9 responses to “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: The Awkward Lines of -ist Language”

  1. whatsername

    I’ve generally heard good things about Sherman Alexie and have been intending to read this book for quite a while. At some point I picked up a copy in a bookstore and read through the first few pages and it was not what I was expecting at all. I’m not sure what I WAS expecting but it was not what I was reading. It intrigued me but, well, you know, Grad school. But this review makes me want to read it more again, because it sounds like he’s doing something different with it at least. …For better or worse.
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  2. Katie

    I’ve read this and two books of Alexie’s short stories. My take is that he’s a writer who’s less interested in making particular points than he is in accurately sketching out how people think and behave in particular times and places. And, people being who they are, often this includes ableist, misogynist, and racist thoughts and actions. He doesn’t tend to explicitly counter them so much, but I think by portraying people so . . . unflinchingly, he does contribute to demonstrating the fallacious and harmful nature of those prejudices, to the people who hold them as well as to the people who are the target of them.

  3. Mary

    I understand the point just wish they didn’t use the word retard. I hate that word.

  4. Sasha Feather

    This is one of my very favorite books! I love the cartoons in in, and the honesty– there are a lot of very brutal things that happen, but I felt like there was still hope, and there was humor throughout. Thanks for pointing out the problems too.

  5. kangent

    I have a couple things I want to address. Spoiler alert throughout.

    On sexism: I disagree with the sexism. I think the language is definitely triggering, although I was only triggered this latest time through (which was three days ago). But I think the book clearly, at many points, counters the sexist approach to women that Alexie’s characters have. For one, the arguably most important drawing in the book is the one of the Arnelope (a bird used to represent the dreams of Penelope and Arnold), featured on page 112 and the back cover of the hardback version. It’s a drawing of a bird taking flight with the caption: “The ancillary tail feathers of the Australian tufted Arnelope makes this bird perfectly suited to long-distance flying at great altitude.” The scene in which this picture is included is when Penelope is describing her dreams to Arnold. The text above the image reads:

    “And I couldn’t make fun of her for that dream. It was my dream, too. And Indian boys weren’t supposed to dream like that. And white girls from small towns weren’t supposed to dream big, either.

    “We were supposed to be happy with our limitations. But there was no way Penelope and I were going to sit still. Nope, we both wanted to fly.”

    In terms of how he sexualizes her (and other women), there’s an excellent scene found one page 127. It is right after they go to the diner after the dance. Arnold has no money, so he pretends to lose his wallet. His friends figure it out, though:

    “’Can I ask you something big?’ [Penelope]
    “’Yeah, I guess.’ [Arnold]
    “’Are you poor?’
    “I couldn’t lie to her anymore.
    “’Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m poor.’
    “I figured she was going to march out of my life right then. But she didn’t. Instead she kissed me. On the cheek. I guess poor guys don’t get kissed on the lips. I was going to yell at her for being shallow. But then I realized that she was being my friend. Being a really good friend, in fact. She was concerned about me. I’d been thinking about her breasts and she’d been thinking about my whole life. I was the shallow one.”

    There are other examples, but I didn’t read the book in preparation for this so I’m having a hard time finding all the passages I want. But he counters the misogyny with critical self-reflection.

    This is actually one of the reasons why I love his books so much (and I have read them all, some many times): He’s very conscious about anti-sexism. On both ends, actually. If anything, I think this book is cissexist. There’s an awful lot of binary gender talk. That shit’s fucking hard to avoid.

    On the subject of alcoholism: I am having a hard time finding many sources for this information, unfortunately. But you can find everything I write here simply by googling Alexie and alcoholism and reading and listening to the interviews he’s done.

    Alexie has many times addressed this question. He sees it as a disavowal of the truth to say that alcoholism amongst Natives is a stereotype. And I see it as a denial of his experience. I highly recommend watching “The Business of Fancydancing” because it, like most everything else he’s created, but moreso, expresses a great sense of grief at the people he’s lost in his life due to alcoholism on the reservation. Which is in the hundreds. In one year alone, when he was thirteen, he lost nine family members. And many more outside the family.

