What would we do without Sherman Alexie? Having a long, abiding fascination with Native America, I’ve always reached for his books — and most especially enjoyed Ten Little Indians, his 2004 short story collection. More than any other writer, he has given me an understanding of contemporary Amerindian life.
Now we have his latest book, YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME: A MEMOIR. I have to say: reading it was painful. There is much suffering — mental illness, sexual abuse, violent deaths, bullying, and alcoholism — within Sherman’s family and on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he grew up. Largely this book tackles his rather maddening relationship with his mother and was written after she passed away in 2015.
During the time he was writing this book, Sherman had brain surgery to remove a large benign tumor — can you imagine? He pulled through and luckily is still able to adroitly juggle words into literature. Born with hydrocephalus, he has had a history of brain surgery, and only recently realized he also has bipolar disease as, most likely, did his mother.
Many of the book’s 160 chapters are poems, interspersed with prose. In much of his poetry, Sherman speaks directly to the lingering ghost of his mother, Lillian — a woman who, before becoming an addition counselor, sewed as a way to provide income for the family. On first reading Sherman’s manuscript, his wife observed that the book was constructed in fabric squares, much like one of Lillian’s quilts.
Alexie’s Dad, a gentle soul, was prone to alcoholic binges and often left home. Thus, Lillian loomed large in her children’s lives. She is described by Sherman as emotive, wildly intelligent, arrogant, opinionated, intimidating and contradictory: “She was, all by herself, an entire tribe of contradictions.”
Sherman’s journey through grief is obsessive. “Yes, I have repeated myself,” he says. “Yes, I have been repetitive. That’s what grief is.” I indulged him in that repetitiveness as I waded through his circling thoughts and questions, perhaps especially because the loss of my own mother four years ago is still fresh.
I found some closure towards the end of the book (as I hope Sherman did) in the poem he calls “Pine.” With powerful imagery, he writes of a pine tree near his mother’s grave, whose roots feed upon her remains. He pleads for his mother to become that tree — to “turn every toxin into oxygen so that my siblings and I can finally and simply breathe.”
Although the book covers the span of Sherman’s life and career, there is little detail about his Hidatsa wife Diane and their two sons. That remains private. Everything else is wide open and searingly examined.
Sherman Alexie will always be dear to me. Looking at a photo of him makes me smile. One of the best memories I have of library conferences was hearing Sherman speak. He was so funny, and if I’m not mistaken, the whole audience lost their hearts to him. He is like a rock star!
I want to watch his movie, “Smoke Signals” again. I want to read his National Book Award-winning YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I somehow missed when it came out in 2007. Oh, that Sherman Alexie lives long and continues to prosper! May it be so…
Keddy Ann Outlaw
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.