Writing Thematic Arcs: A Writer’s Look at The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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This is a would-be writer’s look at an own voices novel. Spoilers abound.

“Just take a look at the world. Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists.”

That’s a line from Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The title alone brings a smile to my face. The book purports to be a diary, but just a casual flip through the pages reveals that it’s nothing of the sort. The insistence that the contents of the book are absolutely true is doth protesting too much. And lastly, there’s something funny about having a part-time identity.

One simply is or isn’t something. Or so conventional wisdom says.

The book’s twee title also makes me feel as if I was about to crack the book’s spine and encounter a novel full of sentimental, quirky characters. And in some sense, that’s what I found. Weird is a word Alexie often uses about his Indian characters.

The characters are colorful too; only they are all colorful in the same way. The Indians dwelling on the Spokane Indian Reservation are mostly alcoholics or recovering alcoholics or people so depressed they can’t leave their basement bedroom. As you can see, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is something more than the usual bask in human sunshine typically afforded by twee art. The Indian reservation, or the rez as its inhabitants call it, is a place of death. The main character, Arnold Spirit Jr., who goes by “Junior” and is a clear stand-in for the author, at one point observes that the reservation wasn’t meant to be a place where Indians lived but a place they were concentrated so that they could die. In essence, it’s a place you try to survive, or at best endure.

At the start of the novel, Alexie presents us with two best friends. There is Junior, who is weak and at the bottom of the reservation totem pole (one of Junior’s jokes), and then there is his best friend, Rowdy, who is strong and athletic. They come from different circumstances: Rowdy’s home life is abusive, while Junior has loving, if extremely dysfunctional, parents. As a result, Rowdy is full of rage while Junior is mild mannered. But rage runs through Junior as well. Indeed, the novel’s inciting incident is an act of violence: in a fit of frustration with his condition in life, Junior throws a book at his quirkily named teacher, Mr. P, and breaks his nose. Mr. P forgives Junior, but also advises him to leave the rez before he self-destructs like the other Indians around him. Mr. P. goes on to suggest that Junior might be better off getting his education off the reservation at a nearby white school. With the blessings of his family, Junior does just that, but the other Indians on the reservation see this as betrayal. Rowdy takes it the hardest.

Thematically speaking, most books have a single through line; usually something simple like “love conquers all, trust is the foundation of everything, don’t give up” (see this blog on themes). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian explores aspects of staying and leaving, but Alexie gives this underlying theme an arc by sequentially exploring: finding the bravery to leave, landing in a space in between (i.e. being marginalized), feeling guilt as your life moves towards a hopeful future while the world you left behind continues to disintegrate.

Finding hope in knowing you’re not alone: finding a new tribe

As Junior leaves the rez, he feels fear. Not only does he worry what the other Indians will do to him, he worries if his new white world will accept him.

Leaving one’s tribe requires a certain faith: a belief that somewhere out there exists people who are just like you and who will accept you. When Junior leaves the rez, he faces racism, most notably from his teachers and other adults. While his classmates bully him for being an Indian, a lot of this antagonism disappears as he integrates into the community. In fact, Junior’s life outside the rez is a charmed one: he gets a popular white girl to fall for him and becomes a star basketball player.

But there’s only half acceptance. Junior always exists in a class apart. At one point, Junior ruminates about how his excellence is always marked by his Indianness. The small town where he goes to school is like many small towns in that it’s obsessed with local high school sports heroes. The townsfolk remember their former greats by comparing current greats to the past ones. Junior knows no such comparisons will exist for him. That no one will one day say of a promising young white basketball player, that he plays like an Arnold Spirit.

Survival: the guilt of leaving your old tribe behind

This half acceptance takes up the first half of the novel, but once Junior lands on his feet, something else overcomes him. He starts feeling guilty about leaving his family and his best friend behind in a place of death.

