The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical YA novel by Sherman Alexie, written in the fashion of the first-person diary of the protagonist, Junior. The book includes art by Ellen Forney, in the form of cartoons drawn by Junior, who is an aspiring artist. We get a brief overview of Junior's childhood, from being born "with water on the brain" and bullied for his resulting physical ailments on until he starts out a fresh school year at the age of 14 by throwing a geometry textbook in a fit of rage upon realizing that it was the same exact textbook his mother had used back when she was in school. The book hits his teacher in the face and Junior is suspended, but then surprised by a visit from that same teacher, who tells him that he needs to get off of the reservation. Junior takes his teacher's advice and begins to attend high school in the small town of Reardan, just outside of the reservation, where he is the only Native American (indeed, the only non-white) student.
This book has received numerous awards and been regularly assigned in classrooms ever since it was first published in 2007. It is the first YA or children's book by Sherman Alexie; he was already an established award-winning author of adult fiction prior to its publication. It has been praised as the sort of book that even children who don't read will pick up and enjoy all the way through. In the Foreword of the 10th anniversary edition of the book, author Jaqueline Woodson describes the book as "a window into Junior's world--a window Alexie pulls the curtains back from and lovingly invites us into" and "also a mirror for the many First Nations people who have not seen themselves in literature."
With an often-crass sort of humor, this novel follows Junior as he deals with issues of belonging and identity, of racism which manifest in a variety of ways, of poverty, of alcoholism, and of grief. The book contains a lot of profanity--including ableist, racist and homophobic slurs; some sexual content (primarily references to masturbation and arousal); and depictions of violence and of bullying, among other things.
While I can see why this novel has been so highly regarded, with the significance of the topics addressed, the approachability of the humor and illustrations, I personally did not enjoy this book. I am not a fan, in general, of the type of crass, crude humor which abounds in this book; I acknowledge that many people enjoy it, but it's never been something I appreciate.
Added to that, I was put off by a lot of the profanity used in a way that isn't typical for me; putting some thought into my gut response, I'd say that it is because the slurs involved feel more like they are presented for shock value rather than for realism, and are not really portrayed as problematic in the way that I'd think they should be. Junior describes how, due to his lisp and stutter, he is labeled as a 'r****d,' for example, but there is no context given that understands or enforces that the use of this ableist slur is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Later, Junior and his best friend, Rowdy, exchange insults by email in which they call each other 'f****t,' and this homophobic slur is diminished as a sort of friendly ribbing. While I acknowledge that children are exposed to problematic language like this, and that it's part of being true to that experience to include such language in works of YA Lit such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I also think that it's important to emphasize the harmfulness of slurs in a way that this novel does not do; at the very least, there is a lot of work educators teaching this book should do to prepare students for the language within it and to give that missing context of how harmful and offensive that language is.
I was also disappointed in the depiction of women in this book. It felt to me as though the only female characters who were really treated as fully-formed people were Junior's immediate family (his grandmother, mother, and older sister). Junior's male peers--particularly his friends--are described in a way where it feels as though they are actual people to him, with inner lives and thoughts which Junior wonders about and respects. However, Junior's female peers don't receive similar treatment. Indeed, the only ones actually mentioned in any detail are the two towards which he directs romantic and sexual interest. His first crush, from when he was twelve, is described only in terms of her visual appeal to him. Although she makes fun of him, he decides that he is in love with her, and says, "She was out of my league, and even though I was only twelve, I knew that I'd be one of those guys who always fell in love with the unreachable, ungettable, and uninterested." His crush at Reardan, Penelope, is likewise a case of infatuation-at-first-sight; Penelope is described as the most beautiful, popular girl in school, and as being completely uninterested in (and insulting to) Junior. Later, Junior catches Penelope vomiting in the school bathroom and thus discovers that she is bulimic. The description of Junior's view of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia bothered me quite a lot, honestly; as did the fact that this exchange is only used as a way to facilitate Junior beginning to date Penelope. She pours her heart out to him, and he decides that her ego is sexy and concludes, "How is it that a bulimic girl with vomit on her breath can suddenly be so sexy? Love and lust can make you go crazy." Her bulimia is never brought up again (although he does take the time to wax poetic about how arousing he finds her when she plays volleyball).
