UC Davis’ Campus Community Book Project has announced its 2011-12 selection, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Sherman Alexie’s award-winning, semi-autobiographical novel.
The organizer also announced a change in the book project’s timeline.
In a break from tradition, the author’s visit will not be in December. Instead, Alexie is scheduled to visit and give a talk on April 11, coinciding with UCD’s annual Powwow and Native American Culture Days. And book project programming will be spread throughout the academic year, instead of being concentrated in the fall.
With the tie-in to the variety of cultural celebrations held on campus every spring, the book project — which began as a means of promoting campus dialogue on diversity in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — adds an exciting new dimension to the project in its 10th year.
The Campus Council on Community and Diversity had already decided on a special topic for the 10th anniversary: Native American-American Indian culture, honoring and remembering the people whose land became UCD’s home. The book project selection committee took nominations, read the books and made its pick.
Alexie wrote “Part-Time Indian” for young adults — it won the National Book Prize for young people’s literature in 2007 — but adults also took a liking to the book.
Indeed, the selection committee believes “Part-Time Indian” will resonate with many people in the campus community, regardless of age, said Mikael Villalobos, book project coordinator and administrator of Diversity Education in the Office of Campus Community Relations.
“Part-Time Indian,” like all of the selections in the Campus Community Book Project, deals with issues that transcend generation and culture, Villalobos said.
“The common denominator among the books we choose is the human condition, a topic that reads across cultures,” he said.
Ines Hernandez-Avila, chair of Native American studies, explained why she believes “Part-Time Indian” is a fitting title for the Campus Community Book Project: “Sherman Alexie is a master of cutting to the core of what issues are facing young native people today, and he writes in such a way that he connects with readers beyond color lines, beyond forced, fake, stereotypical or imaginary borders.
“He cuts to the core of the humanity of his characters; he cuts to the heart for all of us to see.”
In “Part-Time Indian,” we see a humorous and touching account of a young man’s struggle with his identity on and off the “rez.” Arnold Spirit Jr., a spunky 15-year-old, considers himself a “part-time Indian,” leading a dual life between the Spokane Indian Reservation in Willpinit, Wash., and the all-white high school in small-town Reardan.
On the reservation, where his friends and family call him “Junior,” he is an outcast, a traitor, having left behind his impoverished community to acquire a better education. In Reardan, where his teachers and classmates call him Arnold, he is the only Indian in town — besides the school mascot, anyway.
Throughout, the aspiring cartoonist remains remarkably lighthearted, channeling his emotional energy into witty and insightful drawings that offer readers a unique perspective on the life of a young Native American boy living in a world that seems pitted against him.
Megan Macklin, a UCD alumnus (2008) who works in Educational Talent Search in UCD’s Academic Preparation Programs, said she applauds Arnold for refusing to give up, considering his grave circumstance.
“He is going through terrible things, but at least he has a sense of humor. He is uncomfortable with his skinny body and thick glasses, but draws it out and pokes fun at himself, instead of saying ‘woe is me.’
“He’s smart, and that’s why he’s chosen to take these risks socially and academically.”
Macklin, who served on the book selection committee as a student and continues to serve today, noted another factor that makes “Part-Time Indian” a provocative choice.
“The fact that a politically sensitive word like ‘Indian’ is written into the title shows how the work is kind of ‘in your face.’ But the author never says, ‘This is what I believe’ or ‘This is what you should believe.’ He puts things out there to create conversation,” Macklin said.
Which is exactly the point of the Campus Community Book Project — to get people talking about cultural differences, about how they enrich our lives. By encouraging everyone in the campus community to read the same book, once a year, the project aims to give people a jumping-off point for discussion.
Besides the inevitable conversations among friends and co-workers, the book project also enters the classroom, with faculty members encouraged to incorporate the chosen book into course curriculum.
Additionally, the book project mobilizes campus organizations to present workshops, panel discussions, talks, films and other events — for students, staff and faculty, as well as the greater community.
The 2011-12 theme also is a nod to the campus’ Native American studies department, one of the most robust in the nation.
Department Chair Hernandez-Avila, who is part Nez Perce, said she hopes students and others will supplement their reading of “Part-Time Indian” by attending the Powwow and Native American Culture Days — in 2012 when Alexie visits, and this year, too.
“It is important for all citizens of this society to know something about this history, and especially, to know how native peoples have always manifested their own agency in the face of often unspeakable times,” she said.
The professor added, “In other words, native peoples are not victims. We have a track record of fighting for our rights as sovereign nations.”
Arnold’s spirit in “Part-Time Indian” stands as testament to this determination. Macklin said, “Reading this book is a great way to have a common experience with the campus community.
“The question will not be, ‘Why are we reading this,’ but ‘Who else should be reading this?’”
For more information, visit http://occr.ucdavis.edu/book-project.html
— University Communications