You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
by Sherman Alexie
(Little, Brown 2017)
Throughout the years I have read nearly all of Sherman Alexie’s works, taught his novels, short stories, and poems, and watched many of his video interviews. I even heard him speak in person at the Western Literature Association Conference in Seattle in 2007 when he accepted (condescendingly) the WLA Distinguished Achievement Award. However, it was not until I read his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, that all of my conflicting attitudes toward him as a writer and a “personality” coalesced.
In his memoir, Alexie takes us on an emotional journey as he attempts to reconcile his conflicted relationship with his mother, Lillian Alexie. In “Lasting Rites,” when he learns that his mother has died, he writes that he “collapsed/ with grief” but also “collapsed/ with relief.” He continues, “I assumed/ I’d be freed/ From my mother/ And her endless/ Accusations./ Falsehoods./ Exaggerations./ And deceptions./ But looking/ At this book,/ I was obviously/mistaken” (109). In this work, Alexie relives the traumatic experiences of his life and re-experiences his tangled emotions. Grieving openly, he approaches his mother’s life and death and his relationship with her from many angles in 78 prose pieces and 78 poems, the number of years his mother lived.
Two themes repeat themselves throughout the memoir. One is anger (he also calls it rage)–at his mother, at the reservation bullies, and at society past and present. Before Alexie went on bi-polar medication, he explains that he would frequently lose his temper, often very publicly. He writes of his ability to “fire insults like arrows” and boasts of making “a lucrative career out of being a smart-ass who can cuss you out in free verse or in rhyme and meter” (93). He concedes, however, that humor is a crutch and that “If I am being funny, it usually means I am uncomfortable. It usually means I am angry” (338). In “Imagining the Reservation” from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie writes that”Survival = Anger + Imagination.” In this emotional journey of survival, exploring his past and his mother’s death, anger reverberates like a drum beat throughout the memoir.
The other theme is guilt and forgiveness. Alexie fluctuates between anger and his need to forgive his mother for their tumultuous relationship. He also experiences tremendous guilt for leaving his family, his reservation, and his tribe to attend the nearby white high school. In “Ode in Reverse,” his remorse is succinct. “This poem is for everyone in my life–/ My sons, friends, mother siblings, and my wife./ It’s a cuff to the head–a self-rebuff./ Dear ones, I have not loved you well enough” (199). Alexie writes about the walls he created between himself and his tribe. “I didn’t belong/ Because maybe I never wanted/ To belong. When everybody danced and sang,/ I silently sat in my room with books” (350). In the poem “Dialogue,” he writes, “Dear sisters, dear brothers, I am sorry/ For being a ghost, for not loving you/ And our mother as much as all of you/ Have loved me. I’m sorry for being so/ Incomplete” (348). His emotions spill out in his lyric poems.
Since Alexie’s fiction contains much autobiographical material, does this autobiography contain fiction? In the first chapter, he writes that his little sister told him, “You’re always making up stuff from the past . . . And the stuff you imagine is always better than the stuff that actually happened.” Alexie admits, “I don’t recall the moment when I officially became a storyteller–a talented liar” (9). In a fictional conversation with Alex Kuo, he imagines his mentor calling him “the unreliable narrator” of his own life. Alexie concedes that he might be unreliable to an extent, but emphasizes that he has an excellent memory, reiterating, “I remember everything” (10). At the end of the memoir, Alexie repeats this theme, calling his memories his “highly-flawed version of the truth” (403). So how much can we believe? We have glimpses of the vulnerable Alexie, the “Reservation Runt” who admits to being bi-polar, obsessive compulsive, and suffering from PTSD, and who carries a heavy burden of familial as well as tribal guilt. Then we have the performer Alexie, who uses humor as a crutch and fiction to tell a better story. In the end, does it really matter? I agree with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “What matters in life is not what happens to you—but what you remember and how you remember it.”
Alexie’s memoir has something for all readers. First, it is a study of the process of grieving, one that is never really over but, hopefully, changes into acceptance. It will be cathartic for some readers who have suffered the loss of a loved one. The concluding chapter does come to some sort of resolution for Alexie, who like the wounded bird, shakes off the pain and flies away. Second, if you are an avid Alexie reader, this book will add autobiographical dimensions to his other works as well as a stronger understanding of his creative process. If you are not an enthusiast of him or his works, then you will at least understand what he, as well as all of the other children of poverty and abuse, endure and survive. We will all gain a little more compassion for those who, like the salmon, must spend much of their lives swimming upstream.
In an interview with Alden Mudge on Book Page, Alexie states, “What I’m realizing now,” he says, “is that the writing of the book was just the first half of the ceremony. Now I’m entering into the second half of the ceremony, bringing it to the public, starting to talk about my mother, and hearing the stories of other people’s mothers.” However, he recently halted his book tour because, as he explains in a Facebook post, he “needs to take a big step back and do most of my grieving in private. My memoir is still out there for you to read. And, when I am strong enough, I will return to the road. I will return to the memoir. And I know I will have new stories to tell about my mother and her ghost. I will have more stories to tell about grief. And about forgiveness.”