The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: The Awkward Lines of -ist Language

[The scene sets with OYD, a slightly pale yet never-the-less still quite indigenous woman, sitting down to her trusty Macbook Pro, a laptop named “Lappy”, who has seen better days. She sets down and opens up her “drafts” tab under FWD/Forward, where she notices that egads! she has been working on this book review for over a month, and Oh my! how it must have been a long time since she has completed one. She cracks her “double jointed” knuckles like she does it too often, tucks a strand of brown hair behind her ear. She drags the review out of “drafts”, dusts it off, reaches for anything caffeinated, and begins to type.]

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian 1st edition cover. A black background with plastic toy figures of a cowboy and an indian, with the title and author's name in chunky green and white letters.I like media where I can consume it, enjoy it, and get a sense that I am experiencing something that touches on experiences that are my own, that seems real to me with out over-exaggerating them (mostly). I also enjoy it when certain traits about characters are touched upon as a description, as part of who that character is, but then they are not brought up as Huge Deals throughout the entirety of the book.

These are a few things that really endeared Alexie Sherman’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to me. Sherman created a protagonist “Junior”, who was born into the world with several oppressions, living on the axis of poverty, race, and disability. Within the first few pages of the book Junior gives a pretty good run down of how each of these things affects his life, and has always affected his life from the moment he was born. From never having quite enough to eat, to the way his “grease on the brain” has given him a stutter and seizures.

But that is where Alexie leaves the discussion about Junior’s disability. It is just a part of him, a description of his character. It isn’t some great obstacle he has to overcome. His disability isn’t some plot point, and it doesn’t help the other people around him become inspired about trying harder or appreciating their lives more. In fact, he goes into great detail early on, in those first few pages, to explain that the reservation kids often bully him. From an excerpt on NPR:

You wouldn’t think there is anything life threatening about speech impediments, but let me tell you, there is nothing more dangerous than being a kid with a stutter and a lisp.

A five-year-old is cute when he lisps and stutters. Heck, most of the big-time kid actors stuttered and lisped their way to stardom.

And, jeez, you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.

After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.

And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you become the biggest retard in the world.

Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day. They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.

I’m not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I’d have to fill it with stutters and lisps, and then you’d be wondering why you’re reading a story written by such a retard.

Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?

We get beat up.

At least once a month.

Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club.

Sure I want to go outside. Every kid wants to go outside. But it is safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and read books and draw cartoons.

Then, he moves leaves it there. We know he deals with these things as part of his life, but they do not define his life. Even the most horrible and hurtful parts of his life with disability are not defining his life.

Some other things that are not defined by Junior’s particular disability:

  • His grades in school — He does well in school, and this point becomes part of the main plot, so I won’t give too much away for anyone who plans to read this book.
  • His ability to participate in sports — Junior plays many sports, including contact sports. He is a good basketball player, playing on the school’s team.
  • His ability to have romantic relationships — Despite his believing how shallow it is, Junior has a girlfriend, and as it turns out, she actually likes him! Imagine that!

The other aspect of this book that I enjoyed, though I don’t expect every reader to view the same way, is that the Indian Reservation depicted has a lot of truth to it from my own experiences of having grown up on and around my own as a girl. Twenty, and even ten years ago, our reservation life was not so far off from the one described here, with the exception of perhaps the climate being slightly different, and perhaps I was too young to understand and remember anything about crime rates. But there was poverty, and then there was crushing poverty where I am from. There was alcoholism, though I would venture that perhaps it wasn’t the hot-button stereotype that I feel is portrayed at times in Alexie’s book. I don’t know. Every Native community is different, for sure, with their own unique set of problems. While I feel that there is a lot of truth to what Sherman Alexie has created, I also feel that there is a sweeping generalization. So, it hits and it misses, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself and decide what you think.

