illustration of main character, Junior, holding a basketball and looking over his shoulder

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie
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What does Junior mean when he says, "When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing"?

When Junior says, "When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing,” he means that the pain and suffering of Indigenous peoples can be so preponderant that it's hard to separate it from farce or comedy.

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During his grandma’s funeral, Junior says, “When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.” The statement comes after Junior’s mom tells the white billionaire that the outfit that he wishes to return doesn’t belong to Junior’s grandma. Once Junior’s mom explains to the billionaire that he and his anthropologist expert traced the outfit to the wrong tribe, the billionaire hurries away. The bumbling billionaire’s absence leaves the funeral silent. In a couple of minutes, Junior’s mom starts to laugh. Soon, everyone at the funeral—all 2,000 attendees—laughs with her.

In Junior’s life, separating what’s sad from what’s funny can be tricky. The extent of the pain and suffering often appears ironic or comedic. For example, the death of Junior’s grandma is related in a rather flippant tone. Junior quips about the preponderance of drunk Indigenous people and how his grandma was the “rarest kind of Indian” for not drinking. He emphasizes the farcical aspect of a drunk driver killing his sober grandma. In Junior’s world, the ludicrous and the lethal mix, as the circumstances of his grandma’s death and funeral demonstrate.

The combination of serious loss and slapstick behavior arrives again when Junior finds out about his sister’s death. Junior’s immediate reaction isn’t grief or sadness. What he’s worried about is his unexpectedly “big erection.” Similar to his grandma’s death, his sister’s death is infused with loony elements.

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