Friday, April 3, 2009

Diversity roll call: My response

My answers to the C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll Call questions. (Want to play? Answer these two questions on your blog this week and add your link, or answer in the comments.)

1. Which is the character who's the most different from you? (And how? Use this as an excuse to tell us your own background and anything else about yourself that's important to your self-identity).

The character who first came to mind was Chief Bromden from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He was a huge half-Native American man, I'm a petite caucasian woman. He was a man of few words, taken for a deaf/mute for years; I'm pretty chatty and don't identify as having any particular disability. He was in a mental institution, I consider myself to be fairly steady in that arena. I remember feeling empathy for the Chief, and yet his skewed world view jarred me.

Thinking about the Chief made me think about Junior, the main character in Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Junior is a Native American teenaged boy who feels stuck on the reservation. When he decides to attend high school in a local town, it's a huge undertaking. When I was a teen, I felt like I could live anywhere, go anywhere, be anything. The sense of freedom I was raised with is something I took for granted throughout my childhood and, admittedly, still do today.

Junior is an artist who loves basketball; I'm not and don't. He's also in frail health, while I've always considered myself pretty robust, health-wise. His family and community is tortured by alcoholism and hopelessness, and the fact that he survives at all, much less thrives, seems a miracle by the end of the book. I had a hard time connecting to Junior. In fact, I didn't review this book when I read it last summer, because I didn't know how. I realized that my difficulty with it had more to do with me and my privileged place in the world, than with the book itself.

2. Which is the author (this could be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.) who is (or was) the most different from you?

When I read Alex Haley's Roots, I was 13 years old. I'm sorry to admit that as a girl I had shied away from books with pictures of black characters on the cover because I didn't think they were written for me. Haley was the first author whose skin color I was aware of as different from mine. So, me: white girl from the midwestern suburbs; Haley: African American man my grandparents' age. At the time, that was profound.

I still remember the moment I finished the epilogue, sitting on my grandparents' deck in California, awed by Haley's ability to make a world that had been so far outside my realm of experience, real for me. All the controversy I've read since then about how much truth may or may not be in Haley's story has always been overshadowed by that fact.


  1. Ali, I loved The Absolute Diary of a Part-time Indian. I was surprised, too, by how much I related to Junior because I do not easily relate to teen boys.

    I read Roots when it published. I was 14. It was required for 8th grade social studies. I remember groaning about the size of the books and not interested in reading about slaves because frankly I thought white folks thought we had no history before or after slavery. The book deeply affected me and I had no idea what it would could to mean in the cannon of literature. I give myself some slack though. I was only a kid.

  2. I saw the Roots mini series but never read the book. It is going on my TBR list. I have some Cherokee Indian blood in me as my great great great grandma was 100% Cherokee. Judy/IB

  3. Ali,

    You won an audiobook of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven from me! E-mail me your address so I can send it to Hachette and get that to you! Congrats!

  4. I read Roots when I was in my early 20s and I loved it. I was saddened by the controversy over the book because it was one of those amazing reads that helped me to understand more about the history of African Americans.

  5. Hi Ali, I really enjoyed reading your response. It is fascinating to hear that you didn't think that books with black characters were "written for you." I felt much the same way when I started reading comic books or even sci-fi - where do we pick up these awful signals! Such a shame. But I'm so glad that you did pick of Roots. It's a great book.

  6. Susan, I relate to teen boy protagonists so well now, but that hasn't always been the case. I credit my own young boys for that!

    Judy, You should definitely read Roots if you haven't already!!!

    Alyce, The controversy saddens me, too. I can see both sides of the issues, but, like you, the book was so important to me that I have to let those things go and just let myself appreciate it for what it was.

    Claudia, It was my late grandma who recommended Roots to me, so I have her to thank for helping me cut through those unfortunate barriers.

  7. I *love* Chief Bromden! He's pretty different from me as well, but he was so awesome.

    Also weird--I just got my hands on a copy of Roots. Must be fate.

  8. We must be on the same wavelength, Sadako!

  9. I remember reading this post! Now, however, since you didn't feel ______ something/whatever (I can NOT think of the right word!) to write a review you have me selfconscious about writing a review... I'll try to get over it. eek.

    OH - and I have going to get off the internet RIGHT NOW and go read the last 10 pages of The Housekeeper and the Professor! My second book this month - I'm on a roll, huh?

  10. Care, Who knows, maybe reading your review of it will help me be more articulate about my thoughts!

    I'm so glad you're reading The Housekeeper and the Professor--I thought of you the whole way through. Hope you loved it as much as I predicted you would.