The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
How we cite our quotes:
I was born with water on the brain.
Okay, so that's not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors' fancy way of saying brain grease. And brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine. It keeps things running smooth and fast. But weird me, I was born with too much grease inside my skull, and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works. My thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded.
My brain was drowning in grease.
But that makes the whole thing sound weirdo and funny, like my brain was a giant French fry, so it seems more serious and poetic and accurate to say, "I was born with water on the brain." (1.1-1.3)
The very first sentence of the novel informs us not of our narrator's name, age, or occupation, but that he was born with too much water on his brain. That is, Arnold is a hydrocephalic, a medical condition that puts him at risk of brain damage and makes him susceptible to seizures. Arnold tells us this information up front, so we can guess that hydrocephalus is very important to how Arnold sees himself – and how others see him as well.
Speaking of which, how does Arnold perceive himself? Notice how many times he uses the word "weirdo." Take note too of the images he employs to describe himself and his brain. Why does he use the image of a car? A French fry?
Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day. They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.
I'm not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I'd have to fill with stutters and lisps, and then you'd be wondering why you're reading a story written by such a retard.
Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?
We get beat up.
At least once a month.
Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club.
Sure I want to go outside. Every kid wants to go outside. But it's safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and read books and draw cartoons. (1.39-1.42)
While Arnold's humor is in full force, we can also see that this sweet, funny kid has some issues with self esteem. Others on the reservation call him a "retard" – and bully and abuse him. This leads Arnold to self-deprecatingly give himself the label of "retard."
Why do you think Arnold's physical differences make him so vulnerable on the reservation? And why do you think Arnold cracks so many jokes (e.g., he belongs to the "Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club") about what seems to be a pretty serious situation? How does Arnold cope with isolation? Do reading and writing offer him refuge?
Okay, so now you know that I'm a cartoonist. And I think I'm pretty good at it, too. But no matter how good I am, my cartoons will never take the place of food or money. I wish I could draw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills, and perform some magic trick and make it real. But I can't do that. Nobody can do that, not even the hungriest magician in the world.
I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation. (2.1-2.2)
The economic difficulties Arnold and his family face nearly squash any positive sense of self Arnold has. Poverty is intense, and it totally and completely limits Arnold's choices. Notice here how he starts to identify himself as a cartoonist, but immediately changes gears, writing that he is simply a "poor-ass reservation kid." Though drawing cartoons brings light into Arnold's world, that light sometimes has trouble shining through the darkness of poverty.