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Sherman Alexie wins the National Book Award

By Mary Ann Gwinn -- Seattle Times

SEATTLE (MCT) - Seattle author Sherman Alexie has won the National Book Award for his highly autobiographical novel for young people, ''The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.''

Alexie got the news the night of Nov. 14 at the awards ceremony in New York. He won for best book in the young people's literature category. In his acceptance speech, Alexie, an author of 19 books of fiction, poetry and essays, quipped, ''Wow ... I obviously should have been writing YA [young adult] all along.''

He credited Alex Kuo, a creative-writing teacher at Washington State University who gave him an anthology of American Indian writing. It helped persuade him to become a writer. ''I had never read words written by a Native American. The first one was a poem about frying baloney ... I grew up eating fried baloney. The other was a poem by Adrian Lewis, and the poem had the line, 'Oh, Uncle Adrian, I'm in the reservation of my mind.' I knew right then when I read that line that I wanted to be a writer. It's been a gorgeous and magnificent and lonely 20 years since then.''

''I am in post-traumatic shock-stress syndrome,'' Alexie said later. ''It's just astonishing. It's all because 27 years ago, I went up to my mom and dad and asked if I could leave the rez school, and they said yes.''

He thanked his wife, his two sons and his editor, ''who edited me, even though I can be an arrogant bastard.''

The National Book Award is one of the most prestigious awards in literature. When Alexie was named a finalist in October, he said the ''very, very autobiographical'' nature of the book made the attention it has received even more gratifying.

The protagonist in ''Absolutely True Diary'' goes on a journey very similar to the one Alexie has made - a young Indian who leaves reservation life to test himself in the outside world.

''It's scary to put a very close version of my story out in the world - there's a lot of emotional capital at stake,'' he said at the time.

Winners in the four competitive categories - fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature - each receive $10,000.

Alexie's competition for the prize in the young people's literature category included, ''Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One,'' by Kathleen Duey; ''Touching Snow,'' by M. Sindy Felin; ''The Invention of Hugo Cabret,'' by Brian Selznick; and ''Story of a Girl,'' by Sara Zarr.

Alexie, Spokane/Coeur d'Alene, is the fifth Washington state resident to win the award. ''Absolutely True Diary,'' published by Little, Brown, was illustrated by Seattle artist Ellen Forney.

Alexie, 41, has been critically acclaimed for his work - a mix of insight and honesty, compassion and outrageous humor. He also has had a successful career as a filmmaker, playwright and teacher, and other books and films have drawn on his Indian heritage. But ''Absolutely True Diary'' may be the book that's closest to the life he led.

Like Alexie, 14-year-old Arnold Spirit survives being born with hydrocephalus (water on the brain), becomes an honors student and ultimately leaves the Spokane Indian reservation for a white school. He battles the alcoholism of his parents, the death of family members, poverty and despair.

In a September interview, Alexie called himself a ''reluctant role model ... I write aware of that. Especially with this book, certainly, whose theme is about escape, I hope it encourages all sorts of trapped people to feel like they can escape.''

Other winners included ''Time and Materials,'' by Robert Hass (poetry); ''Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA,'' by Tim Weiner (nonfiction); and ''Tree of Smoke,'' by Denis Johnson (fiction).

Freelancer John Freeman contributed to this report. Copyright (c) 2007, Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.