During my week in Seattle, Sherman Alexie was everywhere: He was mentioned during a city tour, recommended at the library, named as one of the contributors to the annual collection What to Read in the Rain by BFI, and I was just one week late to see him read from his new book at Hugo House, a memoir about his recently deceased mother called You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.
After living in Seattle for many years, Alexie is considered a local, but he spent his childhood and youth on the Spokane Indian reservation in eastern Washington. This part of the state is drier, poorer, and less densely populated than the coastline in the West. Reaching well into northwestern Idaho, the ancestral territory of the Spokane Native Americans comprised pine forests and a large desert. The reservation is only a tiny fraction of its original size. While the largest city in the area, Spokane, has recently been deemed up-and-coming by The Stranger, its reputation as a poor, sketchy, uneducated place prevails.
Junior, the cultural insider
Alexie’s first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), is set in the small towns of Wellpinit and Reardan. The semi-autobiographical story follows 14-year-old Spokane tribe member Arnold Spirit Junior during his first year at an all-white highschool. Aided by Ellen Forney’s illustrations, Alexie’s narrative sits squarely at the intersection of sadness and humor.
As a cultural insider, Junior takes an unrelenting look at topics often romanticized or neglected by outsiders. Poverty, for example: “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor.” He sees clearly that this vicious cycle resulting in self-hatred stems from racism against Native Americans and is rooted deep in the US past: “Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.”
Junior, coming of age
Beside these insights and many tragic events throughout the book, Junior is also drawn as a teenager with concerns and interests typical for his age. Not having read a book with a straight male protagonist in a long time, I was surprised to come across explicit, often funny scenes in which the narrator talks about masturbation, hormones, and boners. Since YA novels are not often on my reading list, I don’t know to what extent this was to be expected. While Junior sometimes attempts to justify behavior such as staring at girls he finds attractive, he is also able to examine himself critically: “I was going to yell at her for being shallow. But then I realized that she was being my friend. […] I’d been thinking about her breasts and she’d been thinking about my whole life. I was the shallow one.”
The ability to relate to others and himself by taking their perspective fuels Junior’s personal growth in the story. His ambivalence towards his home is replaced by the realization that he can live in both worlds, his Spokane community and dominant white society, and see value and potential for improvement in both. True Diary manages to be both specific and universal by depicting a Native American community and the structural problems it faces while also teaching about the universal value of getting to know and learning from one another without losing your humor: “Jeez,” Junior thinks at one point, “it was a lot of pressure to put on a kid. I was carrying the burden of my race, you know? I was going to get a bad back from it.”
Title image: Photo by Jesse Bowser