Look: Sherman Alexie is a liar. He said so himself. He is also a relentless truth-seeker. In the first chapter of You Don't Have to Say You Love Me—his new memoir about his mother, Lillian Alexie—he'll tell and show you all of these things. His former teacher dubs him "the unreliable narrator of [his] own life," and from there, we launch into a story and characters so large I don't know how Alexie fit them into a 454-page book.
Though many readers know Sherman Alexie for his poems, short stories and young adult novels, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me is his first memoir. It is the story of his relationship with his mother, a strong-willed Native American woman who was one of the last fluent speakers of the Spokane Reservation tribal language. She died in 2015, months before Alexie endured brain surgery to remove a benign-but-life-threatening tumor. He said of his tumor, "Imagine that news headline: Native American poet killed by oxymoron." It is this kind of humor, vulnerability and honesty that propels this book.
From the get-go, Alexie addresses the fuzzy, shifting nature of his own memory, and the unreliable nature of the stories he's been told. When he is young, Sherman's mother tells him she is a child of rape. After her death, he learns that others believe she was the product of an affair, and that his older half-sister was conceived through rape. Alexie revisits this devastating story three times in his memoir, making additions and revisions to get as close as he can to the emotional truth underneath the conflicting stories.
I'll admit I found the first chapters disorienting. I kept waiting for a single narrative thread to emerge. You know, like one major event that the rest of the book unravels, in chronological order? Eventually, I came to understand the patchwork nature of this book's structure. Halfway through, Alexie records his wife's observation: "Your book is constructed in fabric squares like one of your mom's quilts." His is a patchwork narrative. The more stories he tells, the more stunning the bigger picture becomes.
Though the book has a fat page count, there is plenty of space in those pages. I wanted to jump up and cheer when I discovered a healthy third of the chapters are poems. Poems! I have never seen a writer weave poetry and prose together so fluidly. Some of those poems read like prayers. Some comment on events like a Greek chorus. Some feel like spells, or curses. But they are all bits of a larger fabric, painstakingly stitched together the way Lillian Alexie sewed and sold quilts to buy food, pay rent or get the electricity turned back on.
There's a truism I've heard about memoir: that the best ones are simultaneously about the self and something far larger. Alexie wrote a book about himself. He wrote a book about his mother. He wrote a book about our nation. A book about injury and grief.
"Yes, I have repeated myself," Alexie writes. "Yes, I have been repetitious. That's what grief is." Grief is repetition, and in this book, the repetition creates weight, space, gravity and reverence.
This story is more than a quilt or a curse or a chorus or a spell or a prayer. It is all of those things, but it is first and foremost an honor song for Lillian. In the end, what better honor can you give someone than understanding? You may not say I agree but at least you can understand.
Writing about our lives won't end racism or violence, but after reading Alexie's book, I understand ten times as much about what it was like to grow up on the Spokane Reservation in the '70s. One story, one human's understanding expanded. That's something.
This is a book about loss, which means it's a book about love. And because it's a book by Sherman Alexie, it's brave and wild and equal parts reverent and inappropriate. Evidence: There is a chapter about taking a grief poop in the bathroom at his mother's funeral. (I won't say more—I am not going to ruin that gem for you.)
I had the rare pleasure of hearing Alexie speak at the Wilma a few years ago, and I have never laughed and cried so hard at a single event in my life. He is a whole other kind of powerful on stage, and if you are in the Missoula area on July 7, you have the rare chance to see him speak. Do it for yourself. Do it for your country. Do it because it feels good.
Sherman Alexie's scheduled reading at the University Center Ballroom Fri., July 7, has been cancelled due to illness.