The second half of the novel is punctuated with deaths. One by one, three characters who loom large in Junior’s life die. His grandmother succumbs to old age, and with her, her clear memory of Indian traditions (she is the one adult Indian character who isn’t an alcoholic). Then his father’s friend Eugene dies. He’s a compassionate man and a happy spirit, but he dies in a tragically silly shootout over a bottle of booze. And finally, Arnold’s sister dies. She has dreams of being a writer, but she burns to death when her trailer catches fire. At the time, she’s passed out after a night of binge drinking at a party.

The novel’s last scene brings the two boys back together: the boy who left and the boy who stayed behind.

If life is a pattern of people being unhappy in the same way, we have a sense of what will be Rowdy’s fate.

Of course, we don’t know for sure.

Novelists and Twisted Stories: A Writer’s Look at the New Netflix Thriller, Deadly Illusions

Scene from Deadly Illusions

Spoilers abound

Do you need a twisted mind to write a twisted story? The question is perhaps the subtext whenever a reader asks a horror writer where they get their ideas from. For a certain reader, imagining the unimaginable portends a darkness within. It’s why we search for telltale signs of evil after every mass shooting.

Deadly Illusions, a psychological thriller now streaming on Netflix, treats this myth as reality. Mary Morrison, played by Kristin Davis, is a retired thriller novelist now living in domestic bliss: she has a sprawling, modern house, two children- twins, and a loving husband named Tom. It’s so idyllic, one’s surprised there’s no golden retriever running in the yard.

At the start of the film, Mary takes a meeting with her literary agent and a publishing executive during which they offer her two million dollars if she writes another thriller. The offer offends Mary. She rises to her feet in a huff and promptly escorts them off her property. Later that night, she comes across her husband Tom reading a letter. The publishing executive has slipped the offer into their mailbox in a last-ditch effort to get Mary to reconsider. Tom wants Mary to write the book. Two million is a lot of money, and they need it because Tom has made a lousy investment. This revelation forces Mary’s hand. She has to write the book. This is also when we find out why Mary is so hesitant about penning a new thriller novel. She becomes a different person, she says, when she writes.

But what does that even mean? It’s ominous, to say the least.

It’s clear the act of writing is a threat to domesticity. To allow time for Mary to write, the Morrisons hire a nanny from a fancy agency that hires out accomplished, practically Ivy League-educated young women to stimulate the next generation of elite children. It’s all very nineteenth century. And when depicted in art and literature, we know what all such governesses desire: to become the lady of the manor.

(It’s a shame some tropes never die.)

In the end, the Morrisons hire a bookish nanny named Grace. Though she is pretty and well-developed, having curvy hips and big breasts, Grace is mentally childlike. Mary takes an instant liking to her. But what is Grace’s appeal? Most likely, Grace reminds Mary of a younger version of herself as Grace wants to be a writer.

The connection, however, goes deeper than that. Mary starts having erotic encounters with Grace. It begins with bra shopping- you know, the sort of thing you do with your employer- before escalating to skinny dipping sequence and a scene of Grace masturbating Mary while she’s taking a fancy milk bath complete with floating (think vaginal) flowers. Whether any of this is actually happening is uncertain. It could all be a fantasy or just a delusion: Mary becoming a different person as she writes her thriller. Because of this, I found myself losing interest in the story. Scenes of delusions or fantasies are only interesting if we know something about the character having them. Mary, however, is a mystery hidden behind layers of upper middle class cliché. At one point, I pressed pause and was dismayed to learn there were still forty-nine minutes of the movie to get through. The fantasy sequences are too redundant and add little to the story. As a consequence, the middle of this film sags like a poorly constructed novel.

Then the fantasy morphs into nightmare. One day, Mary sees her husband and Grace having a sexual encounter in the kitchen. They are playing some BDSM game that involves Tom being blindfolded while he goes down on Grace. Soon after, Mary’s best friend, Elaine, who suspects the affair, is found murdered. This is when the narrative introduces split personality. Grace has an alter-ego called Maggie, a tough girl persona she created to shield herself after suffering from child abuse. Near the climax of the film, Maggie attacks Tom while he’s taking a shower. Mary, who has been away investigating Grace, returns home to find Tom bleeding to death in the bathroom, with his stomach slashed. Before she can call for help, Maggie attacks her. It’s not clear what Maggie/ Grace’s intentions towards Mary are; during the assault, she keeps switching personas, going back and forth between good Grace and evil Maggie personas. Anyhow, the thriller comes to a close in the usual way: Mary saves the day, and a happy family order is restored.

