I’ve always been profoundly offended by the censorship of artistic expression. It’s the one thing that consistently fires me up and has the power to bring me down on even the most cheerful of days. It’s an issue that I feel is only becoming more relevant in today’s society. When I hear about a book being banned I’m filled with a Krakatoan rage that makes me want to read every banned book there is, and sing their names from the nearest rooftop.
When browsing the internet for modern examples of banned and controversial books, one title in particular kept coming up: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The title alone attracted me straight away. The key element of that title is the compound adjective “Part-Time”. Without it, the title is worthless. And with it, it’s utterly compelling.
The book is a fictionalized memoir of Alexie’s experiences as a Native American teenager who transfers to a white school outside the reservation on which he lives. This is where the whole part-time business comes in. When he goes to school, he’s part of the white world. When he comes home, he’s a Native American. Except the opposite is true in terms of how each world perceives him. In the white world, he’s seen as that Indian kid. Back on the reservation, he is seen as a traitor to his people- someone that’s trying to be white. And as such he doesn’t feel whole in either environment. This conflict of identity is the crux of what the novel is about.
Admit it- you’re curious now, aren’t you? Of course you are. Inherent in the premise is a “fish out of water” narrative and a clash of cultures. You can already imagine the fear of being a 14-year old kid walking into a new school for the first time. It’s a scenario that draws universal empathy. Only on top of that, you have the racial aspect of the boy’s fear.
This promised to be a perfect introduction to the banned book spree I was about to embark on. I have a long-standing interest in novels and memoirs that deal with adolescent angst. Bullying, hormones, and the search for identity are things I can relate to. The things I can’t relate to are racist abuse, alcoholism, and being a part of a community that has had its very soul gutted via the machinations of the U.S government. Therefore, the book already won the intriguing distinction of being both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A lot of what the protagonist Arnold goes through resonates with me very deeply. But there’s also a lot of what he goes through that teaches me something entirely new, and opens my eyes to the Native American experience.
I won’t spend too much time covering the plot so that y’all can read it and enjoy it for yourselves. Instead I’d like to discuss why the book is considered controversial, what I liked about it, and why I think y’all will like it too. In short, the book is controversial for the simple reason that it’s aimed at teenage readers. If it were marketed toward adults, there would be nothing for us to talk about. There is nothing remotely shocking about the book’s actual content. When I finished Alexie’s novel, I thought “That’s nothing compared to some of the depraved shit I’ve read in other books- or seen on HBO dramas.”
To understand the book’s controversy, you have to understand the kind of people that are taking issue with it. The argument lodged against the book is that it’s not suitable for young readers. I heartily disagree. This is exactly the kind of book that teenagers should read, because it’s all about being a teenager. I would have loved something like this as a 14 year old. The book is written in a very straightforward, accessible style, and just like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s written in this conversational, colloquial first person voice. It reads as though written by a teenager. There are some lines written all in block capitals to showcase the narrator’s anger, and throughout the book are several illustrations that serve as Arnold’s own cartoons about his life. It’s also got this very light-hearted, comedic tone that juxtaposes nicely with some of the horrific events of the book. The union of humor and tragedy is a natural one in my opinion. I understand that it can be a little jarring for the more serious-tempered folks out there, but I just think it’s inevitable that wherever tragedy strikes, comedy won’t be far behind. When it’s done right, the marriage can lead to some really effective forms of artistic expression that resonate with people very deeply. Often in life you’ll see people making light of a dire situation- especially young people.
The passages that cause the most uproar among concerned parent groups are the ones that deal with bullying and racism and sex. For instance, Arnold talks frankly about being referred to as a “faggot” and a “retard”. These are horrible words. But what the concerned parent and religious groups fail to understand is that if you ban a word outright, then kids are not only going to use it more often, but they’re going to use it irresponsibly. These churchy types have a profound mistrust in the ability of young people to handle serious subjects. The fact is that these words exist on the schoolyard. Kids are going to encounter them. And they need responsible adults to help them understand the gravity and power of the language they use. My own teenage years were laced with these cruel words and the devastating effect they can have. I suffered these harsh words and I was guilty of using them myself on some occasions. And like any teenager I told jokes with my friends that were offensive, vulgar, or just straight-up gross. A lot of parents don’t want to believe it, but foul language is endemic to the teenage experience. This gives Alexie’s novel a resonant quality. It rings true. Real teenagers ask each other “What would you rather do…eat your Nan’s diarrhea or have sex with the gym teacher?”
They don’t “Run through fields of wheat”.
But what offends the conservatives and the Christians more than crude language? Their own depraved biology of course…
Alexie’s novel doesn’t have any actual sex in it- but it does contain sexual references. The narrator now and then jokes about how much he masturbates, and for this reason many parents have called for the novel to be removed from school libraries. But to write a book about puberty without covering masturbation is like writing a book about the history of music without covering brass instruments. I get the feeling that these “concerned parents” would see teen fiction stripped of all references to sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, and cursing until it’s so watered down and wholesome that it’s worthless as a piece of art. At that point you’re bordering on propaganda, because you’re trying to create an image of young folks that’s patently untrue.
I remember when I was a teenager, everyone around me was eager to talk about puberty in some form or another. It’s natural to want to try and make sense of the changes your body is going through. I remember once at school, I was in a drama class, and a kid in my group asked each of us to reveal how many times a day we masturbated. These types of conversations happen on every schoolyard and at every sleepover. And by writing about it in his book, Alexie is reaching out to teenagers all over the world and letting them know that they’re not weird, that they’re not sinful, that there’s nothing wrong with how they feel.
My favorite passages in the book were the high school basketball scenes. And that’s not just because I love hoops, but because it highlights the dichotomy of Arnold’s world so well. The white kids live in a culture that tells them they can do or be anything, and their games are full of hope. The Native Americans however, don’t have that same agency. They exist in a world where they are made to feel like they can’t achieve anything. The American Dream is a White Dream. Arnold is different from most of the kids in his tribe in that he’s determined to see the world and realize his ambitions. He thrives in a white school and his former classmates on the reservation hate him for it. They call him an “apple”, suggesting that he is red on the outside but white on the inside. When Arnold returns to his old high school as the star shooter for the rich white school, he’s met with an extremely hostile reception.
At first he’s determined to get revenge on them for bullying him, but then Arnold realizes that his fellow tribe members on the other team probably didn’t eat breakfast that morning. It’s a heartbreaking moment, because he realizes that this basketball game was all these poor kids had. It’s not really satisfying to beat them when your team has vastly superior resources.
The two biggest themes in my opinion are the lack of hope and the struggle for identity for Native American peoples. The cyclical nature of violence, alcoholism, poverty, and despair as portrayed in Alexie’s novel makes for very depressing reading. That’s why the humor is so important in my opinion. Arnold is an endearing protagonist because, unlike everyone around him, he refuses to give up.
Overall I quite enjoyed this book. It’s not as subtle as The Catcher in the Rye, but I think the simple language works well for the themes it wants to explore. The scenes of bullying are visceral and hard-hitting- as are some of the tragedies that occur in the latter half of the book. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone interested in Native American issues or Coming-Of-Age/Teen/Young Adult fiction.