    The other thing is: he started this book with the intention of writing an autobiography, but then fictionalized it. The number of funerals he attended as a 14 year old as it is listed in the book (42) is actually reduced for the purpose of the book. He said this was because he didn’t think anyone would believe him if he told them how many people actually died in that year. But the estimate listed in the novel, that 90 percent of the deaths were related to alcohol, was not. He really did lose his sister when he was fourteen. His father died of kidney failure due to alcoholism. People he loved, knew, and hated were dying all the time because of alcohol. And Alexie himself was an alcoholic. He used to drink a case of beer a day, which was not uncommon or extravagant for someone from his reservation.

    It’s certainly true that he doesn’t speak for all reservations. But Alexie isn’t trying to do that. He’s speaking about a very real problem that folks face on the Spokane reservation. And he’s speaking from very real pain and grief from his experience.

    On the subject of WWP: This is totally a valid criticism of the epidemic of WWP characters in our stories. However, the problem is that this story is Alexie’s actual experience. He actually did throw a book at a white teacher (though he didn’t actually hit him in the face), was suspended, and was encouraged by the teacher to get off the reservation.

    On the subject of triggering language: There is SO much triggering language in here. So much. And I think it certain contexts, that’s not okay. But this is the context of his fourteen year old childhood, and I don’t think it would be true to his experience if he took away the language they used (or countered it internally every time it was used) for the purposes of social justice. And this book was not written with a YA audience in mind anyway. It was given that genre after publishing because it became so popular with YAs. But even if it were, the idea that we need to write moralistic novels for children and teenagers in order for them to understand these concepts is adultist and condescending. I know plenty of young people who are conscious, self-made social justice activists, and it has nothing to do with the books they read and everything to do with the way they are treated by adults. Teach a child that someone else needs to control hir life and learning because ze is incompetent, and ze will do anything to ingratiate hirself with the powers-that-be. That includes buying into prejudice and perpetuating the power structures that exist.

    That being said, I think that since it has become so popular in schools, there needs to be some sort of discussion in the classrooms about this kind of language, what use it has, what impact it has, and how students can make a change in the words they choose. And I think this book could be very effective in sparking those discussions, especially since you see clear ties between Arnold’s pain and the use of the racial and ableist slurs. Of course, I would hope that facilitators would expand these discussions to include the slurs against women and LGBQ people.

  6. lauredhel

    Ouyang Dan: I just finished the book. What really struck me about the pejorative language in the dialogue of this book was, as you note above, its authenticity. Most of it rang true, fit into the story, and (in many cases) was called out either explicitly or implicitly. The uses of “retard” were context-appropriate, to me: people with neurological disabilities are bullied in exactly that way, and I think that it’s not for me to try to take that word away from them when describing their experiences. I actually didn’t notice the word “pussy” (could it have been edited in the Australian edition, or did I just not notice?), but there were a couple of homophobic slurs. There was also a pretty brief mention of the protagonist’s grandmothers comments about homophobia and tolerance, contrasted with Sherman’s current generation; so I felt that that was at least somewhat contextualised also.

    The authenticity and context of the language in this book stood in sharp contrast, for me, with a whole lot of other YA books I’ve been reading lately, where the author just seems to sprinkle “lame” and “retard” randomly into teen dialogue in an apparent attempt to make it sound like it’s coming from actual teens. This is driving me up the wall and I really wish there was some effective way to get through to YA authors as a group that this flawed dialogue authentication strategy is not necessary, and is an active turn-off for many readers.

    Going back to your original comments about the protagonist’s disability being just there, intersecting with the other issues in the book, but making him neither pure supercrip nor pitiable-crip or any other stereotype, just part of his life: yes yes yes! I LOVED that about this book. The terrific cartoon illustrations deserve an honourable mention, too.