Posted on 12 February 2011.
The other day, someone saw me toting around a copy of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (published by Little, Brown & Co.) and asked, “So what’s all the hype about? Is it any good?”
One would hope that when members of the Bishop community decide to organize an almost two month-long series of events stemming from one novel, the book is actually decent. The answer, by the way, is “Oh, yeah, it’s well worth the read.” Put it this way, typically a novel isn’t translated to more than 10 other languages, nor does it win almost 20 awards, if the content is subpar.
This novel has engaged readers and earned praise by tackling touchy issues like adolescent angst, racism, poverty, sexuality, alcoholism and death. As a work of fiction, the story could stand on its own as a powerful piece of work. The fact that it also happens to be semi-autobiographical makes it all the more inspiring. By choosing this particular novel, Bishop Community Reads hoped to spark local dialogue about sensitive issues apropos to the area. Conveniently, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is inspiring and racy enough to do the trick.
Junior is the story’s protagonist, a zit-prone 14-year-old cartoonist with a sharp sense of humor, who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Junior is born hydrocephalic, or with “water on the brain.” As a result, he undergoes surgery that will leave him with physical problems, making him an easy target for teasing. The novel takes an interesting turn when Junior decides to transfer to an all-white high school off the reservation. He then confronts the conflict of betraying his tribe while hoping to steer his life toward a different, ambitious path.
What makes the story so poignant is Alexie’s way of confronting controversial topics. He doesn’t sugarcoat or hold the reader’s hand. The protagonist’s raw honesty seems as personal and exposing as a genuine diary. But at times, he shares more than some readers — or parents and teachers of young readers — can handle. Junior doesn’t omit the lewd or scandalous details, which is why some schools have banned the book. In one case in Oregon, a parent deemed the book “trash” for some of its risqué messages and offensive language.
It’s true that Alexie throws in a couple racial slurs and discusses the perks of (gasp!) masturbation. But, these references are never gratuitous. They stand to prove certain points about a teenage boy navigating his way through bullying, racism and adolescent sexual exploration. Alexie also examines some uncomfortable truths about poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence. But as seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old protagonist, these elements of the story take on an almost profound quality of discovery about the world. The truths of reality — even a teenager’s reality — can be shocking, sad, enraging, and at times, worth celebrating.
Another unique quality of the book is how Junior communicates his thoughts through not only words, but images as well. Illustrated by Ellen Forney, the cartoons scattered through the book uncover one more dimension of Junior’s mind. The reader is able to understand certain ideas and thoughts that Junior wouldn’t be able to convey as clearly through pure prose.
What readers might find interesting is how much the novel mirrors Alexie’s own life. Like Arnold, Alexie was born with “water on the brain.” A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, he was born in October 1966, and by age three, had learned to read. At age five he read John Steinbeck’s classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and attended Wellpinit High School until he was assigned his mother’s old text book from 30 years prior. Rather than feel condemned to read outdated textbooks, Alexie decided to transfer to the all-white school, Reardan High, 20 miles away from the reservation. At Reardan, he did well in school and became a key player on the basketball team.
In 1985 Alexie graduated from Reardan and attended Gonzaga University in Spokane for two years on scholarship until he transferred to Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Wash. He enrolled in WSU’s pre-med courses, but several fainting spells convinced him to redirect his career. Under the watchful eye of his poetry professor Alex Kuo, Alexie discovered his aptitude for writing. He began writing poetry and soon after graduating, Alexie published his first collection of poems, “The Business of Fancy Dancing” (Hanging Loose Press).
Since then, Alexie’s career has taken flight. He has earned high praise as a writer and poet, a celebrated filmmaker, and an inspiration speaker. Alexie’s first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Grove/Atlantic) received a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction in 1993. He published his first novel, Reservation Blues in 1995 (Grove/Atlantic) and his second, Indian Killer (Warner Books) in 1996, both of which won awards. His short story collection, “War Dances,” earned a PEN/Faulkner Award.
In 1997, Alexie collaborated with Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian filmmaker, to adapt one of Alexie’s short stories into a screenplay. The film “Smoke Signals” was adapted from “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” a short story from “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” The film won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy.
Alexie writes mostly fiction, but bases his stories on experiences from his life and the lives of other American Indians. When his characters battle with alcohol, their struggles seem all the more real because Alexie himself had problems with alcohol in his early 20s. When he learned that Hanging Loose Press would publish “The Business of Fancy Dancing,” he swore off drinking and has been sober ever since. What makes the serious elements in his stories palatable though, is his signature sense for humor. Alexie currently lives with his wife and two sons in Seattle, Wash.
Sherman Alexie will make two public appearances during his visit on Feb. 23 and 24 in Bishop. On Wednesday, Feb. 23, the public is welcome to attend a talk, question and answer period, and book signing at the Bishop High School Auditorium starting at 7 (301 N. Fowler) p.m. On Thursday, Feb. 24, at the Bishop Tribe Community Center (405 N. Barlow), the public is welcome to attend a dinner, talk, question and answer period, and book signing starting at 6 p.m. Spellbinder Books in Bishop currently carries his books.
Other related events:
Feb. 15-16: ”American Outrage.” Documentary of two Shoshone sisters and their heroic fight for their land and human rights. 7-8 p.m. at Inyo Council for the Arts (ICA) in Bishop (2/15) and Lone Pine Film Museum (2/16).
Feb. 17: Discussion, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” Facilitated by Sandy & Chris Langley. 7-8 p.m., Lone Pine Film Museum.
Feb. 22-23: ”In Whose Honor” Documentary about American Indian mascots in sports. at ICA (2/22) and Lone Pine Film Museum (2/23).
March 1-2: ”The Business of Fancy Dancing,” written and directed by Sherman Alexie. 7-8:45 p.m. at ICA (3/1) and Lone Pine Film Museum (3/2).
March 3: Discussion, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian,” facilitated by Sandy & Chris Langley. 7-8 p.m. at ICA.
March 8-9: ”Pow Wow Highway” Comedy/drama film about Native Americans understanding the past and fighting for the future. 7:-8:30 p.m. 3/8 at ICA (3/8) and Lone Pine Film Museum (3/9).