You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie
Published 2017 by Little, Brown, and Company
457 pages, memoir.
From Goodreads: When his mother passed away at the age of 78, Sherman Alexie responded the only way he knew how: he wrote. The result is this stunning memoir. Featuring 78 poems, 78 essays and intimate family photographs, Alexie shares raw, angry, funny, profane, tender memories of a childhood few can imagine--growing up dirt-poor on an Indian reservation, one of four children raised by alcoholic parents. Throughout, a portrait emerges of his mother as a beautiful, mercurial, abusive, intelligent, complicated woman. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me is a powerful account of a complicated relationship, an unflinching and unforgettable remembrance.
As is my wont, I started this book not knowing much about it, other than it was Sherman Alexie writing about his mother. I didn't know the whole 78 stories + 78 poems thing. I didn't know it would be as much about her death and his complicated mourning as about her life. I expected linear. I got spirals.
I read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Smoke Signals way back in the early nineties. I had just graduated from college and was working as a page at a library while waiting to go teach overseas. My library friend and I, a woman I lost touch with after her mental illness landed her in the hospital a few times, saw the movie of Smoke Signals together.
Only that's not possible, because the movie came out in 1998, seven years after I'd worked at the library and at least two years since my cowardice and selfishness caused me to evict that friend from my life.
Much of Alexie's work is like that, a story told and then questioned. What is story telling, what is memory, what is lies, and what is the truth revealed by the fiction? These questions run throughout the book.
Like Alexie, I'm a middle aged orphan. My mom, like his, was 78 when she died. My mom, like his, was a complicated woman, neither simply kind and loving nor simply cold and angry. My mom, like his, was a quilter. My mom, like his, carried childhood and generational pain. My mom, like his, lived her whole life in the Pacific Northwest.
Of course, unlike his, my mom was white, as was my dad. So my experience and my family are nothing like Alexie's. There is just enough overlap that I feel sudden stabs of pain as he reflects on his mother's death and his guilt, grief, and relief. And I can relate to his humor--he is a funny, funny guy, and pain-based humor is, let's face it, universal. But most of what I'm doing as I read this book--any of his books--is bearing witness. I am listening. I am shutting the fuck up and letting him tell me what his life is like, what his family is like, where he came from and how he got here.
I grew up inordinately proud of my status as a fifth generation Oregonian. One branch of my family emigrated along the Oregon Trail. I don't think I really fully understood until a few years ago that my family invaded another culture's homeland. That we engaged in a genocidal land grab. That I am as much an invasive species as the Himalayan blackberry and starlings that fill this state. I am also equally entrenched. There is no more malice in my heart than there is in the thorns of the berry vines or the glossy black feathers of the birds. To read Alexie is to understand how much was lost and ruined when my people came to his people's land.
We have a Holocaust museum in our country. We do not have national museum that presents the horror of slavery. We do not have a national museum that commemorates the treatment of native Americans. What does that say?
It bothers me that Alexie is one of the few native American voices I've ever read. It's unfair to expect Louise Erdrich, Mary Crow Dog, William Least-Heat Moon and Alexie to represent the entire range of cultures and experiences under that umbrella. Can you imagine having read only four white American authors and expecting that you now understood the "American experience"? But I am so, so glad he writes.