The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
Library : First Read : Finished.
Warnings: alcohol, death, racism / xenophobia, homophobic language, violence, gun violence, loss of family
I forgot to take a picture or write down how many pages there were in this book before I finished. I should have, if I’d timed it right, I would have ended up finishing on the commute home, and landed with my computer and my crappy computer camera and there would be some fine details. But what I did was get to work, see I could get away with working a little later, and finish it at my desk.
In advance–this is a book about one experience of being an American Indian. I’m white. This isn’t my life. This book is one voice amongst an uncountable number of American Indians whose experiences I have no personal access to. This post is about what one book said to me. Let’s be clear: this book is good but IT’S NOT ENOUGH. It’s not ~*~*~the full indian experience~*~*~. You can’t read it and like, Get It, Man. It’s one story, so you listen to it, and then you listen to another, and you never stop listening. Listen, listen, listen, to every story. Listen forever. There have been billions of people in the world. This is just one book.
That said–I am sorry I waited so long to read this book. (Maybe I would not have needed it as much if I read it in 2007.) This book I would sit down and read a second time right now if I had it in my hand.
Junior (or Arnold Spirit Jr.) is a Rez kid with a brain disorder who likes basketball and learning stuff. He decides to escape the violence (against his own person) on the Rez and transfer out to the school in the next town, 22 miles away, where all the white kids go. The story follows his attempts to determine how and where his life should be lived, and who to be, between environments that all carry their own toxic burdens as well as their own joys and triumphs. In the midst of school stuff and basketball stuff and friend stuff, death, poverty, alcoholism and tragedy play a constant backdrop to his life.
Absolutely True Diary reads a lot like Alexie’s essays and his twitter: clear-sighted, compassionate, funny, and angry. He’s writing from experience about peoples who have been driven into the ground for centuries. One of most crucial points of this book is that the longer someone drives you down, the harder it is to imagine you should even want to get up. It’s about the self-replicating process of oppression: hit someone hard enough, long enough, they’ll stay down, and they’ll also start hitting each other. Arnold Spirit is trying to find hope for himself without betraying the people he loves. As it turns out, trying to be brave for yourself can have costs, even when those costs are not truly your fault.
The thing about this book is that it’s honest in a particular way lots of books about true, real things are not. I mean it doesn’t rely on the reader’s intuition. It doesn’t just show you that injustice is deep-rooted, devastating and endlessly destructive (though it does); the narrator, this kid who’s watched people suffer and die his whole life because that’s the system white people set up for Indians, turns to you. He says, people on the Rez forget we were originally put here to die. That’s why it’s so hard to improve our lives. That’s why it’s so hard to stay alive. It’s because we’ve been put somewhere that was designed to kill us.
Sometimes “show don’t tell” produces amazing work, and Alexie shows plenty. But it’s incredibly refreshing–it’s hopeful for a character to understand how unjust and poisoned their own situation is. It’s amazing for this character to be allowed to say right out of his own mouth: What the fuck did you do to us so that we do this to ourselves?
Arnold Spirit wants to be a cartoonist. I think that kind of sums him up nicely. He can’t really be summed up because he’s complicated and multi-interested and (perfect, I want to say perfect)–but that desire, and the fact that he does it, he draws constantly, he draws everything, that is a perfect trait for this particular kid. He draws thoughtful figure sketches when people aren’t looking and then when something is funny or awful–when its really, really awful, he draws cartoons instead. Because cartoons are unreal and funny and exaggerated and personal, because you show them to the wide world, because they’re frequently hiding terrible things behind their playfulness, because sometimes they’re the simplest way to say this is just how bad it is. But they also show that you’ve met the monster, you’ve met the bad thing, and you’ve got it in a chokehold, and you’ll make it into a joke if it kills you. You’ll surpass it. You really get the idea about Arnold Spirit, Jr. that he’s going to do all right, even when the world isn’t fair enough to just let that happen.