Home > 2000, 21st Century, Alexie Sherman, American Literature, Opinion, Young Adult > The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

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

October 12, 2014 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. October 12, 2014 at 3:12 am

    The US needs, or anyways has, Banned Book Week exactly because it is a big democracy with a lot of different opinions about everything, including which books are appropriate for different ages.

    Your example of Portnoy’s Complaint actually answers your larger question. Why no complaints about Complaint? Because the relevant high school libraries do not have a copy – the book was already “banned” by the high school librarian.

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    • October 12, 2014 at 8:08 pm

      There’s a difference between putting books on a banned book list and deciding as a professional librarian that a book is not to be purchased. In the first case, it’s edicting what should be read. In the second case, it’s managing your book buying budget.

      In my opinion, two criteria should prevail:
      – has this book any literary value?
      – will this book develop the pleasure of reading?

      Both are subjective and that’s why being a librarian is a profession. Not anyone can pick books, otherwise procurement could do it.

      Personally, I don’t think having Portnoy’s Complaint is necessary in a high school library, since budgets -alas- are limited. There are more important books to read before this one.

      Alexie’s book falls into the second category. It’s well written and it’s accessible to beginners. It’s the kind of book that can show a kid that books aren’t all written by white dead dudes who speak funny. I find it sad to pass on novels like this because some PC zealots find it offensive. (BTW, Molière was pretty offensive to the PC zealots of his time)

      Plus, I find it particularly hypocrit considering what you can see in TV shows, films and on the internet. Nowadays teenagers are less naive than we were.

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  2. October 12, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Great post, Emma. I can think of a couple of teenagers in my life who would love this book so I’ll put it on their Christmas lists

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    • October 12, 2014 at 7:49 pm

      I’m glad to hear new readers will be aware of this book.

      Like

  3. October 12, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Not for me, but I appreciate the sentiment. Yes, IMO there is a need to always put the issue of BANNED BOOKS under a microscope because it is an ongoing issue.
    I read The Godfather as a teen.

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    • October 12, 2014 at 7:49 pm

      That’s definitely not for you. It’s a good one in its genre, though.
      Banning this book is real hypocrisy: the kids hear much worse on the radio, see more violence and sex than that in films and on the internet.

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  4. October 17, 2014 at 10:01 am

    I want to read him. I’ve got his collected short stories.
    My reaction to banned book week is pretty much the same as yours. And thanks for adding the link. Interesting. I think I mentioned before that one of the only books that’s banned in Europe is Mein Kampf. Yet you can get it in Switzerland – one of the only direct democracies – maybe the only one – come to think of it – a country that’s very averse to banning. There’s even still smoking in restaurants. Which is in a way good (freedom of choice), in a way not (because it’s harmful to those around).

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    • October 22, 2014 at 11:03 am

      I think you’ll like him. You enjoy reading short stories, so Ten Little Indians should suit you.

      There’s no excuse for drawing lists of banned books, especially in a democracy. It irks me on two levels: the obvious one is the censorship and the other one is the idea that parents know better than librarians what is appropriate for reading in high school. I love reading but I know nothing about literature for children or adolescents. I can imagine what they are able to read but not as well as their lit teachers or librarian.

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  5. October 22, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    It’s not for me, but in fairness those quotes are very well written. The book itself sounds great.

    I’m absolutely against banning books. I imagine there are rare exceptions, but I think the presumption should always be against banning, and a strong case (more than mere parental objection) required for any to be restricted. Mein Kampf is a tricky one, but while I think it makes sense to perhaps require a student to specifically request it (as it could be a warning sign) even that I don’t think I’d ban. How can we learn from the past if we whitewash it?

    To be fair to the Texas school board, this issue is sometimes misreported. Often they’re reported as having banned books due to parental pressure when actually they’ve just taken the book off the syllabus, which is a very different thing. The book isn’t removed from the school library, it’s just not a required read any more. The most recent book banning in Texas was just that, they didn’t ban it, they just took it off the syllabus and that got widely misreported (I suspect by their political opponents, which I admit I’m one of given they’re on the right and I’m not but I’d rather be an honest opponent).

    Oh, I don’t know why since knight in shiny armour is perfectly good and correct English, but for some reason the phrase is always knight in shining armour. I can’t personally see a reason for one over the other, but for some reason there is.

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    • October 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      It’s a YA book, whatever that tag means. Unlike The Grapes of Wrath, I can’t imagine you reading this but I’m glad I did. You’d probably like his short stories.

      Thanks for the precision on banning from the library vs putting a book out of the syllabus. I wonder what they’d do with La Vie devant soi since the language could be considered as offensive too.

      Thanks also for the shiny/shining explanation, I’ll correct it. As always, you’re the only one who dares pointing these things and I really appreciate it. Otherwise, I’d never know. So, if other readers see this, don’t hesitate to tell me if I make mistakes!

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