Sherman Alexie’s first young-adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, uses instances of sexuality, aggression, and profanity to expose a rawness in the cultural divide between Indians and Americans. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Arnold “Junior” Spirit, grows up on an Indian reservation, and after throwing an antiquated geometry book at a particularly empathetic teacher, he is thrust into a a series of events that prompt him to leave the reservation so that he may reap the advantages of the outside world. As Junior navigates this transition with great humor, friendship, and innocence, he takes integral steps in identity formation. Alexie foils themes of humor and vulnerability both textually and visually to more completely explain the inherent aporia that Junior faces during this process as a cultural minority.
From the very beginning, Alexie’s novel employs a juxtaposition of humor with themes like aggression and discrimination in order to shed light on Junior’s cognitive state. For example, in chapter two — notably titled “The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club” — Junior describes his predicament, stating, “Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day” (4). In a normal lighthearted tone, he then quips, “Do you know what happens to retards on the rez? We get beat up. At least once a month” (4). The quote pays homage to the frequency of aggression in a community of low socioeconomic standing where physicality is often used as a sort of coping device. Junior’s best friend Rowdy follows in this pattern: he is abused by his father and he himself seems to perpetuate this cycle of violence. Junior provides a unique perspective, not because he is exempt from such adversity, but because his wit allows him a way of coping self-reflexively. Junior’s hydrocephalus in fact prohibits him from any physical outlet — any physical trauma could endanger his health. In this way, his disability serendipitously forces him to an alternative, an association which implicitly awards power to disability. A perfect example of this coping mechanism in situ is found on page 4, were a cartoon self-portrait of Junior as a eclectic, stuttering, dysmorphic pre-teen seeks to provide insight into why he is bullied. The portrait is clearly exaggerated as part of his coping mechanism: by overstating his own stereotype, Junior is able to regain a degree of control. This creates for Junior a space of space of comfort within his disability stereotype, and later, it come to do the same within his cultural stereotype.
When Alexie parallels Junior’s positive encounters with comics, he works to show the pervasiveness of the Indian stereotype on the Indian. For example, while Junior is processing Mr. P’s hopeful advice, he creates a drawing that distinguishes from “home” and “hope,” complete with a moose and a sparse sketch of the future (43). Later, banter about his sister’s hidden passion for writing is accompanied by a sleazy and purposely-stereotypical depiction of romance novels in which an apache king appears to woo his caucasian matron (38). Again, stereotypes are overstated in order to gain control and create amusement, but notable is the fact that Junior feels the need to grab the reigns and draw a comic whenever anything dips too heavily into optimism. In this way, the comics supersede their status as coping mechanisms and venture into expressions of cognitive dissonance. Insight as to where this psychological split arises from can be found on page 58, where Junior sketches the outline of a man split in half by ethnic distinctions. The drawing acts as a perfect objective correlative for Junior’s mentality: the right half of the body illustrates a stereotypical Indian, dressed in cheap clothes and burdened by a “bone crushing reality,” whereas the left half of the body shows a white man, adorned in designer clothing and promised “a bright future” (57). All of Junior’s cartoons reduce themselves along these exact lines: an element of the serious is satirized into its constituent elements to create distance from hope, fear, or trauma. This cautious authenticity can be more accurately labeled as a double consciousness in which Junior views his actions as both the natural product of his own doing and through the lens of his cultural standing.
