You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir
(Little, Brown and Company, 2017)
Sherman Alexie recently posted a frank letter on his Facebook page explaining why he was canceling the rest of his book tour. By speaking about and reading from his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Alexie states he is “rebreaking my heart night after night.” While his memoir is heartbreaking, it is also funny, uplifting, and one of the purest and best expressions of personal grief that I have ever read.
One of the memoir’s many reviews complains that Alexie doesn't focus enough on the development of his own writing. But this memoir is all about his writing: both in its masterful use of hybrid texts and in the stories it tells. In the book’s more than four hundred pages, Alexie explores the very nature of memoir and the varied forms grief can take as he attempts to come to terms with the death of his mother from lung cancer. He also works through the nature of story and of lies as he confronts the many revelations he uncovers in his journey to write the book.
Alexie has written before that he is more interested in the story than the truth; here he describes himself as “the unreliable narrator” of his own life. Or, as he has one of his sisters say, “You're always making up stuff from the past... And the stuff you imagine is always better than the stuff that actually happened.” Alexie attempts to access “the truth” behind several incidents in his mother’s (and his own) life while also exploring the very nature of truth and how we all tell stories. As always, he asks difficult questions about life, about truth, and about the way we tell stories: just what is it we mean when we say, “this happened,” and what is it that we expect when we read a memoir? Whatever our preconceptions, Alexie masterfully confounds them.
In the various vignettes and poems that compose the book, Alexie attempts to paint a portrait of his mother and their factious relationship while also attempting to answer his question, “Is there a cure for grief?” His prose is exacting, his stories and poems often brutal. But honesty is brutal, and while he claims to “make stuff up,” Alexie is always working to get the truth of his own story. There is a deeply loving respect in the work he does here acknowledging that, “the dead have only the voices we give them” and how this denotes a responsibility and a need for respect: respect for the loved one(s) and respect for their stories. There is also anger here, as there is in all of Alexie's work: anger at his mother, her carelessness with the truth, her own violence, and the broader violence enacted against his people.
As someone who has also just suffered a devastating loss, I can attest that Alexie knows how to write about grief. He is a master of his craft, and while his words will not comfort those of us who are grieving, they will make us weep, laugh, and nod our heads in agreement. Alexie, as always, writes elegantly: in one scene, his mother slow-dancing in her hospital room becomes “the slow motion choreography of the hospice ballet.” But he also makes us laugh, sharing what is most human in all of us. In one brief vignette, “Scatalogical,” he writes of clogging the toilet at a funeral home with a massive “grief poop” and the hilarity that ensues, but he also quotes the undertaker's response: “Happens all the time.” And this is one of the major themes in this memoir: we all have bodies, death happens, grief happens—all the time.
Another reviewer complains that the memoir is too repetitive. Certainly sections of the book repeat, and some stories are retellings of Alexie’s various short stories and novels, but it is the very nature of story, of grief, of life to be repetitive. As Alexie says, “Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive.” He tells us that after his mother died, he wrote hundreds of poems, some of which appear in the book. Throughout, he struggles with the question of truth, of how language works, how stories work, and how to write a eulogy for his mother. For Alexie, as for all of us who write, when we want to understand the world, we must write it. When Alexie tries to understand his mother and her death, he asks questions, tells stories, and writes her into a lasting existence.
For those who still attempt to force Alexie’s work into some preconceived idea of “Native American” writing, there are elements of “tribal” life here, narratives of reservation “blues,” and details of some of the many injustices the white world enacts on our fellow Americans. There are no awkwardly drawn “sacred hoops” here, although there is an acknowledgement of the brutality wrought by those Native critics who accuse Alexie of being “too white,” who do not understand that there is a truth in his stories that goes beyond the positive narratives we might all like to read about America’s native peoples. It is telling how many of the reviews of this memoir do not mention his race or the powerful howl of pain that is central to this memoir, not just for his own personal loss(es) but for the losses of an entire people.
Alexie writes, “My life is miraculous. I tell stories for a living.” But being the storyteller is not a joyous place to be. As he writes in the poem Prayer Animals, “I often wonder why I'm the one who remembers / All the pain.” I would answer, because we need you, because the world needs you. The end of the book contains a gorgeous metaphor of a bird rising to flight, and with it comes an unexpected uplift. Asking again, “Is there a cure for grief?” of course, the answer is no, but this book can serve as balm, a signal that there is hope in language because it is how we survive. It is how we get through: we tell stories.