Thursday, May 6, 2010

12. The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

So, Sofi Oksanen had to cancel her West coast book tour because of Eyfjallajökull. I still went to the reading, just because the two other authors making an appearance on behalf of the PEN World Voices festival, Tommy Wieringa and Christos Tsiolkas, were introduced by local celebrity, Sherman Alexie.

When I say "local celebrity", I do want to point out that for me, Alexie was mostly a familiar name from The Colbert Report where he has appeared as a guest, and from columns and poems people have been linking me to. After Avatar came to the theaters, people linked me to Alexie's poem How to Write the Great Indian Novel, which was published years before Avatar, but still seemed to ring oh so true. So, now that he was giving a reading and hosting the PEN panel a couple of blocks away from me, I figured I might as well go see him.

And I'm glad I did! His reading was hilarious, and the poems he had chosen were funny and poignant. I ended up picking up this book that night, as I had heard of it winning various awards. It is a Young Adult novel, which makes it a nicely quick read, but it does not mean it makes the subject matter any less complicated than ones in Old Adult's novels.

It's Junior's story, which is partly an autobiography: like Alexie, Junior is a hydrocephalic born in Wellpinit to a Spokane Indian reservation. And like Alexie, Junior decides to leave the reservation to attend an all-white high school, where the only other Indian is the horrifying "red skin" mascot. Instead of discussing the ensuing issues of marginalization of American Indians, white privilege and being poor as an academic brain exercise (which I would have also enjoyed), Alexie gives voice to his younger self, who comes to realize all of these issues through personal experiences--and often very viscerally.

It's a great novel for adults and kids alike, and it defies many stereotypical images of American Indians prevalent in books (often written by white people), while dealing with all the serious issues that American Indians face, such as alcoholism, poverty and early death; before Junior turns twelve, he has already been to forty-two funerals, and most of those deaths have been caused by alcoholism, directly or indirectly. How many white kids can say that? How does the prevalence of death affect a child?

 One major issue is the title's part-time reference: by attending a white school, Junior enters a world of in-between. In a cartoon he draws two versions of himself, one hated by people on the reservation and the other loved by people at the white school, and both of his versions display a thought balloon: "Who am I?!" Although gradually people begin to like Junior at his new school, he is still not exactly one of them. At the same time, his best friend hates him for leaving the reservation--even if he returns every evening--and for being "a traitor".

A basketball game between the reservation school and the white school is the climax of this dissonance: Junior is first absolutely ecstatic that he has helped his team kick the reservation team's butt, especially after all the booing and violence displayed toward Junior during the game. He comes down from his high quickly when he realizes that most of those kids probably have not had anything to eat that day, and are going to return home where alcoholism and a pretty certain beating is waiting for them. He remembers how he wanted something, anything positive to happen to him. He has achieved that, as the celebrated member of his basketball team; when are those other kids going to get their break?

In short, the book is about navigating your way in life when you have been handed pretty bad cards and can't use money or fame to buy a new set; it's trying to come to terms at a young age with the idea that some are more privileged than others, yet it does not mean that they are intrinsically more deserving of their privilege.

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