There are a lot of instances of language that I would not recommend in a progressive or social change setting going on here in this book. I see it being useful and very much achieving its purpose, for example, there is a very racist joke told by a white boy that Junior meets on his first day of school, using the “n”, which I will not repeat, but which is disparaging to Natives and Black people alike. Junior demonstrates an intolerance for it, without missing a beat, and in Junior’s point of view, the kid respects him for it. But, I have to wonder, is it because of how Junior addresses it, or because this particular student realizes that what he said was hurtful and wrong? The demonstration of how wrong racism is in YA literature is something I want to see more, but I question, sometimes, the ways in which we see it handled. There is almost no discussion or consideration of why this is wrong, just the very visceral use of very hateful words (like above, with the use of the “r” word in so casual a context). Just like using rape as a metaphor to show that a “bad” guy is bad, I don’t need to see or read -ist language for shock value to confront -isms. However, a well placed word could have the proper effect if viewed through the proper lens, but I don’t know if that is quite so obvious here. Junior simply reacts, saying he has to defend Black people, and Indians, but he doesn’t go into much else.

I will also note on the Wise White Person, or WWP, as I will. It takes a WWP living on the rez to point out all of Junior’s problems early on, and essentially Save Him! from the Rotten Destitution! Without a WWP, why poor Junior might be dead, the victim of a trailer fire started by grease from frybread, helplessly drunk and passed out.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is an excellent book, worth reading, for many reasons, but I caution you, gentle readers, there are many themes addressed, in very direct and raw ways that I am still not sure that I wholly approve of, and yet, as a non-white, Native American, woman, with a disability, I am not fully sure that fully disapprove of all of them either.

Oh, except for the sexist language. I found no use for that at all. I found no point where that taught any lesson, except where young boys were using it to show that “Hey!  Women and girls’ bodies are weak, so calling you a woman or a girl body part means you are weak! Har har!” You get no points there, Alexie. Misogyny wins again! Whee!


  1. 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. In all fairness: I’ve not read anything else by Alexie. I don’t know if he uses this kind of technique to make points often. I don’t like it in every context, and I am still, at this point, not sure how I feel about it. I feel much different about this that I did about, say, Terry Goodkind using rape to demonstrate how EVIL an EVIL character is, again and again and again. Over and over. This is entirely different, IMO.

    But like I said, others might feel differently.

  3. 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.

  4. I kind of felt that way a bit too. I felt that a lot of what I was reading fairly authentic *spoiler warning*, for instance, Junior spends a great length of one chapter waxing poetic about masturbation, about how everyone he knows does it, and how he is really good at it. He is really blunt about it, and I was greatly amused reading the chapter. I mean, the language Alexie uses goes both ways in authenticity. I like that kind of honesty, because I don’t believe that a lot of authors who attempt to portray teenagers on YA fiction do it accurately or honestly (or without making them seem mean or horrible), or that they give them the benefit of making the reader see that the teenagers are far more capable of understanding things we never give them credit for.

    On the other hand, I think many readers would find the language triggering, even in this context. That’s all I am saying. But you are right, Katie. Unflinching portrayal of a marginalized teenager would be one way to describe it, and how I viewed it as I read it. Though, I stand, again, that I thought perhaps Alexie went slightly overboard in the hyperbolic “All Indians are Alcoholics and it Destroys Everything” theme. It isn’t a blanket stereotype… it happens in places, and I worry that the unknowing reader would think that this is an absolute truth. But that is just me.

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Kangent, the only reason I approved this comment, which violates the length requirements in our Comment Policy, is because I am a little confused where you got some of the ideas that you seem to be gleaning from my review.

    In that event, I give you a point-by-point wall-o-text-off:

    While I regret that there were few, if any, themes that addressed QUILTBAG issues in the book, I don’t believe there is anything I can do personally about that, since that would have been a choice of the author to include it. It is too bad, too, since some Native nations recognize QUILTBAG people as being two-spirited, and actually revere them. I would have liked to see something to that effect, personally. Perhaps addressing that with the author would be more productive. Moving on.

