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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

October 12, 2014 10 comments

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 2008 French title: Le premier qui pleure a perdu.

Alexie_DiaryI’ve already read Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie and I really enjoyed it. I thought I’d read another one by him someday. End of September, I discovered on Twitter that it was Banned Books Week, an event organised in the US to celebrate the freedom to read. Check out here the Top 10 of frequently challenged books. Browsing through the tweets, I became aware of two puzzling facts: there’s a need in the USA to organise such a week and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was on the list of banned books in several high schools in Idaho, Missouri, Texas and other states  because it was judged offensive. Call it a pavlovian-voltairian reflex if you want, but when I hear about banned books, I want to become a knight in shining armour and rescue all these books in distress. (Yes, women have the right to picture themselves as knights in shiny armours, this is the 21st century)

So, on principle, because a big democracy like America shouldn’t need a Banned Book Week and because no writer deserves to be banned, I decided to buy The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and read it right away. That’s my way of protesting and I sure hope this billet will get retweeted and reblogged and advertised because the book community should be rebellious against censorship.

Imagine me starting Alexie’s YA novel, banned or challenged for the following reasons “Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group”. I expected some Indian Portnoy’s Complaint or some Justine or the unhappiness to live on a reservation or a Spokane On the Road. Actually, I’ve read the diary of fourteen year old Arnold Spirit, an Indian living on the Spokane reservation. One day, pushed by his math teacher, he decides to leave the reservation high school in Wellpinit to attend the high school outside the reservation in Reardan to have better chances to succeed in life. The novel relates his year as a freshman in Reardan, his struggle with his identity as he turned his back to his community in hope of a better future.

Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay well at all.

There’s no explicit language except one or two mentions of a boner and masturbation. But isn’t that part of adolescence, along with acne, squeaky voices and fear of blood stains on trousers? Arnold’s journey in Reardan is difficult due to his different background or to his poverty but nothing really bad happens to him in school. He’s not molested, bullied or insulted. There’s no more violence than on many TV shows. It’s a coming-of-age novel dealing with the usual dilemnas of adolescence. Who am I? Except that the answer is more difficult to find when you change of world. So what? Portnoy’s Complaint is not on the challenged books list and it’s a lot more challenging than Alexie’s book. Either these fools ban books they haven’t read or they’re not literate enough to notice there are lots of more explicit books about sex, booze or drugs than this one. Madame Bovary is more sexual than this!

My opinion is that Alexie’s tone bothers them. Arnold has a spitfire tongue, an incredible sense of humour and the novel is full of passages like this:

But she was lying. Her eyes always got darker in the middle when she lied. She was a Spokane Indian and a bad liar, which didn’t make any sense. We Indians really should be better liars, considering how often we’ve been lied to.

Or

“Jeez,” she said. “Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?”

Or

This guy was in love with computers. I wondered if he was secretly writing a romance about a skinny, white boy genius who was having sex with a half-breed Apple computer.

Or

Okay, so it was Gordy who showed me a book written by the guy who knew the answer. It was Euripides, this Greek writer from the fifth century BC. A way-old dude. In one of his plays, Medea says, “What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land?” I read that and thought, “Well, of course, man. We Indians have LOST EVERYTHING. We lost our native land, we lost our languages, we lost our songs and dances. We lost each other. We only know how to lose and be lost.” But it’s more than that, too. I mean, the thing is, Medea was so distraught by the world, and felt so betrayed, that she murdered her own kids. She thought the world was that joyless.

The last one stings a bit, just like the one questioning Indian’s habit to celebrate Thanksgiving. As Arnold points out: what should Indians be thankful for? I suspect these bigots can’t forgive Alexie for not using the mild Native American term or for bringing up topics they’d like to forget. –Note that Toni Morrison is also on the “challenged books” list. And she does exactly the same: her books give a voice to the history of black people in America.

Yes Alexie calls a spade a spade and he does it on a witty tone. When Arnold depicts Reardan, he sounds like the narrator in The Plot Against America when he describes the non-Jewish neighbourhoods in Newark. It’s genuine curiosity and he’s got the self-deprecating sense of humour one sees in Woody Allen’s films. Arnold has the exaggeration of a teenager; he’s loud, sends direct punches and questions the adults around him.

I’m against censoring books for teenagers. Everything can be read with the proper explanations. Personally, I put my hands on a Sade book in high school. Did it disgust me? Yes. Did it scar me for life? No. Thinking our teenage children don’t think or talk about sex is ridiculously naïve. (And forgetful of what we used to be) Thinking they don’t know about homosexuality is equally silly. Censoring a book that mentions the disaster alcohol brings on the reservation is plain stupidity. Teenagers will try alcohol, Sherman Alexie or not. And this book doesn’t mention under-age drinking but shows what kind of ravages alcohol do to families and lives. Isn’t it a proper message to convey to our children? And what about this:

“The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.”

Is it bad for a teenager to read this? I don’t think it is. So I support Sherman Alexie’s book to the point of buying it again, in French, for my thirteen year old daughter. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks about it.

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