Moments in the text act implicitly to support the cognitive split noticeable within the cartoons. During his conversation with Mr. P, Junior finds himself supporting his sister’s desire to write romance novels, but once he realizes the danger of this tendency, he chastises himself for his unsubstantiated positivity, saying, “I almost gagged when I said that. I don’t even believe that. There’s never enough time to change your life. You don’t get to change your life, period” (40). Junior feels hope, but then feels that he is feeling hope — in a sort of metacognition, he corrects this emotion as he remembers his cultural standing. Specifically, he recalls that an American Indian, hope has often proven to be illusory. This is part defense mechanism and part cultural mentality, and what it results in most poignantly for Junior in a depleted sense of worth. Several times, he questions his deservingness. At one point, he admits that he “wanted to have it better” but “didn’t deserve it” (40-41). He even questions his standing at Reardan, remarking, “Reardan was the opposite of the rez […] I didn’t deserve to be there; all of those kids knew it. Indians don’t deserve shit” (57). The rare curse-word in the young adult genre creates tension, emotion, and emphasis as Junior pours anger into what he feels is a cultural inevitability. Because his ethnicity is associated so often with the adversity of alcoholism, poverty, and the other realities of being a second-class citizen, a young Junior infers that this association must be a matter of worth.
Although Junior’s double consciousness allows him to oscillate in the safe space between devastation and triumph, this security of sentiment also prohibits his growth. The cartoons are created in two distinct styles, and changes in pattern between the two are able to demonstrate Junior’s eventual transcendence over this mindset. The dichotomy of cartoons is demonstrated on page 23, wherein Junior draws a detailed sketch that shows an often-hidden kindness in Rowdy, who is indulging in a comic. This is type one: quick and light pencil marks creating a space of empathy, which in this drawing are scribbled over to demonstrate type two, which itself is marked by comics and cartoons that sit on the surface of emotion. By combining both tactics, this drawing in particular shows that as a frequent aggressor, the prospect genuine motion is terrifying to Rowdy, and he deals with it using anger. Moreover, it highlights the honesty that lies beneath the surface of this anger, and that in itself allows even the characters like Rowdy, who lack Junior’s insight, to be seen under the umbrella of his kindness. The art within the novel is split between traditional comics and raw sketches, the former of which make up the majority within the work. In contrast, the sketches correspond with instances of acceptance. For example, the sketch of Eugene, Junior’s father’s best friend, occurs after Junior is dropped off in the man’s motorcycle and is subsequently embraced by one of his enemies. Here, the Indian stereotype inches toward reversal by one carefully articulated phrase on behalf of a notorious Reardan bully, Roger, who utters, “Cool” (73). Later in the text, two sketches appear back to back as Junior finds a new happiness with Penelope. Here, Junior acknowledges both hope and the cross-cultural limitations of hope. Penelope tells Junior that she wants to go to Stanford — the west-coast school with a whopping 5% acceptance rate — and Junior says, “I couldn’t make fun of her dream. It was my dream too. And Indian boys weren’t supposed to dream like that. And white girls from small towns weren’t supposed to dream big, either” (112). As Junior finds out about Penelope’s eating disorder and her desire to travel the world, old conceptions of worth dissolve with new conceptions of pain and dreams. Furthermore, his preconceptions about his culture start to change in a slow, insidious fashion, and Junior begins slowly to see himself on a playing field equal to that of his classmates at Reardan. Finally, the last sketch in the book occurs to parallel the revival of Junior’s friendship of Rowdy, which shows them holding hands and jumping into a lake. Junior’s friendship with Rowdy allows Junior to bridge his connection from the outside world to home, to himself, and back again. He thinks about Rowdy, whom he “missed…so much,” and then says he “wanted to find [Rowdy] and hug him and beg him to forgive me for leaving” (217-218). By the end of the book, Junior has grown because he is able to recognize his vulnerability without inherently attempting to mask it. Instead, he accentuates the cliffhanger of the penultimate chapter with the rawness of a pencil sketch, a subtle change in format that serves to emphasize the culmination of Junior’s development.
However, this does not suggest that Junior, after taking a handful of steps into the outside world, is now magically rid of the lingering effects of his double-consciousness. Rather, the dichotomy of comics within the work demonstrate that he simply has found ways to navigate challenges within this mindset, and when necessary, he has found ways to poke holes into it, ways to let vulnerabilities seep through just enough to promote growth.