Authenticity is pretty darn important in lots of arenas, but when it comes to books about a particular culture or population, it's crucial. Sure, it's possible to write about a culture you have no experience with, but let's be honest - you're probably going to miss some details, leave out key points and generally make a botch of things. If you haven't been raised in that culture, you're definitely going to have to do your homework to make sure that things ring true. It's kind of like learning to speak a language: while you can learn a little bit from books and CDs, pretty soon you're going to have to converse with some actual speakers of that dialect, and that's where you're going to find out what you should really be saying.
So I'm always a little suspect when I come across a book where the author doesn't have any kind of connection to the culture. There are some fine examples out there of authors and illustrators who have captured a world about which they have very little direct knowledge. But the best books, the books that move you to your core and transport you to a specific time or place, those books are written by people who have been there, people who KNOW.
You can't fake that, my friends.
This semester I'm taking a YA lit class (*waves to classmates*) and so far we've read some really incredible titles, about which I'll be blogging in the weeks to come. This week one of the selections was a book that's long been on my radar but which I haven't read until now - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Alexie's kind of a legend in the Pacific Northwest, for his portraits of life as a Native American growing up in this part of the country. He won the National Book Award for this novel, his first foray into writing for teens, which has incidentally appeared on a whole slew of "Best Of" lists. If you're the kind of person who is put off by critical acclaim, though, don't be tempted to cast Alexie aside - this novel is well worth your time.
Diary is a semi-autobiographical tale about Arnold 'Junior' Spirit, a teenager growing up in the middle of nowhere on the Spokane Indian Reservation, aka 'The Rez'. Like Alexie himself, Junior hasn't had the easiest time growing up: plagued by a host of medical problems since birth, he's also been tormented by nearly every other rez kid, and even some of the adults. He's got his best friend Rowdy, though, who sticks up for him no matter what. Until Junior reaches a turning point in his life, deciding that he needs to "go somewhere where people have hope" - he's going to leave school on the rez and enroll at Reardan, the all-white school nearly 30 miles away.
It won't be easy, Junior knows, even though he is stubborn enough to forge ahead no matter what. Just getting to school will be a challenge, not to mention trying to find his way as the only Indian in a sea of white faces. But Junior isn't counting on the personal toll he'll pay, when the people he's known his entire life turn their backs on him, including Rowdy, branding him a traitor for leaving the rez. And that's just the beginning of what's staring Junior down, as he tries to find his way and do what only he can do for himself.
So, wow. This is a novel that sneaks up on you, peppered as it is with cartoons (Junior's artistic POV is captured by illustrator Ellen Forney), gross-out moments and deep-down hilarious anecdotes. Junior's forthright, brutally so. He holds just about nothing back, and his honesty about life on the rez is as funny as it is unvarnished. Be prepared to run the gamut of emotions as you read - rarely will you cringe with embarrassment, laugh yourself silly and then be on the verge of tears within a few pages, but that's exactly what will happen here. Just as you're lulled into thinking this is another book about a teenage boy struggling to find friends, though, Alexie pulls out the big guns, reminding us that being a Native American in our society is to be among those counted out and pushed aside. Even as Junior makes light of his circumstances, readers can see his pain, often not too far under the surface, but he never invites our pity, only our understanding.
Alexie's voice here is wholly unique and entirely authentic - he lived this life, and he's given readers a unique window into what his own adolescence might have been like, polishing our vision of Junior's world to a fine sheen. This is the kind of reading experience that's intense and powerful, a take-no-prisoners trip through adolescence with a narrator whose voice is wise, profane, self-deprecating and reckless, entirely unlike any other. Hard truths are fair game for Alexie, who takes them head-on: everything from the drunken Indian to the white folks who wish they were Natives. And even as we recognize pieces of ourselves in the characters who populate Junior's story, we're forced to consider how all of us play a role in the kind of world Junior grows up in.
The epigraph of Diary is a quote by Yeats: "There is another world, but it is in this one." Alexie gives us this world, for those who will look unflinchingly.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, published by Little Brown
Source: personal collection
Sample: "And it's not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It's not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people. / Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands."
Bonus: Conversation with Sherman Alexie from public television