April 8, 2017

When Donald Trump won last November, people actually talked about poverty for a few days. Some books investigating the minds of poor white people jumped up the bestseller lists. Then we got distracted by Twitter, Russia, immigration, etc. We also talked about racism a bit more than usual for a week or two, but serious racism discussions always fizzle out quickly these days.

What could help keep discussions of poverty and racism alive in our civic discourse—and actually make them to some extent productive? Here’s an idea: Find writers who have experienced poverty and racism firsthand and can write about those experiences honestly and hilariously. Sherman Alexie is one such writer. He is brutally honest and laugh-out-loud funny. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a brilliant National Book Award-winning young adult novel, but it’s also a novel everyone can enjoy and should read. This was my fourth reading, and I loved it as much as I have every other time.

I’ve met Sherman Alexie twice, and to be honest, he comes across as kind of a dick. The first time he blew me off as I tried to share a story I thought might be useful for a project he was working on. The second time he hit on my wife. But I continue to give him the benefit of the doubt: he’s probably had to get good at being a cocky SOB to overcome, you know, poverty and racism, and to live into his talent. That’s the other thing: he’s got the goods to back up the bluster.

In Absolutely True Diary, the main character, Junior, says,

        I can’t blame my mother and father for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world would EXPLODE without them.

        And it’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.

        Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands….

        It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.

        Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.

How different would the American dialogue—and American public policy—be if more of our politicians, judges, businesspeople, and talking heads understood these feelings firsthand? Over and over again, the events and descriptions in this book, with their truth and vividness, do their best to substitute for the experiences and the feelings themselves.

I’ve had several middle- and high-school students tell me this book instantly became their favorite book ever. It is a 21st century Catcher in the Rye, but with less whininess and literary pretension and more accessibility and hope. It has only been around for ten years, but it will remain a classic for decades to come.