I’m thinking of writing an essay on doors. It’s hard when someone asks you to write something, but they don’t say just what it is they want. This is what I do to my students; I tell them to write a paper on anything we’ve read, and then they flounder and fuss and wonder why I can’t just make things easy by asking a specific, direct question like, “What is the metaphoric value of The Door of No Return?” That’s what interests me, so I would never force anyone else to write on that topic. But I’m going to write about it soon, and now that I’ve stopped crying, I can go on and finish the last five pages of Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I’m so glad the universe sent me this book right now; it’s *just* what I needed to read. And before I forget, I got the order wrong: Amy didn’t post her own interview last night, but the Writers Against Racism series continues today with George E. Stanley, author of Nightfires and numerous other books for young readers. Here’s a bit of what George had to say:
My Grandmother Stanley was born in Indian Territory in the late 1800s and was part Cherokee. I think most people in Oklahoma (whose families have been here a long time) are part-Native American. At the time, you didn’t talk about it, though. It was just something that had happened. I do remember hearing the term “full-blood” a lot. It was just an odd sort of racism to me…I remember hearing a Comanche woman in Lawton in 1970 (she was a cashier at a local cafeteria) telling a customer ahead of me, “I don’t know what the big deal about being Indian is.” She was referring, of course, to the pride Native American young people were beginning to have in their heritage.
Ok, so I’ve already admitted that I don’t read a whole lot of books by or about men. But I realize I’ve got to keep hope alive, because every once in a while I read a book that restores my hope in mankind. And I do feel rather hopeless some days. I don’t at all think all men are unthinking, unfeeling brutes, but I don’t see many representations of thinking, feeling men in popular culture. I mean, the President gave a really important speech last night and got HECKLED by a member of Congress. Fortunately, the immediate response was one of outrage; who could be so uncivil? I’m tempted to say, “A Republican, of course,” but that wouldn’t be fair—would it? People on both sides of the aisle were disgusted, and the jerk has since had to shut down his website b/c of the public backlash. He has also apologized, and he was just one loser out of a huge group of people; so the problem isn’t with Republicans per se, it’s with obnoxious idiots who don’t know how to act right.
The problem I have with so many representations of masculinity is that they’re redundant and woefully unoriginal. Men (and boys, too) are rarely represented as sensitive, conflicted, thoughtful, vulnerable, or even happy! The only time we see men happy on TV is when their favorite sports team wins. So Sherman Alexie has done something truly extraordinary with this book: he has created a genuine, honest, courageous male character who’s grappling with his own hybridity. This character isn’t mixed-race and doesn’t need to be; he’s living between two worlds, and feels strangely incomplete in both–he is, as Dionne Brand would argue, standing on the threshold of The Door of No Return. He can neither fully retreat nor fully advance, and so he remains within the door frame in a strange state of limbo. But Junior uses this space both to learn more about himself, and to risk being honest and open with those around him.
When he defends himself against racist insults by punching the white high school’s alpha male, he suddenly earns that boy’s respect. When he discovers the pretty, popular girl has bulimia, he urges her not to give up on herself and wins her heart (almost). When he admits to the privileged white kids that he’s poor and sometimes walks the 22 miles back to the reservation, they respond with sympathy and support. Life doesn’t always work out that way, but for Junior, every risk has its reward. He dares to leave the inadequate school on “the rez,” and immediately earns the scorn and contempt of his Indian community; his best friend, Rowdy, slugs Junior in the face and for the rest of the novel remains largely unable to articulate his pain and deep feeling of betrayal. Yet Junior persists, hoping Rowdy will forgive him and perhaps even adopt his ambition to make it off the rez. On Thanksgiving, Junior draws a cartoon depicting Rowdy and himself as they used to be: inseparable:
Rowdy’s dad took the cartoon and stared at it for a while. Then he smirked.
“You’re kind of gay, aren’t you?” he asked…
“Can you just give it to him?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ll give it to him. Even if it’s a little gay.”
I wanted to cuss at him. I wanted to tell him that I thought I was being courageous, and that I was trying to fix my broken friendship with Rowdy, and that I missed him, and if that was gay, then okay, I was the gayest dude in the world. But I didn’t say any of that.
“Okay, thank you,” I said instead. “And Happy Thanksgiving.”
Sherman Alexie is my HERO! I love that scene. Why do men torment boys? “Hurt people hurt people,” I know all that. But imagine how different the world would be if boys were given permission to be HUMAN instead of being expected to act like macho jerks all the time. There’s a lot of crying in this book—Junior often cries when he’s shown unexpected kindness, or as he develops compassion for the suffering of those he loves. As Junior succeeds at the white school and transforms into a star basketball player, he begins to see his Indian neighbors as something more than “crabs in a barrel.” They don’t want him to fail because they despise him; they simply lack the courage and support it would take for them to aspire to be more themselves. Junior doesn’t want to abandon his family, his cultural heritage, or his community, but at the same time he’s not willing to simply succumb to the traps of alcoholism and despair. Alexie brilliantly depicts Junior’s complex relationship to his own alcoholic father; knowing he can’t cure his father’s addiction, Junior learns to live with the disappointment: “…it wasn’t ok. It was about as far from okay as you can get…I don’t know why I said it was okay. For some reason, I was protecting the feelings of the man who had broken my heart yet again.” Junior knows his father is vulnerable in this way, and so squashes his own pain instead of uselessly demanding what his father simply can’t give: “He may not have loved me perfectly, but he loved me as well as he could.”
This is one enlightened kid! When he admits to his sort-of white girlfriend that he’s not living large off casino revenue, her reaction humbles him:
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.
This boy is SELF-REFLEXIVE! He can stand inside a moment and SEE himself as he truly is. He understands his motives, his limitations, his flaws. I *know* these boys exist, and I’m *so* glad there are books like this that testify to all that boys are and can be! I got pretty weepy reading this novel because I know what it’s like when you’re trying so hard to keep up with the white Joneses and you’re constantly terrified they’ll find out your home’s dirty and your folks are poor and mildly dysfunctional, to put it nicely. Middle-class kids see their pets as a member of the family; they can’t understand how taking your cat to the vet each time he gets an eye infection might use up the entire month’s grocery budget. There’s one scene in the novel where Junior tries to raise money for the homeless, but is jumped by some boys on the rez who steal his meager collection. That reminded me of the time I found a brown paper bag in the mailbox; on the outside were instructions on how to contribute to the local food bank. Our cupboards were pretty empty, but I scrounged up a couple cans of soup, some ancient tinned crabmeat, and a box of instant something or other. I filled the bag and left it on our doorstep for collection. An hour later, my mother came home from work and marched into the kitchen with the brown paper bag. “What you do think you’re doing?” she asked me, and proceeded to put everything back in the cupboard. And I still remember that deep feeling of shame, and the lesson she meant to teach me about which side of the aisle *we* were on.
I know I’m reviewing books that are a few years old, but if you haven’t yet read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, move it to the TOP of your TBR list. It deserves every award it won, and will resonate with readers across race, class, and gender.