Monday, July 21, 2008

Pugnacious, Learned & Mocking: Gustavo Arrellano

What started out as a column for the Orange County Weekly is now the Everyman handbook on the cultural clashes and misperceptions between Mexicans and well, everyone else.

In addition to his usual journalism assignments with the paper, Gustavo Arellano has penned a weekly column that typically starts out with, Dear Mexican. Ask A Mexican! is syndicated in newspapers across the country and has a following of those who understand irony, and others to whom it simply falls flat. Some questions are curious about Mexican culture or history.
Gustavo Arellano, Photo from OC Register
Others are meant to be rude and degrading. Some are just bizarre:
"Dear Mexican, Why don't Mexicans like Science-fiction movies?"

Here's his answer in his typically sharpshooting manner:
"Dear Gabacho, One of my favorite ethnic jokes goes like this. Why aren't there any Puerto Ricans on Star Trek? Because they don't work in the future either." But Mexicans don't like alien films because they're always thinly veiled allegories about Mexicans if you believe University of Texas professor Charles Ramírez Berg."
No matter how someone tries to plot to throw Arellano off, he goes off into the archives of history or through volumes of books to find a quasi-historical/academic answer for the person he'll address as Dear Gabacho or a variant of. Arellano uses his brains and words as a billy club. He handles the questions deftly and with humor, and the voice that comes through is often irreverent --to both sides.

His book, which was published this year by Scribner, will go down as a classic. Not only is it funny, pugnacious and mocking, but it demands we look at perceptions of race and culture, questioning what it is to be an American.

Here he is in an interview at the Los Angeles Press Club:

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Winner: Sherman Alexie's "True Diaries"

Illustration by Ellen Forney, from the book

The setting is the tall pine trees and blue skies of the Pacific Northwest. The tribe is the Spokane. The focus is Arnold Spirit, the gawky, fourteen year old nerdy teenager whose parents are alcoholics. His sister spends twenty three hours a day alone in a basement and his only friend is the school bully. Arnold stutters and lisps and is prone to seizures. He's the human punching bag on the reservation, a geek who makes sense of life by drawing comics because
"I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me."
His predictable life is interrupted one day at Wellpinit High School after being given a geometry text book and seeing his mother's name on it. Arnold already knows how downtrodden his people are, but when he realizes the textbooks haven't been replaced in twenty years, he throws it at his teacher. During Arnold's suspension, the teacher comes to him and explains the injustices his student feels are correct, that in fact here on the reservation there is no hope, and to find it he will have to get off the reservation. This is where the story gains momentum, when Arnold makes the choice to attend a "white" school twenty-two miles away.
Poet, Playwright, Novelist, Screenwriter Sherman Alexie

This book is about the opening of Arnold's world by using both the limitations and gifts of his tribe to find hope. Alexie deftly creates characters with both sophisticated realizations with sophomoric behavior and perceptions. His new friend Gordy at Reardan High School tells him:
"And, yeah, you need to take that seriously, but you should also read and draw because really good books and cartoons give you a boner."
This is Arnold Spirit's coming of age amid the incessant hopelessness of the Indian reservation and the gleam of his "white" high school. Alexie is wise not to let Arnold veer off the path and let this become a reality-TV teenage hi-jinks chapter book. He lets Arnold find his own identity by facing the loss of a friendship, alienation from his own tribe, death and grief, love, and the need to make new friends in a foreign environment. With a self deprecating but smart narrative voice, Arnold finds both hope and acceptance. He discovers even though he is a Spokane Indian, he's also a member of other tribes as well:
"And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teen age boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers...."
Finding one's way in life and a sense of belonging is the recurring theme in novels. If you have seen his 1998 Indie movie hit, "Smoke Signals," you'll see True Diaries as an expansion on this theme. Alexie writes this coming-of-age novel with humor, skill and consideration. This book garnered him the 2007 National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. Frankly, I can't wait for this movie to come out.

Sherman Alexie accepts the National Book Award, 2007