This is my first post on YA Stands! (Nervous throat-clearing, wiping of sweaty palms on jeans.) I’m both honored and humbled to join this growing community as a regular blogger.
Normally, I’ll be posting on the areas of YA that are of greatest interest to me as a reader and writer: speculative fiction (mostly sci-fi, dystopian, and fantasy) and gender issues. But for Banned Books Week, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to comment on a YA novel that’s made the list of most frequently challenged books for the past three years: Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
For those who don’t know Alexie’s book, it tells the tale of a reservation Indian, Junior, who seeks to escape his grim family life and bleak prospects by enrolling in the nearby all-white high school. The book can be funny--even hilariously funny--but at the same time, it’s never less than painful. Junior’s adjustment to a new community, his friends’ and family’s reaction, the daily tragedy that is reservation life in modern America are all covered in unsparing detail. Those who know Indian peoples only from The Lone Ranger and Pocahontas would do well to read this book.
And it’s on the frequently challenged books list?
In a former life, before I started writing YA, I wrote academic books. You know, the kind that revel in the sesquipedalian (a word that, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, I spelled correctly as I typed it now). What I wrote about was the portrayal of Native peoples in American literature, from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth. I tried to excavate the stereotypes, misrepresentations, and outright distortions that have ruled Euro-American depictions of Indians for hundreds of years.
But that’s not all I wrote about. I also wrote about how Indian peoples fought back, how they sought to tell their own stories in a culture dominated by racist propaganda. I studied such early Native writers as Samson Occom (Mohegan), William Apess (Pequot, pictured at right),
It’s not quite the same now, of course. Not for someone like Sherman Alexie, anyway. He’s a well-established figure, a celebrity even. His books are in no danger of disappearing.
But when he writes from his experience as a Native person, an experience that includes such ugly realities as racism, violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and other evils that remain entrenched in Indian Country (and elsewhere), he’s met by charges of obscenity and campaigns of censorship.
If Alexie’s novel is obscene, that’s because the history from which it arises is obscene. If we remove it from library and schoolroom shelves, we reproduce a legacy of oppression and suppression that only the truth can overcome.