Right after his mother died, Sherman Alexie wrote 100 poems in a frenzy. “Grief makes you obsessive in a way I’ve never been obsessive before, and I have actual OCD,” he explains about the genesis of his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. He felt that after his mother’s death he could finally be honest about the complications of their relationship. But as he probed deeper into the nature of his grief, he found that it extended beyond his mother. “It became not just about my mother but about the death of so much of my tribe’s culture, and genocide of Indians,” he says. “My mom became a symbol of something far larger; my mother became a wild salmon.”
A collection of over 100 linked poems and short essays, Alexie’s book mourns the loss of language, culture, and community of his Spokane tribe. His mourning is cyclical, purposefully repetitive. Some of the pieces read like drafts of others, and an idea first surfaced in a poem will appear as a joke or line of dialogue in an essay. “I knew there was a lot of repetition not only inside of the pieces but also echoes and repetitions of previous poems and stories from my career that had been fiction and poems with a fictional surface,” he explains. “I think the repetitions replicated for me the emotional obsession of grief.” The book teaches you how to understand the repetitions as Alexie uses all his tools as a writer to glean meaning from his memories, examining their every angle.
The repetitions pointed Alexie to a truth about his writing he had not wanted to admit to himself for a long time. “I had been writing about my mom, but I had been writing about my mom as a wild salmon, and had not realized that,” he explains, referring to the sacred fish for Interior Salish tribes. “There are poems in the book from 18 years ago, rewritten, and made more overt in their relationship to my mother.” Alexie deftly uses wild salmon as a symbol simultaneously found and lost. In many pieces in the book, wild salmon stand in for the loss of a woman who spent much of her life making beautiful quilts and performing small acts of kindness to ensure the survival of her family and community, a woman who was one of a few fluent speakers of Salish left in the world. In one piece, Alexie also points out that wild salmon have literally disappeared from the Upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. But in other pieces, wild salmon stand in for creation through poetry, dreams, and memory. In a poem entitled “Creation Story,” he writes, “I catch the salmon / With my bare hands / And offer it / To my mother.” And in yet another story, Alexie realizes he doesn’t know the Salish word for salmon.
Alexie’s virtuosity with language, his ability to write his way around and through murky or even simply blank spaces of his and his mother’s remembered lives, makes him especially self-conscious as a memoir writer. “As a fiction writer, I don’t question myself, but as a memoir writer, I was always unsure,” he says. The idea of dramatizing events of his past in any form made him uncomfortable. “I obviously have an extremely eccentric brain, and my relationship to reality and fiction is tenuous at best,” Alexie says, mentioning his multiple brain surgeries and bipolar and OCD diagnoses. He felt that even dramatizing events would be unfair to his siblings, whom he used as “fact-checkers and counterpoints” of his childhood memories. Their conversations with Alexie appear in the book as a kind of running commentary on Alexie’s unsteady process of exploring his memories.
There’s another reason Alexie is careful about how he portrays his past: he knows that words cut to the bone. Alexie tells us in the book that he learned this from his mother, both explicitly—she told him that English, as opposed to Salish, was his weapon—and implicitly. In an early chapter, Alexie remembers being tortured by a childhood bully who beat him up and shot him several times with a pellet gun, then returning home to his mother, who denied him his story by telling him that the bully was joking. He ends the chapter by writing, “Who does shit like that? Who can be that cruel? / It was my mother. It was my mother. That’s who.” Alexie’s mother may be the most consistent bully in his life, and in some of his most poignant poems, we feel Alexie struggle to release himself from her influence after her death. In “Lasting Rights,” he asks, “As you continue / To make me hold / My breath / Even after your death, / Could it be / that you’ve finally / And strangely / Become maternal?”
Readers familiar with Alexie’s work, especially The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won’t be surprised that bullying is a central topic. But in writing a memoir, Alexie could take a more overt moral stance on bullying than he had in his earlier work. “One of the biggest differences between this as a memoir and my other work as fiction: in fiction you don’t directly address the critics,” Alexie says. “In the memoir, I actually have a chapter called ‘Dear Native Detractors.’ ” In that chapter, he writes, “Why do you shame us? / Why do you shame us for the shit that was done to us? / Why do you shame us, the already shamed, who sing our poems and tell our stories because we want to be unashamed? / I am the Indian trying to be unashamed.” Though Alexie is apprehensive about the reception of his memoir by Native American critics, he hopes that directly addressing bullying will help people he calls “Indian geeks” feel less alone. He sees the healing power in honesty: “to say aloud that it’s become traditional and sacred for Indians to bully the shit out of other Indians. That our dysfunctions have turned bullying into a sacred practice.”
By the final chapters, we see that Alexie has learned how to confront his bullies, but he is candid about not being able to forgive them. His refusal to bend his story of grief into a tale of redemption through forgiveness makes his memoir atypical, dark, and powerful. “The nature of storytelling, and the nature of narrative, and the redemptive arc in popular culture, I was butting against that,” he says. His memoir immerses us in the human, not saintly, experience of desperately searching for the ability to transcend trauma and failing to find it. “I canonize my father and vilify my mother, and it’s spectacularly unfair,” he says. “That’s one thing that I worry about, coming from a matriarchal culture and coming from a family where our mom was the dependable one. Why is she the villain? In the end, it came down to a simple equation: she was the villain.”
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and the managing editor of the Brooklyn Quarterly. Photo of Sherman Alexie as a child is courtesy of Alexie.