If I Am Not Like You, Dad and Mom, Then Who Am I? : Revisiting the “Absent Parent” Motif

VENUE: Los Angeles Review of Books

Surely, a world without a constant watchful – controlling- parent would give a teenager the ultimate sense of freedom, right? No authority figure to set the rules or limit the ever increasing need for independence and power. It could easily open up new adventures and experience for a teenager. Typical in YA literature, the absent parent motif merely allows for the quest of the young heroine/hero to occur and develop; however, both Sherman Alexie and Steve Brezenoff invert this motif. Reverting the function of the motif, both authors trigger a change in their protagonists’ individuation, for they now confront a dualized identity. In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit must confront and synthesize both diverging Spokane and Reardan halves. Similarly, Brezenoff’s Brooklyn Burning reimagines the teenager’s coming-of-age journey into one of reconciling two different parts of an already ambiguous identity. Both novels reinterpret the absent parent motif as a problematic absence of the home (represented by the parents) caused by the assumption of an outside threat or “other” force destabilizing the home. Such conflict is embodied by the protagonists whose reward comes in returning  home as a new person, effectively constituting his/her independence and identity within an accepting home.

Born with various medical problems in poverty at the Spokane reservation, Arnold Spirit believes that getting a better education will save him from the suffocating poverty; unfortunately, doing so means moving into another social and intellectual world called Reardan. Arnold’s relationship with the other Spokane natives is difficult and, mostly, violent because of his body’s inadequacy to physically support him. From the beginning, Arnold explains: “ I was born with water on the brain… with ten teeth past human” (1). Detaching himself from an alien body that is “past human,” Arnold opts out of using “my,” the possessive noun, for the distant article, “the.” His most useful weapon, as it turns out, is his brain, which he earnestly makes use of to learn and declare his self worth. The surplus of teeth and fluid signal Arnold’s uniqueness, but also, is the logic behind his  peer group’s rejection of him. In choosing to attend Reardan high school, Arnold moves even further outside the boundaries of tradition or the status quo of Spokane reservation. Yet, Arnold is the unifying piece between the “broken dams and floods,” the Spoken world inhabited by his loving albeit defeated parents. The hope he seeks outside of home, he brings back to Spokane at the end. His situation at home is not a healthy or ideal situation, and it pushes him outside the physical boundaries of the reservation into another social world untouched by poverty or violence.

No Direction Home

No Direction Home

The geographical distance from home, not only isolates him from other Native Americans, but it also metaphorically splits him in half. The diverging cultural practices seemingly depict inherently different worlds;  one in which  Arnold is a member of Spokane, and the other provides him with an ambivalent sense of hope, as poignantly portrayed in cartoon of the crossroads (43). At Reardan high school, “whose mascot was an Indian” (56), his existence dims under the shadowy misrepresentation of Native Americanness; so, Arnold enters into this new world as “the only other Indian in town” half existing in this new social world. Arnold travels through dangerous territory when neither place fully accepts him nor his dreams; he wanders in between a liminal state that hinders Arnold’s individuation because he’s directionless.

Similarly, Brezenoff’s protagonist, Kid, experiences a spatial dislocation caused by an already unstable home. Disturbed and threatened by Kid’s ambiguous body, Kid’s father believes he has “the only kid who doesn’t know whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a boy or what” (121). Kid’s own home and parents marginalize and alienate her/him, pushing her/him away from the home into another strange and mysterious territory. Being in Brooklyn is a testament to his fragmented self. While wandering the streets of Brooklyn and facing possible incarceration, Kid realizes that he longs for an accepting home, a place where Kid could be free and safe. Throughout the novel, Kid lives as a dual self. One part of Kid rebels against gender constrictions,  it is the authentic self that cannot be integrated into normal society, according to the father. The other half of Kid’s identity comes in the form of her/his father’s redefinition and labeling of his ambiguous sexuality as “Other.” It is in constant contrast with the other half, because  it is the only kind of gender identity accepted by the home, particularly,  Kid’s father.  In Brooklyn, Kid must cope with the isolating effect of being an outsider, literally being homeless, and reconciling both elements of her/him-self.

Now, both Arnold and Kid cannot forever live on the fringes of an outsider community, because, as both authors show us, it is a painful, dangerous, and lonely world; therefore, both protagonists must undergo what Susan Stryker — in her essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix” — explains as “the hard work of constituting [them] selves on [their] own terms, against the natural order.” In Brooklyn Burning, Kid validates her/his self worth by forming a close and romantic bond with Scout. Through the concept of love, Brezenoff strengthens Kid’s true self.  With her/his mother’s compassion, Kid finds acceptance and triumphs over the half that was in conflict with her/his true self. It is a sort of reconciliation, actually, between the part of that desires freedom of expression and the other part that sought acceptance at home.

Alexie’s character takes the distinct parts of his dual self — parts that have emerged out of life at Reardan and Spokane — to “articulate [him]self” and create a new hybrid American. However, acceptance from the tribal members comes at painful exchange; through his sister’s death, Arnold comes closer to his origins, surrounded by members of the reservation in his time of grief. While mourning for his loss, a community united by grief and loss is recreated. In a more permanent manner, Arnold realizes he cannot be just “a Spokane Indian” (217). “I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants,” he says, “I was not alone in my loneliness.” Arnold reclaims his loneliness as independence, a power that will allow him to move to other spaces, while maintaining his Spokane identity. He successfully constitutes the divergent parts of his double identity into a hopeful and unified consciousness inhabiting one body. This new self-made identity allows Arnold to call the whole nation, America, as home, establishing his worth as a true and whole American individual within an accepting space. Arnold is no longer an outcast.

Though both authors treat the absent parent motif in different ways and styles, both acknowledge the powerful effect that its presence in YA literature can have. A return to the home provides that warm and safe feeling of belonging and validation. As a literary motif, the present parent (or home by extension) allows the reader to explore the ways in which origins hinder and facilitate the process of finding our individuality and independence when we are caught between more than one world and not everything is black or white. Characters such as Arnold Spirit or Kid demonstrate that we don’t have define ourselves by pre-existing traditional notions of identity; rather, we can struggle but construct our own selves in a new fashion.

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