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Saturday, March 14, 2015

How I Came to Know Two Part-Time Indians

One of the most exciting things that can happen to someone who loves books is to stumble upon and immediately fall in love with a writer whose work has somehow remained previously unknown to said book lover.  This happened to me this week in A BIG WAY, resulting in the kind of bookgasm perhaps only the wormiest of bookworms can fully appreciate.

I’d had the audio edition of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian downloaded onto my kindle since way back in 2013 when I finally decided to give it a listen while applying my various layers of Revitalift and moisturizer last Tuesday morning. (My love and possible addiction to Revitalift has been well documented on this blog.)
As the adult child of a (deranged?) parent who very recently decided and declared to the world that he himself, clear blue-eyed and fishbelly white, is in fact—regardless of five generations of known family history—an Indian, I chose Alexie’s YA novel on a whim, its title reminding me of my estranged father who was then parading around our small town wearing the World’s Shortest, Curliest Braids and slathered in a self-tanner that gave him the hue of a Dorito rather than a Cherokee.  I would read the title on my virtual kindle bookshelf and later my iPad and have a sad laugh, but for over two years I never delved into the book—partly, I think, because I was still coming to terms with the race/culture appropriation of my father and all the feelings of regret, anger, and shame that have come along with it.

I suppose this would be a good time to reiterate that I don’t usually choose the books I plan to read based on reviews.  I’m a reader that’s most often won over by title and cover design, though I do read jacket copy and have chosen many books based on interviews with authors I’ve heard on NPR.  I love me some NPR, y’all.  (Revitalift and NPR…I’m vain but informed.)
If I had bothered to read any of the reviews available on Goodreads or Amazon for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I would have learned that the book is a semi-autobiographical YA novel and that its author Sherman Alexie is a Spokane Indian, poet, writer, performer, cartoonist, and filmmaker.  Any fears that I had of encountering some version of my father in its pages would have been stifled, and I could have gotten on with that bookgasm years ago!
As is true with any book I fall in love with, before I’d even finished the story I was Googling Sherman Alexie for articles and interviews.  Who was this man whose words so captivated my heart and mind? How much of his life was like that of Arnold Spirit, Jr. from the book? Who influenced him as a writer? What other works did he have available? Why did I not know of him earlier? I mean, he’s a PEN/Hemingway Award winner for goodness sake!

[photo credit: The Seattle Times]

I would learn that Sherman Alexie is a preeminent voice in Native American literature, that he was born with the same medical issues as the protagonist in Part-Time Indian—issues that set him apart and made him a target for ridicule and bullying for most of his young adolescence; that like Arnold Spirit, Jr. he grew up on the Wellpinit Reservation and faced many of the same situations in the book; that he first knew he wanted to become a poet and writer after reading the poem “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” by Adrain C. Louis—which induced for him his own kind of bookgasm, no doubt—and that he had many, many short-stories, poems, novels, cartoons and at least one film out in the world for me to enjoy.

[Illustration by Sherman Alexie from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, copyright Little Brown Books for Young Readers]

In his work, Alexie illuminates the despair, poverty—and, yes—alcoholism that often shape the lives of Native Americans living on reservations.  His words, infused with humor in the case of Part-Time Indian, evoke sadness and indignation but ultimately leave readers with a sense of respect and compassion for characters in tough situations—characters involved with crime, alcohol, and even drugs, struggling to survive under the weight of poverty, a constant battering (both figuratively and literally) by white American society, and overwhelming feelings of powerlessness and self-hatred.  And he does it all with so much love:  love for his flawed characters and their equally flawed families, love for his people, love for his culture, and love of hope for a better future for anyone who dares to chase a dream instead of letting it die inside them.
Maybe that’s all my own father is doing really:  chasing a dream, as misguided and inappropriate as it may be. Wish he’d dreamed of being a dad, present and fully participatory, though. That would have been something.  I promise to make a full apology, both in private and publically, if he’s ever deemed medically insane, which isn’t altogether unlikely.

Below is my Goodreads review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian:

I love, love, love this semi-autobiographical novel about Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, WA!
As heartbreaking as it is humorous, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian poignantly explores the realities of Reservation life for one fourteen-year-old Native American, "born with water on the brain", who refuses to give into hopelessness. Junior refuses not to care, and the novel follows him in his attempt to escape the only future the Rez has to offer: one of poverty, alcoholism, and the death of dreams.  His determination causes him to become both outsider and outcast as he moves between the worlds of the Reservation and the white high school in Reardan, WA.
Five minutes into reading the book, I had laughed out loud and cried! Sherman Alexie is among the best writers of our time, and to read his words--stories of Native Americans by a Native American--should be required for all students at some point during their curriculum.
What I was most surprised to learn while reading the book is that Sherman Alexie (and so many of his characters) is a poet. His first published works were poems and even his YA novel reads like poetry.  Take this excerpt from the book for example:
"You've been fighting since you were born," he said. "You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope."
I was starting to understand. He was a math teacher. I had to add my hope to somebody else's hope. I had to multiply my hope.
"Where is hope?" I asked. "Who has hope?"
"Son," Mr. P said. "You're going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation." (5.163-5.168)

Poetry. You MUST read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian! I plan on reading Sherman Alexie's other works as well.