The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Defense

For a class on collections management in the Fall semester, Mary Grace Flaherty asked us to select a banned book to evaluate for it’s retention or elimination from a collection.  I chose The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Defense

Introduction

Books, particularly those written for young adults, are challenged regularly and banned with frequency in the United States. According to the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom and Public Information Offices “up to 85% of book challenges receive no media attention and remain unreported.”[1] 2014 saw 311 challenges reported. If we include the estimated 85% of unreported challenges, the number increases to roughly 575 books challenged in one year. Of the 311 reported challenges, 80% of them included ‘diverse’ material.[2] The Intellectual Freedom and Public Information Offices define ‘diverse’ according to Malinda Lo: “non-white main and/or secondary characters; LGBT main and/or secondary characters; disabled main and/or secondary characters; issues about race or racism; LGBT issues; issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism; issues about disability and/or mental illness; non-Western settings, in which the West is North America and Europe.”[3]

With all of these statistics in mind, it’s no wonder that Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published in 2007, tops the 2014 list of the ten most challenged books. The main character, Junior, self-identifies as a poor, lisping, stuttering, physically- and socially-awkward, Native American brown kid that lives on a reservation and gets beat up regularly, with brain damage, seizures, alcoholic parents and a shut-in sister.[4] Because of how Junior navigates all of these challenges and more, this story represents one of the most important young adult books produced in the past decade. It is our duty—firstly as citizens and secondly as librarians—to defend young adult books with diverse characters like Alexie’s main character from well-meaning, misinformed censors.

The Complaints

According to the ALA’s website, the primary objections brought against The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian include “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, and violence” with “depictions of bullying” thrown in for good measure. Sherman Alexie, in his Wall Street Journal response to naysayers, adds depravity, “domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder,” to the list of ‘objectionable material’.[5] Not only does Junior encompass nearly every aspect of diversity, he also experiences nearly every aspect of subject matter thought inappropriate for young adults.[6]

At Antioch High School, in a suburb of Chicago, for example, seven parents came before the school board requesting Alexie’s book be removed from the summer reading list, the curriculum, and the library unless accompanied by a warning label “because it uses foul, racist language and describes sexual acts.”[7] Mother Jennifer Andersen read the book to help her son understand it and proceeded to cross out passage after passage that she felt was inappropriate for any high school freshman.[8] She also commented that while she knows that kids curse, if books with profanity are included in the curriculum, “the students will believe the school condones it.”[9]

Why the Censors Are Just Plain Wrong

Before breaking down why the objections to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian represent the very same reasons why it should be required reading for every middle- and high-schooler, it behooves my argument to include the many accolades awarded to Alexie’s book by widely recognized and respected authorities on literature:

  • National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature
  • New York Times Notable Book of the Year for Children’s Books
  • Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
  • A NAPPA Gold Book
  • School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
  • An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year
  • Kirkus Reviews Best YA Book of the Year
  • A BBYA Top Ten Book for Teens
  • NYPL Books for the Teen Age
  • PW “Off the Cuff” Favorite YA Novel
  • A Boston Globe Horn Book Winner
  • Odyssey Award for Best Audio Book

The awards specifically for teens and young adult books are bolded, representing eight out of the twelve, more than half the list. I am not alone in seeing this book as required reading for adults and young adults alike. With the backing of highly authoritative voices, I can now continue to refute each objection as unfounded.

Anti-family is the simplest issue to address. I can only assume that censors  are pointing to the alcoholism of Junior’s parents and the realistic tension that exists between a teenager and his family. But consistently throughout the book, we see Junior’s understanding of both how his family became what it is and of the history behind each member’s actions. Junior’s parents are trying their best and Junior accepts them with love as they both support and disappoint him. For example, when the family dog becomes terminally ill and requires prohibitively expensive veterinary care, his parents euthanize the dog, despite their son’s desperate objections. Even while Junior is deeply upset, he couches the story in his family’s reality; they can’t even afford to have food in the house on a daily basis, let alone pay exorbitant vet bills for a dog that’s dying anyways. He says:

I was hot mad. Volcano mad. Tsunami mad.

Dad just looked down at me with the saddest look in his eyes. He was crying. He looked weak.

I wanted to hate him for his weakness.

I wanted to hate Dad and Mom for our poverty.

I wanted to blame them for my sick dog and for all the other sicknesses in the world.

But I can’t blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world EXPLODE without them. [10]

Junior readily admits that his whole life is dependent upon loving his family, even while he wants to hate them. This is one of the most widely exhibited struggles for teenagers in the U.S. How can Junior’s constructive, positive understanding of this struggle be construed as anti-family?