There is a sense of exceptionalism to the book that I also find problematic. Junior (and by extension, Alexie, as Junior is a stand-in for the author strongly inspired by his own experiences) portrays himself as exceptional: he is exceptionally smart, exceptionally talented, exceptional in his decision to 'save himself' by leaving the reservation. While part of this is the idea--relatable to many children from all sorts of backgrounds--that he feels he never quite fits in, there is also an underlying implication of Junior being not just different from, but better than.
Although this novel has been frequently assigned reading in classrooms in middle schools and high schools, it has also been very frequently challenged, typically in the form of parents demanding that the book be removed from the curriculum or from school libraries.
Why is this book being challenged?
According to the ALA, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was "Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author."
The complaints regarding profanity and sexual references are typical of any YA or Children's Literature book which deals with content from which adults want to shield their children for various reasons--it mirrors much of the complaints against Speak or All American Boys, for example. Although I personally did not enjoy the book, and would advise that care be taken to how it is taught should it be presented in a classroom, I wouldn't on the basis of its content support such censorship as banning it from schools or libraries.
That final complaint, however, is where I would like to focus my attention here. In late 2017 thru early 2018, during the height of the #MeToo movement, allegations of sexual misconduct by Sherman Alexie began to surface. Although many preferred to remain anonymous, several of the women who were speaking up about their experiences with Alexie provided statements to NPR in a segment of All Things Considered (audio and text versions of which are available here). What ended up coming out is an image of Alexie as a man who took advantage of his prominent position as a major Native American author to pressure and harass Native women writers into sexual encounters with him. If you are interested in the details of these allegations, and of Alexie's response to them, Dr. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) provides an excellent timeline, along with her own statement regarding the allegations against Alexie, here.
I want to be very clear: I fully believe the women who have made allegations against Sherman Alexie. Although it's possible that my perception of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was colored by my knowledge of the misconduct of the author, I also think that there are hints within the book that speak to the author being a man who is likely to objectify and take advantage of women whom he finds sexually appealing, and who might view himself as an exceptional person to whom the regular rules of respect and fidelity do not apply. Irreverent humor and disrespect often do go hand-in-hand. I'm saddened and disappointed to learn about the ways Sherman Alexie has mistreated women, and the disservice he's done to the Native American writing community, but I'm also not surprised.
I strongly recommend reading Dr. Reese's full statement (linked above), and also reading the following:
There is a difference between objecting to a book based upon its content and objecting based upon its author. While I do not support censorship, I also think that it's important to acknowledge that art cannot be completely separated from its creator--especially when that creator is still alive and actively profiting from that art. Should we ban Alexie's books? No, I don't think so. However, should we actively promote his books and assign them in schools? No, I don't think we should. However, removing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the curriculum is not enough; what we should be doing is actively assigning and promoting other works of Native American literature. In particular, I think we should focus on teaching and supporting books by Native women.
Here are a couple of resources to assist in that task:
I had a lot of difficulty grappling with this book. I read all of the effusive praise directed towards it and struggled with trying to decide whether my own distaste for it was a fair assessment of its content, or was inseparably informed by my knowledge of the allegations against its author. Ultimately, this is the first book from the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 which I do not recommend. While I have nothing against those who love this novel (despite my own misgivings), I do think that it's important to respect the victims of Alexie's misogyny and misconduct. Rather than reading anything by Sherman Alexie, I recommend amplifying the Native voices which his actions helped to silence by seeking out and reading books by other Native American authors, especially by Native women. I'm already starting on that project, reading Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith. I'd challenge you to do the same; the two links I provide above are a great place to start finding such books.
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the fifth installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (my review of George) can be found here, the second installment (my review of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) can be found here, the third (my review of All American Boys) can be found here, and the fourth (my review of Speak) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. Look for that review here on my blog on July 9.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.