Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week: Sherman Alexie's THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN

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),
George Copway (Ojibwa), David Cusick (Tuscarora), Catharine Brown (Cherokee), Charles Eastman (Dakota), and Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Sioux). (The latter two, by the way, wrote works that would probably be classified as YA today.) I found that, when these authors published their accounts of Euro-American racism and discrimination, the colonial apparatus tried to silence them, somewhat in the manner that slaveholders tried to silence slave narrators like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: through ridicule, invective, dismissal, and further misrepresentation. The fact that most people have never heard of these indigenous writers suggests that the crusade to drown out their voices was largely successful.

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.

4 comments:

  1. Sesquipedalian is officially my new favorite word. Welcome to the team, Josh! Great post! :)

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    1. Now you've got to use the word in your next novel!

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  2. Clearly, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is feared to be read by many parents and faculty. However, after reading the novel through our school curriculum, it proves that Sherman Alexie's novel is influential and gives the reader an understanding society. Although one may be concerned with the "taboo" and language of the novel, it serves a purpose. The masturbation throughout the novel conveys the passion Junior faces with education. It causes education to symbolize something more than simply a teach in front of a class room, but that education is a door to opportunity, friendship, and yes, sexuality. Furthermore, parents and school boards may want to cut this novel from the curriculum due to Penelope having anorexia and bulimia. Yet as you think this will harm your child, Sherman Alexie included it in his novel to convey the complexities of people and erase racial barriers as Junior sees in the beginning of the book. I agree with most of your posts that yes, you cannot shelter your kid about sex and masturbation -- it is a routine of life -- but also it represents something beyond itself. Sherman Alexie's novel represents the complexities of others, the beauty of socialization and education, and hope. We cannot escape the taboo -- which also is helping your child learn and develop.

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    1. Good point, and it underscores why most book-bannings come from too-literal readings and too-literal readers. It's perhaps what lies unspoken on the page that scares the book-banners most, but it's also those unspoken things that are the life of literature.

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