The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Multiculturalism in YA Lit

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In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian Sherman Alexie writes about a 14-year-old Native American boy named Arnold Spirit, Jr., AKA “Junior,” who grows up poor on a Spokane Indian reservation and, after a conversation in which a reservation teacher convinces him that he must leave his heritage behind to achieve a happy and successful life, Junior decides to do just that. With his parents’ permission, he enrolls in an all-white high school off the reservation where he hopes to find hope and, in turn, struggles to fit into two separate cultures.

Even before attending Reardan High School, Junior already knew what it was like to be different. He was born physically different than those around him. He was singled out and beaten up repeatedly and even on the reservation he struggled to fit in. But he had a good family and their support gave him the strength and confidence to keep trying.

Although he set out in search of hope, hope was something Junior had had all along. We see this on page six when Junior, an amateur cartoonist, says: “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” His cartoons help him navigate the negativity therefore they are a physical manifestation of his sense of hope.

I believe what Junior was really searching for was a place where he could finally fit in.

This week’s lecture states: “The popularity of multi-cultural literature among Young Adults is easy to see when we realize how often the problem in YA literature is finding an identity and fitting a place in the world.”

Alexie makes Junior’s experience universal to young readers by including an abundance of themes and issues which so many teens in our society experience and struggle with in their own lives; including poverty, racism, alcoholism, bullying, depression, tragedy and eating disorders. Each of these elements is enough to make anyone feel alone, different and defeated.

The book focuses primarily on poverty and through Junior’s eyes we are able to see how painful and truly devastating poverty is not only for an individual, but for an entire community. We see how being poor makes Junior feel, how poverty has squashed hope on the reservation and how alcoholism, a condition that leads to so much senseless death, is everywhere.

On page 13, Junior says: “It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that somehow you deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.” This passage is so profound because while Junior is speaking specifically about poverty, “poverty” could easily be replaced with any other struggle that causes a similar circle of negativity effect. We have all struggled with something in life that caused us to feel this way.

This week’s lecture states that multicultural YA books often tell “the repressed history of the oppressed.” Not only did Junior suffer in poverty but he was shunned by the Indians on his reservation while he simultaneously struggled to fit in with the white kids at Reardan. He felt invisible and alone until he finally made a friend and then another until eventually he was popular and no longer lonely. But his popularity at Reardan didn’t solve his problems at home. Similarly, Junior’s sister managed to escape the reservation and even though she seemed to find happiness, she ended up dead because she wasn’t able to escape the alcoholism.

I think Young Adult literature is a great venue for exploring notions of race and class because books have the capacity to create empathy. When I read a good story like this one, I get so caught up in it that I feel like I’m experiencing what the characters are experiencing. Books have the ability to draw a reader in because he or she relates to the characters and they can provide an experience that a reader’s never experienced before. Therefore, a book that focuses on multiculturalism and race has the potential to encourage people who are struggling with cultural issues or racism as well as teach tolerance and expand the minds of those who aren’t.

On page 90 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going writes: “Writing for teens is not about limits, it’s about possibilities. Deciding to be a YA author is not about confining yourself within the limitations of established rules; it’s about writing with the maximum integrity for an audience that is intelligent, complex, and primed to explore.”

This week’s lecture states: “Young Adult literature is a genre that is very open to the voices of many diverse cultures. The reasons for this are many and varied. The first may be that the young people of today grow up in a much less segregated community that highlights the importance of different cultural groups. So, it may be that young adults have a respect and curiosity not necessarily found in previous generations.”

Not every teen lives in a multiethnic neighborhood or attends a multicultural school. But we live in a world where our perspectives are no longer defined, confined or limited by our immediate surroundings. A bonus of living in a media driven society is that we have immediate access to everything and with a click of a mouse we can experience other cultures without ever leaving our homes. Young adults of today literally have the world at their fingertips.

That’s not to say some aren’t more or less sheltered than others. But by reading a novel with such themes as multiculturalism and race, a reader who isn’t exposed to other cultures in his or her own life is able to learn about other cultures through the characters in a story. And if the writer does his or her job well, characters should come to life in the mind of the reader. In this way, novels can create a sense of empathy. And empathy creates tolerance and empowerment.

Young adult readers who connect with Junior will share in his struggles, learn from his lessons and celebrate his triumphs. On page 79, Junior starts to feel empowered: “I was a poor kid raising money for other poor kids. It made me feel almost honorable.” The act of helping others made Junior feel good about himself. He eventually starts to believe in himself and his outlook changes. On page 138 when Coach says “You play with dignity and respect and I’ll treat you with dignity and respect, no matter what happens,” Junior realizes not everyone is against him. On page 176, Junior breaks down the root of every major problem as: “The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.” This is significant because he no longer blames his race for his issues. And on page 186, he shows his newfound strength when he says, “I’m never going to surrender to anybody. Never, ever, ever.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is a book about pain, diversity, discrimination, empowerment and overcoming adversity. But more so than all of that, it’s a book about hope. In his story, Sherman Alexis shows us the importance of hope, how having it can help us overcome even our biggest problems and how not having it only causes more problems.

Works Cited:

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Hachette Book Company. New York. 2009.

Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.

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