I’m very excited. As you know, the award was for this book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I’m so happy, because there’s a bunch of these roaming around the world. The book has sold and reached an audience in a way nothing of mine has before, and it really is because so many people in the young adult world have embraced the book, and awarded it and recommended it and bought it and sold it and taught it. And I’m really crazy happy for all of that, and extremely proud to win the very prestigious Boston Globe–Horn Book award — crazy happy. Crazy happy! But wait, wait, wait, wait — let me start again. That’s not a good introduction; that’s sort of self-serving, and really about book sales. So let me begin again.
People have insisted that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is autobiographical, and I have to tell you that, in fact, it’s not autobiographical, not at all. I don’t have a large skull; my head is of normal size. It’s only twenty-nine inches around: a very tiny, tiny head. I don’t have any speech impediments, as you can tell. I don’t have a lisp, and — and I don’t have a stammer, at all. You cannot detect that. I don’t have those speech impediments. I didn’t have seizures. I, in fact, am not a Spokane Indian. I’m actually Samoan, from the islands.
The thing is, yes, the book is autobiographical. The book is my story. If I were to guess at the percentage, it would be about seventy-eight percent true. Rounding down. And that’s one of the amazing things about the acceptance of the book, because in really large ways it feels like my story, my choices, have been validated by this huge group of people. Even now, it’s amazing to think that — as the book details — one day I was in school on the reservation, and I opened up my math book and my mom’s name was written in it. My mom’s maiden name, so I was looking at a thirty-year-old math book. I have a temper. Years of pharmaceuticals and therapy have helped, but I had neither of those things back then, so…In real life, I picked up the math book, threw it across the room, and hit the wall. In the fictional version, I picked up the math book, threw it across the room, and hit the math teacher in the face. The fictional version is much more satisfying. But I knew I had to leave the rez school. And it was an incredibly crazy thing to do. To give you some idea: my reservation is ninety-five percent Native American, and about eighty-five percent of that is Spokane Indian. We did a family tree in sixth grade, and everybody was related — including the teacher. I grew up in a monoculture. I grew up in a house half a mile from the house where my mom was born. My mom was born in the house where her mother was born. When we have family reunions on the rez, you just have to walk out the door and throw a rock, and you’ll hit a cousin. Not that that’s a particularly official ceremony. So to leave the rez was an enormous idea, and to choose Reardan, as I did in real life and as Arnold Spirit did in the book, was an even more crazy, wonderful, heroic, insane, cross-cultural, cross-racial, cross-class decision. It really is an American immigrant tale. I was indigenous to the land, but I was an immigrant into the culture. An indigenous immigrant. An ironic indigenous immigrant, who loves alliteration. When I did it, I had no idea that I would write about it, all these years later, and have people appreciate the story.
But wait! That’s not how I should begin. I got all autobiographical again! I started talking about myself again. That’s what happens when you have a book called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: you start talking about yourself. So let me start again. Let me do the selfless speech, the speech about the power of literature.
The thing that’s been amazing about this book is the response from people. On the book tour, when I was traveling around to various communities, I visited a really diverse set of high schools: private schools, public schools, racially mixed schools, monolithically white schools. And the response was always very similar. What I learned from my experience is that pretty much every teenager out there, regardless of class or race or culture or geography, feels pretty dang isolated and pretty dang misunderstood. And more than anything they feel this pressure — by their tribe, whatever their “tribe” is, by their class, by their families — to be a certain something. They feel molded and controlled. And the decision by my fictional character, Arnold Spirit Jr., to break that mold, to make a decision for himself at such a young age, feels really revolutionary to a lot of teens, to a lot of young people. Now, I’m not saying that the book encourages kids to disregard their parents and revolt and burn down buildings, but I think it encourages them to make their own decisions and to feel courageous in that. We forget that it’s a natural part of any person’s life to break away from their families. I think in a conservative culture, in a conservative country, people tend to want their children to be just like them. And this book says something else: that as much as you can love your parents, as much as you can love your community, as much as you can love your family, you can also be radically different from them. It says that you can be part of your family and yet distinct from it, and that doesn’t change your love for your family, but it changes who you become. And I think that’s a lot of what teenagers have responded to: they see in a book that you can make your own decisions for yourself and still be a loving member of your family and your community.
That’s the beautiful thing I want to say. There’s that introduction to the speech.
But above all else, the book is funny. The book is honest about some terrible things, a terrible life. In my experience in the young adult literature world, I’ve run into two generally distinct types of people: those who seek to protect children, who think they need to be protected from certain kinds of literature; and those who realize that young people cannot be protected that way, that the world is a different place now. Kids are bombarded with imagery, they are bombarded with stories. I was a kid who didn’t have a childhood. I had to grow up really fast. There was nothing that could protect me from that. The idea that some book, that some idea contained in a book, could somehow be more damaging than what I was experiencing on a daily basis is pretty naive. So I write children’s literature for kids who aren’t having childhoods, who are forced into adulthood really early. Those are the kids nobody’s really looking out for. Those are the kids nobody’s trying to talk to in large numbers. Those are the kids that get ignored. And I’m honored that the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committee chose my book — which has been controversial in some regards, in certain communities, with certain libraries, with certain booksellers, because it deals with some intense issues, some sex, some violence, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty — and the judges knew that, while taking those issues seriously, I was also funny about them. I was speaking to a large swath of young people who are dealing with the same exact stuff, and the committee was unafraid to honor my decision to write seriously about real problems teens are facing.
And I’m just happy. I’m happy the book is doing well; I’m happy it’s getting awards. I’m happy I’ve found a brand-new audience. And I’m really proud that the Horn Book has given me this award and put me in the company of so many great books that have won the award in previous years. Thank you very much. I’m sorry I had to give you five different speeches, but, as Whitman said, I contain multitudes. Thank you.
From the January/February 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.