So I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. I feel important with a pen in my hand. I feel like I might grow up to be somebody important. An artist. Maybe a famous artist. Maybe a rich artist.
This quotation, which occurs in the first chapter, “The Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club,” explains Junior’s relationship to cartooning. The cartoons that pepper the text of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are actually by the artist Ellen Forney, so the book is a collaborative project between Alexie, who authored the text, and Forney, who drew the cartoons. Alexie began the book as a memoir, but ultimately decided that an autobiographical novel was more fitting for his material. Some would argue that Junior’s relationship to cartoons, which is one of the few media that Alexie has not pursued in his professional life, is a stand-in for Alexie’s adolescent relationship toward writing stories and poems. The passage shows how Junior would like to use his art as a springboard to a better life. But drawing is not just a way for Junior to cope with and escape the challenges he faces on the reservation. Drawing, as Junior explains elsewhere gives Junior a means to honor his friends and family. Junior’s drawing, therefore, is not just a selfish or self-involved pursuit. Drawing gives Junior his particular way of contributing to his community.
Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.
Junior offers this observation on poverty in the second chapter of the novel, “Why Chicken Means So Much to Me.” Junior is reflecting about the difficulties that face his family and other impoverished Indians on the reservation, and, in the process, criticizes common romanticized notions about poor people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, overcoming adversity, and pursuing the American dream. The ability to overcome adversity by escaping it is, in fact, one of the key indicators of a privileged life. Junior suggests that only privileged people—namely, people who have never been poor—can hold such romanticized ideas about what it means to go hungry or not to be able to help one’s friends. For the truly poor, there is no escape from poverty, and the only way to overcome adversity, is to get better at tolerating it. The quotation sets the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone Junior will use to treat much of the political material that crops up in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Junior speaks with the authority of person who has both thought deeply about oppression and adversity and experienced them first-hand.
I suddenly understood that if every moment of a book should be taken seriously, then every moment of a life should be taken seriously as well.
Junior has this realization about the interrelation of aesthetic and lived experiences in the eleventh chapter of the novel, “Slouching Toward Thanksgiving,” during a conversation with Gordy. Gordy explains to Junior that to appreciate the whole of a great work of art, you have to appreciate its parts. When it comes to books, that means looking up individual words and researching their history. This makes immediate sense to Junior, for whom reading and learning have been a central component of life, but it also shows just how much of Junior’s energy has been directed toward escaping unpleasant life experiences—such as being bullied or going hungry—by reading books and making art. On the one hand, this is Junior questioning whether he has placed more significance on how he reads than on how he lives. But, on the other hand, Junior arrives at this renewed appreciation for every moment, no matter how difficult, because his literary education led him there. In this sense, books are not an escape from but, rather, an intensification of life.
I used to think that the world was broken down by tribes,” I said. “By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.
This quote, which occurs about three-quarters of the way through the novel in the “Valentine Heart” chapter, is spoken by Junior to his social studies teacher Mrs. Jeremy. After Junior misses many classes because he’s attending funerals, taking care of his mother, or because his family doesn’t have the gas money to take him to school, Mrs. Jeremy tells Junior that it’s nice of him to show up. Junior’s classmates stand and parade out of the classroom in an act of protest, leaving Junior and Mrs. Jeremy alone. That’s when Junior delivers this brutal line. The quote is an indication of the evolution of Junior’s thinking about race. He claims to have learned that internal moral qualities are more important than external social or political factors, but, it is important to keep in mind, as a whole The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian challenges even Junior’s new binary. Plenty of characters in the novel are sometimes assholes, and sometimes compassionate and kind. Roger, for instance, says racist things to Junior when they first meet, but, after some time has passed, he loans Junior money and gives him rides home.
All my white friends can count their deaths on one hand. I can count my fingers, toes, arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose, penis, butt cheeks, and nipples, and still not get close to my deaths.
Junior offers these lines near the end of the novel in the chapter titled, “Because Russian Guys Are Not Always Geniuses.” He is reflecting on the prevalence of death on the reservation, its ties to alcoholism, and how death, too, is one of the factors that differentiate life on the reservation from life in the wider, white world. The quote not only illustrates this stark contrast in early life for young American Indians compared to white teenagers, it also shows off Junior’s unique sense of humor. Humor is one of the ways Junior copes with the death he has faced, and the joke, here, of counting up ones penis, butt cheeks and nipples to arrive at the tally of deaths one has experienced in life also contains a starker reckoning. When Junior divides his body into all of its components like this, it ultimately emphasizes the mortality Junior is speaking about. In the passage, Junior’s own body becomes a memento mori—a reminder for him that one-day he too will die.