    RE: Sexism. Sure, Junior was brought up a decent kid by the family around him (Grandma sounds like a lady I would have loved) and learned to treat the women in his lives well. Great. He gets a cookie. What I was talking about was the rampant use of the word “pussy” as a slur between the male characters that went unchecked and uncommented on throughout. I have a hard time with that, and consider that pervasive, systemic, misogyny. The fact that the author included that and felt that it was necessary to include it in order to keep the book “authentic” doesn’t really endear his writing to me. At all. I have heard many a conversation between teenage boys that were free of misogynistic slurs and other sexist language. It’s the pervasive stuff that really gets me. Like every time I hear “lame” used in a kids show or movie. Hurts every time. There were other examples, but I had to return my copy to the library, so I don’t have it here to point to paragraph by paragraph.

    RE: Alcoholism. While not to diminish the devastating loss that Alexie experienced in his life, I really felt, reading this book, that Junior spoke to his own experience as if it was a universal “Indian” experience. He always said “Indian” instead of “Indians on the Spokane Reservation”. Surprisingly, “Natives” is not a blanket race or ethnic group, as even in the U.S. we come from over 200 independent nations. Alcoholism is not a crushing factor in all 200 of them. No experience is, not even poverty. The way this book spoke about alcoholism did, to my feelings, feel as if it was making a blanket statement. And I tire of the “Injuns can’t hold their liquor and they are all drunks” stereotype. It was not my experience growing up. Made it damned hard to get jobs for some people in my tribe because people thought everyone was a drunk even though it wasn’t true. Not to erase that of others for whom it was, because I know people for whom it was (Native and non alike), but being Native does not give you the patent on alcoholism, and I resent one of the most popular YA books out there right now about Natives that depicts Natives realistically making blanket statements about “Indians” and alcoholism. I apologize that I picked on a book that you liked — but in fairness I said that I enjoyed the book. I wasn’t going to love every aspect.

    RE: WWP: Since it was only semi-biographical (and still considered a work of fiction), I am sure that it is OK that I say that it is a common trope for media where non-white people’s stories are central to have a white person come in to magically save them. This happens all the time. It is another one of those things that really pisses me off in books and movies. As if the poor savages are too stupid to save themselves. Dances with Wolves. Avatar. Last of the Mohicans. The Last Samurai. Etc, etc. Alexi had an opportunity to write a better plot device, and in my opinion, which my reviews are, he missed this one.

    RE: Triggering Language: You are just wrong here about so many things here. Even if he didn’t intend to write a YA novel, the story flow, the (non-triggering) language, the characteristics, all fit the genre. In fact, the main factor that makes a book a YA novel is that one of the main characters has to be a teenager. It would be better to boast about it being a YA novel since it was so daring in some of the subject matter that was covered (including the alcoholism, masturbation, poverty, and racism) from such a frank point of view, since so many novels write about teens as if they can not comprehend these things and focus instead on drama and backstabbing. Again, I said that I enjoyed the book. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t critique what I thought deserved it, or that the book as a whole was above criticism. That doesn’t mean that any of us should ignore problematic themes, just as you did.

    In the matter of triggering language, I simply welcomed readers to make their own opinions (as you clearly have) after reading for themselves, because no one person can determine what will trigger another person, and I hope every reader walks away from this book with something. You don’t need every triggering word to be authentic. Like I already said, some of them were well used, and some I am not sure of, still. Other readers will be more tolerant of such things, I am sure.

    I get the idea that you think I am implying teen censorship of this book. I take exception to that, because I don’t believe you know me well enough to insert that opinion of me into a post where I neither said nor implied it, directly or otherwise. In none of my reviews, even about books I do not like, have I ever said I advocate for keeping teens from reading something. Quite the contrary. I might recommend reading more of my writing, on YA fiction, pop-culture, and parenting as a whole, before you pass judgment on me and what I think about teens (or children overall) and their ability to comprehend deep and complex issues.

  9. 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.