Book review

This memoir may be the most difficult one you’ll read. It will break your heart

Native American Sherman Alexie’s story of his life with his mother is unforgettable.

On July 13, 2017, a month after he published his memoir, Sherman Alexie cancelled his book tour. On Facebook, he wrote a moving note to his readers explaining why he didn’t have the strength to continue to fly from city to city, day after day, to recount his relationship with his mother who had died in July 2015. He’d read excerpts, taken questions, and promoted the book around the US. He confessed that during the tour he had cried several times every day. He had felt his mother’s presence everywhere.

More than any review, it is Alexie’s note that reveals all the reasons a person should read You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. The raw, visceral grief expressed in Alexie’s characteristic eloquence is a small piece of the emotional tour de force his memoir is. The cover is an exercise in reticence – a white background with thin typography quietly announces the book, the writer, and the genre. In the centre is an old, splintered wooden photo frame which contains a photograph of a smiling mother and a child whose face shows multitudes in the way the mouth pouts downwards and the eyes look unwillingly at you.

A rare voice in the mainstream

Since the 1990s, Alexie has been one of the few Native American writers whose work is widely read, recognised and studied, and brought to the big screen. His depiction of life on Native American reservations has lifted the veil on the impoverished, violent and isolated existence of the inhabitants. In his memoir, he focuses on his mother, Lillian, and other close family who continue to live on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Lillian is one half of a couple who drinks too much. Lillian is one half of a couple who feel the need to take off from time to time. But there are differences. The book opens with a party hosted by Alexie’s parents. The children of the house and of the guests are huddled together in fear in one bedroom prepared to defend themselves against sexual predators. In the morning, Lillian vows she will never drink again and she keeps that promise. She takes off, but with her children in the backseat of her car. Their father always takes off alone. But, despite her abstinence and her loyalty, it is Lillian who is more cruel, more impatient, and less demonstrative.

In the wake of her death, Alexie looks anew at his childhood, at his faulty but deeply felt memories of his parents and his siblings, and at the loss and the violation that most children on reservations experience before they reach adulthood. The alcoholism and the crime among his people is traced to the generations of abuse, theft and discrimination they have suffered. Alexie tries, despite his resentment, to see Lillian in this light.

The publication of the memoir coincided with the release of Taylor Sheridan’s movie Wind River, which is set on the Wind River Indian Reservation. What Alexie describes is what the movie visualises. Paired together, they’re instructive. Alexie’s story is framed by his decision to leave the reservation. But his siblings remain. The young people of Wind River remain and succumb one by one to addiction and violence.

In some ways, the movie is easier to understand. The cold, quiet landscape of Wyoming where one must travel 50 miles to cross 5 swallows the Native Americans whole. It renders them invisible to the rest of America. If you’re invisible, you can be raped. If you’re invisible, you can be killed. In one of the many poems in the book, Alexie writes “On the reservation, violence is a clock. / Ordinary and relentless.”

Looping and lingering

The memoir is structured as a series of remembrances, poems, snippets of conversation and deliberate repetitions. The short chapters and the varied forms break up an otherwise emotionally exhausting text. It also allows Alexie to step out of the role of a traditional storyteller. He’s able to loop back, to linger, to repeat himself, to fume and to grieve on the page.

He questions himself. He notes, time and again, that memories, his and Lillian’s, are unreliable. When he recounts the story of her throwing a Pepsi can at his forehead and knocking him unconscious, he counters it with observations from his sister about how he often makes things up. The voices of his siblings and his portrait of his father offer a different lens into Alexie’s childhood and personality. We are not confined to one view of his world, and it provides the reader some space to make their own judgments. He addresses the criticism he has received for not being “Indian” enough. He acknowledges that he has continued to write with authority on life in the reservation decades after leaving it.

The stories of Lillian’s rage are balanced with those of her brilliance and her suffering. She’s the last fluent speaker of her tribe’s language. She is a prolific quilter. Sometimes, she sells them to pay the electricity bill. But mostly she quilts in lieu of sleep, in lieu of the ability to keep still. Alexie suspects that his mother, like him, suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. But the space he makes to try and understand her is not nearly enough space to fully forgive her.

Alexie’s fiction and poetry feel like they’ve been building up to this memoir. Here is a master storyteller at work, looking closely at his front door, at the inside of his battered car, at the house the government gave his family, at the bed he slept in.

After I read Sherman Alexie’s memoir, I felt pure, blinding rage for hours. His story had seeped into me and I was deeply angry for him, in that irrational, religious way children can be angry and only the child versions of ourselves can be angry. In a word, Alexie’s memoir is heart-breaking – a word often used to describe books that encompass only a few pages of that emotion. Alexie’s story of his relationship with his mother sustains that emotion, cover to cover.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie, Little, Brown and Co.

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