The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian | Study Guide

Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Sherman Alexie wrote short stories, poetry, and novels before he tried his hand at young adult fiction. The result was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, an autobiographical novel published in 2007. In the best-selling story, the main character, Junior, faces the painful limitations of life on the reservation, finally finding ways to move beyond them and find his own identity.

The novel's inclusion of controversial issues such as alcohol abuse, physical violence, and racism have drawn criticism from parents and school groups, making it a target for challenges and banning efforts. However, its unflinching but often humorous portrayal of the lives of Native Americans and the difficulties they face have made it a classic for readers of all ages.

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is based on Alexie's life growing up on the Spokane Reservation.

Alexie grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington—as does Junior, the novel's main character. Alexie's life there was challenging: his school had little to offer a boy who was interested in literature and poetry. Alexie used his experiences on the reservation to create the world of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his first young adult novel, which the New York Times said "may be his best work yet."

2. Like the main character in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie was born with "water on the brain."

Alexie was born with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. The condition is caused by excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. As an infant, he had surgery and was not expected to live. If he did survive, doctors assumed he would have a severe mental disability; however, Alexie was reading by age three. He suffered seizures as a result of the surgery, and other children on the reservation bullied him because of his differences. The main character, Junior, also had hydrocephalus and grew up on a reservation, but he finds a creative outlet through cartooning, not writing.

3. Alexie intends to offend a percentage of his readers.

Alexie enjoys looking "for trouble" in the works he writes and the stand-up comedy he performs. He says,

If you're not offending a pretty high percentage of people who read your books, you're not doing it well enough. ... At my public performances, if somebody doesn't walk out at some point I feel like I haven't done my job.

He states that if people are already uncomfortable, he will often try to make them even more uncomfortable; this may explain why his novel is banned so often.

4. The illustrator of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a "Genius Award" and wrote a best-selling memoir.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian includes 65 illustrations from Junior's journal and sketchbook. The illustrations were created by Ellen Forney, whose graphic autobiography, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me (2012) details her experience with bipolar disorder. Forney was awarded a "Genius Award," a $5,000 prize for artists who have been unrecognized by mainstream media, by the Seattle newspaper The Stranger.

5. Alexie failed to become a doctor because he fainted in anatomy class.

Alexie initially planned to become a doctor, but he kept fainting in anatomy class (where the students did dissections of human bodies). He needed "a career change," and the only class open at the same time was a poetry class. He noted,

I got into the class, and my professor, Alex K[u]o, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native American poetry called Songs From This Earth on Turtle's Back. I opened it up and—oh my gosh—I saw my life in poems and stories for the very first time.

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the most frequently challenged or banned titles in the United States.

Alexie's book has been challenged by school districts all over the United States. Critics have in particular objected to its depictions of bestiality, its profanity, and its graphic treatment of sex. In the 2010s, it was often near the top of the American Library Association's list of most challenged books in the United States.

7. Alexie vomited when he learned he won the National Book Award.

When Alexie learned that he had won the National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in 2007, he was stunned. According to his own description,

In the final minute, when they started doing the announcing, I got hot-faced and felt like I was going to faint. They said my name and I vomited a little bit. The moment was intense.

8. Alexie defines success by the fact that he can now buy the books he wants.

In a 2001 interview, Alexie expressed amazement at the fact that he had achieved such success as a writer. Just having his own office was astonishing to him. He explained by saying:

When I had no money, and a great book came out, I couldn't get it. I had to wait. I love the idea that I have hardcover books here and at home that I haven't read yet. That's how I view that I'm rich. I have hardcover books I may never read.

9. Alexie's first publication led him to become sober.

While attending college at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, Alexie began drinking heavily. He continued abusing alcohol after transferring to Washington State, where he started to write short stories and poetry. It wasn't until 1990, when the literary magazine Hanging Loose published his short stories and poetry for the first time, that he decided to quit drinking.

10. Alexie wrote Smoke Signals, the first feature film made by Native Americans.

Alexie's 1993 novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was the basis for his movie Smoke Signals, for which he wrote the script. The director, coproducer, and actors were all Native Americans. Reviewers particularly liked the dialogue: Roger Ebert said that Alexie "has a good ear for speech, and he allows his characters to refer to the real world, to TV and pop culture and the movies."

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