Interestingly, this coincides with Mary completing her manuscript.

It’s hard to interpret Deadly Illusions. Either it all happened or none of it happened. But if nothing happened, what’s the point unless the film gives us an insight into Mary’s psychology. Does split personality metaphorically reflect the author/ character divide?

Not unless you think art originates in the unconscious.

Let me know what you thought of the film in the comment below.

Hetero-normative, but with a twist

The Henna Wars
The Henna Wars

This isn’t a review: it’s my spoiler-heavy thoughts about The Henna Wars.

The Henna Wars opens with the line, “I decided to come out to my parents at Sunny Apu’s engagement party.” The speaker is a 16-year-old, Bangladeshi Muslim girl named Nishat. What spurs this decision is the joy she sees in Sunny Apu and her fiancé’s eyes. That’s the kind of happiness she wants for herself. Hetero-normative, but with a twist.

Nishat is already out to her younger sister, Priti, with whom she has a close bond. The morning after the engagement party, Nishat sits her parents down at the kitchen table and tells them she’s a lesbian (she even looks up the Bengali word for lesbian, but promptly forgets). Her parents don’t get angry at her revelation. In fact, they say nothing at all. Later, Nishat eavesdrops on their private conversation and learns that they quietly hope that she’s simply going through a phase. They drop the subject of Nishat’s sexuality and carry on living as if nothing has changed; only they limit their interactions with their daughter. It feels a little like shunning, but it’s hard to read. One could also interpret their behavior as awkwardness.

While The Henna Wars is a contemporary YA novel about coming out, it’s also a young adult romance novel featuring a rivals-to-lover plotline. At Sunny Apu’s wedding, Nishat runs into her childhood crush, a Brazilian-Irish biracial girl named Flavia. Nishat had known her in grammar school, but then Flavia moved away with her mother after her parents divorced. She’s recently returned to the neighborhood, and as luck would have it, attends the same Catholic girl’s school as Nishat. They are both thrust into a rivalry, however, when they both choose to set up a henna tattoo business for their business class project, a competition with a thousand Euro prize.

What I really enjoyed about The Henna Wars was the main character’s voice, which was at once self-assured, self-deprecating, and wise to the world. A real feat for any teenager. We see her fieriness as she confronts Flavia on subjects like cultural appropriation and other matters of race. But there’s also a narrative cost to giving a protagonist such confidence. We never hear about her vulnerability, though the author often shows it in scenes of the character having over the top meltdowns or crying in the bathroom (but never wanting to discuss her issues). There’s one scene, when Nishat is heading home on the bus, and she’s thinking if she even has a home to return to. That scene should have been more gutting than it is.

The only major downside of the novel is that we see little of the actual henna war. We are told that Nishat makes beautiful designs, as does Flavia, who has aspirations to be an artist, but these designs are never described in the book. It’s a missed opportunity in a novel pushing the melding of tradition with modernity.

Since the novel is a romance, everything ties up neatly in the end. Flavia has a cousin named Chyna, who bullies Nishat when someone outs her at the school via an anonymous text message. This forces Flavia, who doesn’t want to have an open relationship with Nishat, to come out to her cousin. It is familial love that allows Chyna to overlook Flavia’s sexuality. In a similar way, Nishat’s parents come to accept her. This reminded me of how conservative politicians become pro-gay rights once their own child comes out of the closet. In the end, Nishat and Flavia’s queerness becomes a part of the traditional (hetero-normative and patriarchal) pattern.

This isn’t too surprising. The old rallying cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it,” is too radical for young adult fiction, which requires respectability above all else.

If you’ve read The Henna Wars, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.