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Review: Sherman Alexie's 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me' a moving mother-son memoir

LOVEIS WISE   |   Special to the Times
LOVEIS WISE | Special to the Times
Published Jul. 26, 2017

Grief has no timetable and abides by no map or pattern. Nor, despite the efforts of the most skilled storytellers, does it surrender to our narratives about it.

In You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, novelist and poet Sherman Alexie wrestles mightily with his grief and produces a beautiful book, a memorial to his mother pieced together in poetry and prose, laughter and rage and heartbreak. But that doesn't lead to what the emotionally callow like to call "closure."

"Thing is," Alexie writes, "I don't believe in ghosts. But I see them all the time."

Alexie, 50, has won the National Book Award for his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his story collection War Dances, among other honors.

Much of his fiction and poetry has autobiographical elements, but You Don't Have to Say You Love Me delves directly into his own life and particularly his relationship to his mother, Lillian, who died of cancer in 2015.

She was, he writes, a vivid and difficult person. "She was wildly intelligent, arrogant, opinionated, intimidating, and generous with her time and spirit. She was a contradictory person. She was, all by herself, an entire tribe of contradictions."

Lillian was a member of the Spokane tribe, while the author's gentle father, Sherman Alexie Sr., was a Coeur d'Alene Indian. The family lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state, an experience Alexie describes with intensity: "After all, Indian reservations were created by white men to serve as rural concentration camps, and I think that's still their primary purpose."

Grinding poverty, widespread substance abuse, domestic and sexual violence, substandard education, health care and housing: All the dark marks of reservation life were part of Alexie's childhood. Within the reservation's boundaries are two uranium mines, and kids often swam in rivers heavily contaminated with their waste.

The third of six siblings, Alexie was born hydrocephalic and required several surgeries in the early years of his life. Throughout childhood he suffered seizures and uncontrollable rages.

When he was little, both his parents were alcoholics. When he was 7, after an epic, brawling New Year's Eve party during which Lillian punched a woman in the face, she packed up her children and left (briefly). She swore to her kids she would stop drinking — and she did. Her son writes, "And that's why I'm still alive."

Not that she made it easy. Their fractious relationship went beyond the normal sparring within the family: "We Spokane Indians are famous for our verbal cruelty. I'd been trained from an early age to fire insults like arrows. Hell, I've made a lucrative career out of being a smart-ass who can cuss you out in free verse or in rhyme and meter."

His youthful rages were often directed at Lillian, and she was as fiery as he was. Diagnosed later in life as bipolar, Alexie believes he inherited the condition from her. She was relentlessly critical of him. In one poem, he writes that she once told him that he was "13 percent book smart/And 87 percent d--- jokes."

Yet she raised six kids, holding down jobs while her husband bounced in and out of jail. Always, Alexie writes, she made quilts, a traditional tribal craft — beautiful quilts to keep her children warm and to sell to keep them fed.

And when she died, her son was devastated.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me mourns not only for Lillian, but for her tribe and culture. She was one of the last speakers of the traditional Spokane language, which like so many other indigenous languages has all but disappeared.

Not just the language but the culture of the Spokane has been crushed. Alexie explains the essential role of salmon in the tribe's life for centuries, not just as food but as part of their spiritual world view. When the Grand Coulee Dam was built on the Columbia River seven decades ago, thousands of native people were displaced, and the salmon runs up the river ended forever.

"So, scientifically and spiritually, the Grand Coulee Dam murdered my tribe's history," Alexie writes. "Murdered my tribe's relationship with its deity. And murdered my tribe's relationship with its future. ... What is it like to be a Spokane Indian without wild salmon? It is like being a Christian if Jesus had never rolled back the stone and risen from his tomb."

Alexie fled the reservation at an early age, persuading his parents to let him go to high school in a white town 22 miles away. "I might have been indigenous to the land itself, but I was a first-generation cultural immigrant to the United States" when he arrived there.

Yet he became captain of the basketball team, prom royalty, popular. He went to college, became a successful writer, saw one of his books made into one of the best movies about reservation life (Smoke Signals). He married, had two sons, lives in Seattle and is in wide demand as a speaker whose performances would put a lot of standup comedians in the shade.

As a result, as his memoir makes clear, he carries around a ton of survivor's guilt. His parents lived and died on the reservation; his siblings will probably do the same. His sons, he writes, are "urban Indians," and so is he.

All of that is part of this moving, skillfully crafted tribute to Lillian. He writes, "I realized I had constructed a quilt of words only after I'd read my own damn book for the first time in its entirety."

He's well aware of the writer's dilemma of mining other people's lives for material. "Am I dancing on my mother's grave?" he writes. "She would have loved all of the attention. She would have sat beside me in bookstores and signed copies of this book.

"And, if she could do it from the afterlife, my mother would schedule a giant powwow on her grave."

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me surely provided catharsis and healing for its author, but not entirely. A month after its publication, Alexie announced on Facebook that he was cutting short his book tour: "I don't believe in the afterlife as a reality, but I believe in the afterlife as metaphor. And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass."

Getting off an elevator in a hotel with decor he describes as "Bram Stoker's Ikea," he faced a handmade quilt hanging on the wall. At an airport, a valet with an empty wheelchair held up a sign for someone named Lillian.

"I have been rebreaking my heart night after night. I have, to use recovery vocabulary, been retraumatizing myself," Alexie wrote in the post.

So he's taking a break. "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."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.