The Native American and the Somalian Immigrant: The Power of Sherman Alexie’s Life Story

by Saida Orbeck

Saida Orbeck.

Saida Orbeck.

I did not know what to expect when I walked into the Egyptian theater on Wednesday April 24, 2013. I had been told that a writer named Sherman Alexie was going to be speaking. As I walked into the theater I noticed it was full of students, teachers, and a lot of other people from the community. As I finally found a seat, my first impression was that this guy must be very fascinating to have all these people come to see him. Soon enough Sherman Alexie walked up to the stage and the whole place erupted into applause. Little did I know that I would soon discover how I, an immigrant from Somalia, had so much in common with this famous writer from a reservation in Spokane, Washington.

It turns out that we were both named after someone else. Sherman Alexie was named after his father and talked about how hard it was to look at his father’s grave and see his own name there. He told us, “People, don’t ever name your kid after yourself.” I was named after one of my mother’s friends. She was a very kind and sweet person and was my elementary teacher when I was young. I was always reminded of her and was asked, “why can’t you be more like her?” When Sherman Alexie spoke of standing in front of his father’s grave, I thought back to when I went to her grave and said, “Saida, thank you for being a wonderful person, but I cannot be like you. I have to be myself.” Like Sherman said, we can be named after someone, but we are not them. We have to be our own person.

I was amazed to hear a successful writer talking about growing up in rural poverty. In Somalia, my family was considered one of the rich families in Mogadishu. We lived in a three floor house with a huge garden and had a maid, our clothes delivered from Italy, and new furniture about every month. But, after the civil war started I witnessed what poverty meant. My family still had everything we needed, but some of the neighbors were starving. Sherman talked about how some of his cousins lived with his family. Some of them were so used to not having enough to eat that they would eat everything they could when they stayed at Sherman Alexie’s house. During the war some of my cousins stayed with my family and I saw the same thing. They would eat everything they could get their hands on. We would say, “Sure, go ahead, have it. We’re not that hungry.”

The poverty both Sherman and I lived through was very real. He talked about how the reservation had horrible schools and how people lived on government food. In Somalia during the war, many people had to live on food from aid groups. But so much of that food was sold on the black market that people starved because they couldn’t afford it. A woman who lived near us was so malnourished that when she had a baby she had no breast milk to feed it. Then she died a few hours later from bleeding because there was no hospital to take her to. I still remember my brothers and I in her home trying to feed the baby some cow’s milk from a cup because we had no bottle. He died that night and I will never forget how my brothers had to bury him in the back yard. Children died this way so many times in our neighborhood that I remember crying myself to sleep at night because it was just so overwhelming.

There were a lot of problems with his family and culture that Sherman Alexie had to overcome to get where he is today. Both of his parents were alcoholics and his father died because of it. But maybe the hardest problem of all to overcome was low expectations. He talked about how the poverty and separation that existed on the reservation made people believe that there was nothing else. Kids would make fun of him because he did well in school and say that he thought he was better than them. In my culture education and a career is not considered to be a priority for women. It is looked down on. My mother expected me to just live at home until I got married and take care of my siblings and cook and clean until I would eventually do the same thing on my own. On top of that, she was very verbally and physically abusive. I, like Sherman Alexie, dreamed of escaping to a better place.

Probably the funniest thing about Sherman Alexie’s talk was realizing how both he and I have made it to a better place, which just means we are normal, regular people. He likes to watch basketball and I love football and hockey. He tries to get a few more minutes of sleep in the morning, which means he is rushing around like crazy to get his kid to school on time, just like our family. And the story of how his kid asked if he could have one more hour of video games and Sherman said it was OK but, “Don’t tell Mom,” was just like me except I say, “Don’t tell Dad.”

Sherman Alexie has achieved a lot in his life , and I have a long way to go still to achieve my goals, but seeing him has made me even more determined to work hard to accomplish them. We may seem very different from each other at first glance, but it turns out that if a kid from a reservation in Spokane can make it, then a girl from Somalia starts to think she can too.

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