RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
I was born with water on the brain. So begins the quirky new novel for young adults by writer Sherman Alexie.
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" is the story of a boy from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Arnold Spirit, Jr. endures poverty and teasing from his peers, and he yearns for a better life. He was born hydrocephalic, with too much fluid in his head. The seizures that followed added to a difficult childhood - a childhood Sherman Alexie knows well.
The book is semi-autographical. Sherman Alexie also grew up on the Spokane Reservation and, like Arnold Spirit, Jr., made a decision to leave the Reservation for an all-white high school.
Here's Alexie reading from the first chapter.
Mr. SHERMAN ALEXIE (Author, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"): (Reading) My brain damage has left me near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other, so my ugly glasses were all lopsided because my eyes were so lopsided. I get headaches because my eyes are like enemies, you know? Like, they used to be married to each other, but now hate each other's guts. And I started wearing glasses when I was three, so I ran around the res looking like a three-year-old Indian grandpa. And, oh, I was skinny. I turned sideways and disappeared. But my hands and feet were huge. My feet were a size 11 in third grade. With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.
MONTAGNE: Oh, no. So, Arnold could have stayed on the reservation all his life. That was home, it was the only place he knew. What was it that propels him off the res?
Mr. ALEXIE: The turning point in Arnold's life is the first day of eighth grade when he opens up his Math book, and his mom's name is written in it - his mother's maiden name - which is a 30-year-old Math book, and the unfairness of that - of being poor and Indian and Reservation-bound - all of that comes together, and Arnold stands up and throws his Math book across the room and smashes the Math teacher in the face - breaks his nose. And you'd think that would cause all sorts of problems for him, and of course, it does.
But one of the unexpected results is that the Math teacher, Mr. P., comes in later, you know, with a bandaged face and tells Junior that he has to leave the res, that it's a trap, you know? That comes on my own personal beliefs, of course, that, you know, the reservation was created as a prison, as a rural concentration camp where Indians were supposed to disappear and die. And I think largely - and Mr. P believes this, too - it's still it function. And so Mr. P, the teacher, explains to Arnold that in order to have a good life, he has to go to a place where there's more hope.
MONTAGNE: Hmm. Arnold, the character, is an aspiring cartoonist, and there's some pretty funny cartoons that, throughout the book, actually done by illustrator Ellen Forney. And there's one on page 57 that really sums up Arnold's first day of school. It's a split Arnold.
Mr. ALEXIE: Ah, yes. Arnold's split right down the middle so the white side of him has the bright future: The Indian, the vanishing past. The white side has the Tommy Hilfiger khakis and the Indian side has the Glad garbage book bag and (unintelligible). Arnold's rag canvas tennis shoes purchased in aisle seven of Safeway Supermarket and the white side has the latest Air Jordans. So, it's, you know, it's the very visual dichotomy between white wealth and Indian poverty.
MONTAGNE: There is a tension in leaving the reservation because when he walks away, he walks into this world 100 percent.
Mr. ALEXIE: Yes.
MONTAGNE: And his - back home, it's like, you're an apple.
Mr. ALEXIE: Red on the outside, white on the inside. So, yeah, so he ends up being split in between. He doesn't belong to the tribe anymore. He's sort of been banished in a way - self-banishment, I guess. So they call him an apple. They beat him up when they see him. They have lost all respect for him, and didn't have any - had very little to begin with.
MONTAGNE: Poor Arnold.
Mr. ALEXIE: And then he walks into the white school, where he is viewed with suspicion and racism, and so, he doesn't belong in either place. So he's nothing.
MONTAGNE: Alcoholism threads through the entire book. There's alcoholic fathers and real brutality. Did you, in thinking about this for all kinds of readers, did you have a twinge about portraying Indians in a way that could play into the kind of stereotypes that kids might buy into?
Mr. ALEXIE: Stereotypes - it's not a stereotype. Stereotype applies that it's not real, and it's absolutely real. On my reservation, in my family, alcoholism was epidemic. You - when you're talking about aunts, uncles, cousins - there are three of us currently who don't drink - actively - out of hundreds of people. So anybody who thinks it's a stereotype - alcoholism among Native Americans - is a romantic fool.
MONTAGNE: There is a moment in the book where Arnold talks about alcoholism in terms of Tolstoy. Won't you read that little bit?
Mr. ALEXIE: Gordy is the white genius of the high school, so (Reading) Gordy, the white boy genius gave me this book by a Russian dude named Tolstoy, who wrote, happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Well, I hate to argue with the Russian genius but Tolstoy didn't know Indians, and he didn't know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reasons: the frickin' booze.
MONTAGNE: How much is this book at heart about wanting to fit in, something that teenagers of all variations can relate to?
Mr. ALEXIE: I mean, it's an immigrant story i what it really is. An indigenous kid who's an immigrant in the United States, so - which is very ironic, you know? That's the overview, but what that does come down to is the search for identity. And as a teenager, everybody's going through that trying to figure out who you are.
And Arnold's ambition, his drive, his intelligence, his humor - all of that places him into a very scary and new situation; And it's there he has to figure out that all the things he sort of gets punished for on the reservation - his intellect, his desire to see the world - actually are very attractive off the reservation with a certain group of white kids, who also want to get away from their small town and see the world. So he finds out that he belongs to more than one tribe, you know? He also belongs to a lot of small town, ambitious kids - that tribe.
MONTAGNE: Sherman Alexie's new novel is "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." Semi-autobiographical. Thank you…
Mr. ALEXIE: Semi.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.
Mr. ALEXIE: Thank you.