The second criticism of the book is its “cultural insensitivity,” AKA racism. Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee artist, wrote an essay called “A Central Margin” addressing the myth at the core of the American identity of the “absent/absented ‘Indian’ body.”[11] Essentially, the life of a Native American in the United States is one of systematic and continual “cultural insensitivity” to which many Natives respond “with that quietly outrageous Indian humor that has been so valuable to our survival.”[12] By suppressing the cultural criticism and display of race relations displayed in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, censors continue this obliteration of Native voices in the U.S. Without a marginal voice speaking up and pointing out racist societal constructs, many people of the dominant culture remain blind to the flaws in the system that oppress others.[13] Aside from this highly problematic issue of suppressing stories depicting the realities of living in a system of racism, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the first and likely only exposure to Native Americans—presented on their own terms—that a majority of adults and young adults will ever encounter. A dearth of Native voices exists in pop cultural depictions of Native Americans, which is a major part of what hinders the U.S. from collectively coming to terms with the colonial racism at the core of our creation and identity. Authors like Sherman Alexie should be circulated more widely for their marginalized perspective and social criticism, not less.

The third grouping of objections can be categorized generally into Sin and Depravity, in this case: substance abuse, gambling, offensive language, the expression of sexuality and domestic violence. As Alexie himself points out in his Wall Street Journal response referenced earlier, the movement to ‘protect’ children from these subject matters is highly privileged and comes far too late. He posits that not only are cultural critics too late to protect an overwhelming majority of both ‘at-risk’ and mainstream kids, they aren’t actually interested in protecting black American teens “forced to walk through metal detectors” to go to class, or Mexican American teens from “the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants,” or “poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks,” or teen mothers and fathers from sexually explicit material, or “victims from rapists.” Instead, these censors wish to protect their limited “notions of what literature is and should be.”[14] But this interferes with the purpose of reading for so many young adults.  YA books are most important when they provide a mirror for readers to see themselves and their experience in the story. That sensation of solidarity and having a safe space to see how others in their situation manage can be an essential coping mechanism. Junior’s story is particularly important in this process because he recognizes and faces all of his challenges, filling the book with “positive life-affirming messages and has an especially strong anti-alcohol message.”[15] Since ‘objectionable materials’ are a daily part of lives for kids of all ages and socio-economic levels, Junior’s navigation through these issues acts as a bolster. Alexie poignantly says this of the value of reading books that realistically reflect the lived experience of young adults:

[T]here are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them… I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life… And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed. [16]

Kids absorb their environments and need a place to process those experiences. Just because those environments are ‘objectionable’ doesn’t justify the whitewashing of them. Even for kids who aren’t exposed to troubles like poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse, books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian act as a window of understanding into the various experiences of those around them, allowing all of us to be more aware of and sensitive to one another. The problems associated with censoring this book are far more troubling than any of the complaints made to justifying its banning.

[1]Statistics,” Banned & Challenged Books, American Library Association.

[2] That 80% containing diverse material roughly equals 250 of the 311 books. “2014 Books Challenges Infographic,” Banned & Challenged Books, American Library Association.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2009), 1-6.

[5] Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” Speakeasy,Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011.

[6] With the prevalence of ‘diverse’ books comprising the bulk of challenges, one has to wonder if diversity doesn’t automatically mean objectionable for those inclined to instigate censorship. The ALA’s Kristin Pekoll also brings up this troubling point in her comments in MPR News’ coverage of Banned Book Week; Tracy Mumford, “Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Controversial,” MPR News, 29 September 2015.

[7] Ruth Fuller, “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’” Chicago Tribune, 22 June 2009.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In refutation to Andersen’s concern, John Whitehurst, chairman of the English department, sites the parallel example of teen suicide in Romeo and Juliet. “Kids know the difference” between a book and school policy; Ruth Fuller, “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’” Chicago Tribune, 22 June 2009.

[10] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2009), 11.

[11] Jimmie Durham. “A Central Margin,” in The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s (New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, 1990), 164.

[12] Ibid, 172.

[13] For further examples of this, see James Luna The Artifact Piece, installation/performance, Museum of Man, San Diego, 1986; “The Redskins’ Name – Catching Racism,” Comedy Central, 25 September 2014; and Ricardo Caté, Without Reservations (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2012).

[14] Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” Speakeasy, Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2011.

[15] Ruth Fuller, “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’” Chicago Tribune, 22 June 2009.

[16] Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood,” Wall Street Journal.


Bibliography

2014 Books Challenges Infographic.” Banned & Challenged Books. American Library Association.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2009.

Alexie, Sherman. “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” Speakeasy.Wall Street Journal. 9 June 2011.

Durham, Jimmie. “A Central Margin.” in The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s. New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, 1990: 162-179.

Fuller, Ruth. “Some Parents Seek to Ban ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.'” Chicago Tribune. 22 June 2009.

Mumford, Tracy. “Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Controversial.” MPR News. 29 September 2015.

Statistics,” Banned & Challenged Books. American Library Association.

The Redskins’ Name – Catching Racism.” Comedy Central. 25 September 2014.


[Originally posted on Rambling Rambler Press @ WordPress on 14 October 2015]