read the book," Alexie said. "All they have done is read the excerpts that maybe the one person that read the book read."
Several parents in Park City High School (PCHS) were less than pleased that their children were required to read Alexie’s novel over the summer after learning there was "explicit content" in it and approached the school board with concerns.
The excerpts Alexie, and PCHS parents, referred to are the two references to masturbation and one use of masturbation as a metaphor. He said that no one actually masturbates in the novel and that there are no sexual acts in the book.
PCSD Superintendent Ember Conley stood by the PCHS English department’s choice of the book saying that the themes in the novel identity, self-awareness, conformity, acceptance and how we treat people who are different from us are the right things for high school students to be learning about.
The Park City School District (PCSD) responded to concerns by issuing new forms for parents to "opt-out" their children from having to read the novel or participating in the Author-In-Residence program.
This year, it welcomed Alexie and film-maker Chris Eyre Thursday and Friday. Alexie and Eyre collaborated on "Smoke Signals," the winner of the 1998 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award based on Alexie’s short story, "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona."
They sat in a booth in the back bar of the Club Lespri and reminisced on what they deemed "a terrible wig" in the film.
"Harvey Weinstein, in his infinite wisdom, said, ‘People will laugh the first time and then forget about it,’" Alexie said in a rough voice and smoking an imaginary cigarette, impersonating Weinstein.
When asked what the best advice he or Eyre had ever received, Eyre responded, "The wig works?" He and Alexie laughed and reminisced on the making of the film that would place them and Native Americans on the map.
Jennifer Billow of the Park City Education Foundation (PCEF) worked with the Sundance Institute to get Alexie and Eyre to come back to Park City and share their experience and advice with PCHS film and writing students.
Billow said the in-residence program is the one shared academic experience for every single high school student. Parent donors, the Promontory Foundation and the Utah Humanities Council all helped fund the event.
"The in-residence program is one of our site grants that the high school requests from us each year," Billow said. "It is ranked high on their wish list, and we have been happy to do that for three years now."
According to Eyre, he and Alexie received their invitations to the event about a year ago after the Park City School District (PCSD) picked two of Alexie’s novels, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," as required summer reading for their students.
According to Billow, Alexie does not visit schools anymore, but PCEF’s collaboration with Sundance made them able to bring in what she calls a "high-caliber author" they would not have otherwise been able to get.
Alexie and Eyre will speak with aspiring writers and film-makers, and they hope that the students will be entertained and learn from their lectures.
"You don’t have to be the best," said Eyre in terms of advice for students who want to become film-makers like him. "You have to have courage; you have to be brave."
Billow said that this is the first year that the PCEF was able to not only bring in an author but also a film-maker and is proud that they are able to provide a "college-level experience" to PCHS students.
"We just want to thank all of the donors and the parents in Park City that want these kinds of experiences for their kids and give generously," said Billow. "Without the Ed Foundation, this just would not be possible."