The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Book challenges, trusting the young, and the reductiveness of “vulgarity”

Being a completely and entirely subjective reaction.

I was already familiar with Sherman Alexie before I started reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This was primarily from trawling around the North American YA blogosphere where, for obvious reasons, they’re a little defensive of the genre (I am behind them 100% in this regard). So when a click-bait-y article entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” with the unfortunately subheading “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” appeared in the Wall Street Journal, it was naturally met with a whole lot of irritation by those who were familiar with YA canon. Sherman Alexie’s reply, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood,” appeared in the same publication and it’s absolutely worth reading, not just as a response, but on its own merits. Alexie ended his piece with a reflection on his own work:

…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.

That’s what I was thinking of when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I’m lucky in that I don’t need the weapons that Alexie provides with The Absolutely True Diary, but I can see their value clearly. Junior is a individual in seriously rough circumstances and True Diary one of the many narratives that needs and deserves more public visibility. The book is, in a manner, about ‘issues’—racism and white supremacy, poverty, disability, alcoholism, bullying, and many more—but more importantly it’s about resilience and it’s about Junior, who’s a likable character with a warm and darkly funny narrative style and you’re rooting for him all the way. I enjoyed it immensely, but I was troubled by the extent of the challenges it has faced when it’s used in classrooms or available in school libraries, and the incredibly reductive nature of the complaints.

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While there are many issues on which I can see the logic of another’s view and while I understand that, on a fundamental level, it’s an impulse to protect children that underlies challenges like these, there are two things that, for me, make our viewpoints ultimately irreconcilable. The first of these is that I don’t really think that these challengers are giving young people enough credit. Obviously material for 18-year-olds won’t be appropriate for 6-year-olds, but kids and teens are pretty good at engaging with complicated texts; and if they aren’t, well, many of the True Diary bans have been happening in classrooms, which really should be the ideal place to develop those skills.

The second is that the definition of ‘obscenity’ is so fundamentally subjective. I’ve seen the word ‘vulgar’ come up over and over again from those that stand in opposition to this book. It’s certainly filled with obscenities—yeah, there’s a lot of cursing—but I can’t really consider that something that is the ultimate definer an obscene work; as a descriptor, it too neatly overrides the rest of The Absolutely True Diary‘s text, with complete disregard for context. The swearing in True Diary, just like the masturbation mentions (there’s no description of a masturbation scene, just a kid’s thoughts about the act—“And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate he wouldn’t have given us thumbs. So I thank God for my thumbs.”), are not added for shock value and they aren’t intended to titillate an audience; they’re part of the everyday life of the character and, as much as many would like to deny it, part of the everyday life of many kids.

At the same time, I tend to lean toward the views of Amanda Nelson’s “I Read Violent Trash as a Kid and Turned Out OK,” which I suppose brings it full circle to my first point: what exactly are they worried will happen to kids exposed to curse words and mentions of masturbation? I mean, I suppose it’s either that they’ll be traumatized or corrupted, but I just can’t get behind that reasoning—once again, I don’t think young people are so vulnerable to something like swear words, and complicated or new subjects should be talked about, something unlikely to happen if a culture of suppression and silence surrounds them.

It’s safe to say that the mother who described the books as ‘like 50 Shades of Grey for kids‘ and I will never see eye-to-eye, even if I understand that she wants to protect her son, and that’s fine. But those asking to have the books removed aren’t just trying to protect they’re own children, they’re trying to decide what’s appropriate for all kids. Ultimately there’s nothing I can contribute to this discussion that hasn’t been said many times over by many eloquent people. Sherman Alexie himself puts it best in an interview piece entitled “The Value of Subverting Authority,” when he was asked if there was any “measure of censorship in school that’s appropriate,” and whether there were any books that he would ban, given the chance:

I believe in any kid’s ability to read any book and form their own judgements. It’s the job of a parent to guide his/her child through the reading of every book imaginable. Censorship of any form punishes curiosity… We can all learn from every text. Reading the work that disgusts you can only strengthen your core beliefs. I could teach a semester-long course based only on reading the local telephone book. All stories can be taught in valuable ways.

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Incidentally, what I find of particular interest are the reasons that books are reconsidered, removed, or retained in public libraries; the successful challenges of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are overwhelmingly in schoolrooms and school libraries. For those who would like to know more about the kind of challenges that public libraries received, how they consider them, and what actions they take, Toronto Public Library has three years of its Materials Review Committee’s summaries of their ‘Reconsiderations of Materials’ available online: 2009, 2010, and 2011. In 2010, for example, a library user submitted a form requesting that a young adult horror novel called Swans in the Mist by D.E. Athkins be moved to the adult collection, because it contained “sadistic scenes” and “might give teens violent ideas” (The committee ultimately decided to retain the book in the teen collection). The documents are an interesting read.

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