Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Using the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: To Teach about Racial Formation

Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Using the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: To Teach about Racial Formation

Article excerpt

Using The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: To Teach About Racial Formation

SHERMAN ALEXIE'S RECENT NOVEL, the National Book Award winner The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), is told through the words and pictures of Arnold Spirit, Jr. of the Wellpinit reservation in Eastern Washington, which Junior (as he is known on the reservation) tells us "is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy" (p. 30). Junior, who narrates this poignant story, is a fourteen-year-old boy struggling to make sense of his identity, which becomes increasingly challenging as he decides to leave his reservation school to attend the predominantly White school in nearby Reardan, where he notes sardonically that the only other Indian in town is the school's mascot. Junior said from that time on he "felt like two different people inside one body" (Alexie, 2007, p. 61).

As an instructor of an undergraduate course called Sociocultural Studies in Education, I see rich pedagogic value in Alexie's work. Part humanities course, part cultural studies course, this class places special emphasis on helping students learn to read and analyze texts critically. Three major premises of cultural studies inform students' analysis: cultural processes are innately intertwined with social relations (class, race, gender, etc.); culture involves asymmetries of power, that is in people's recognition and realization of their needs; culture is a site of social difference and struggle (Johnson, 1986/87, p. 39). The Absolutely True Diary is particularly useful for students to analyze and understand the politics of difference and struggle, especially when used in conjunction with more theoretical texts.

Being Fourteen Years Old Matters

Alexie's choice to narrate the story through the words of fourteen-year-old Junior allows him to carry the reader into what otherwise might be uncomfortable or incongruent spaces. Junior must deal with many common struggles of adolescence, such as how to talk to those he desires sexually and/or romantically, control hormones, and manage relationships with parents, friends, and teachers. The familiarity of these struggles helps the reader empathize with Junior. Alexie's quality as a writer amplifies this empathy, and he seamlessly layers class and racial identities on top of these more familiar adolescent struggles.

Alexie's book is classified as young adult (YA) literature, which should not be decried as merely an issue of marketing and should not limit who reads the book. On the contrary, YA literature is a rich genre that, while specifically targeted toward young adults, has appeal and relevance to a broader audience too. Stevens (2007) asserts that the genre of young adult literature is classified by five main criteria: the book is written about teens; it is written in a distinctly teen voice; it is characterized by the journey toward identity; it tackles adult issues in teenage lives; and, it has the same potential for literary value as grown-up novels. The Absolutely True Diary exemplifies all of these criteria. Additionally, Arviso (2008) notes that Alexie's book fills a gap in the genre of young adult literature, particularly because of the issues of race and class raised by the book. For example, Arviso (2008) notes that while the book holds important lessons for Native American and young adult readers, the book's topics are important for non-native and adult readers as well. Daniels (2006) argues for the validity of the genre for serious literary study, noting that many of the novels can be critiqued as one would critique adult literature. "For example, the genre of YA literature can be examined as a way to analyze the underlying class ideology of a work, without the text being specifically 'about' class conflict" (p. 80).

Extending the argument that the novel can be read by both YA and non-YA readers, Phillion and He (2004) suggest the term life-based literary narratives for "memoirs, autobiographies, and novels that focus on the intimate, daily experiences of diverse families, parents, students, and teachers" (p. …

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