The thing is, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is an extended elegy for Lillian Alexie, mother of Sherman Alexie, award-winning Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American author and filmmaker. Simultaneously cruel and kind, truth-teller and liar, selfish and selfless, Lillian Alexie helped form the man her son came to be, both by nurturing him and by driving him into the world away from her.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a book I would recommend particularly in audiobook. Earlier this year I listened to Alexie’s frequently-banned and National Book Award-winning book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and loved the cadence his speech gave the book. Here too, Alexie’s cadence and rhythm, particularly when reading his poems interspersed throughout the book, add a layer not found in the written text. There are a few moments when he literally sings sections that include chants.
He’s also not a perfectly polished audiobook reader—there are times he is literally fighting back tears and others when he is chuckling—like when he talks about the cousin who was honor-bound to come pull his car out of a ditch but still angry with him so he didn’t say a word the entire time he was pulling the car out of the ditch. Because these are Alexie’s stories, the emotion adds poignancy to the book. When Alexie talks about his scars, these are his scars. I’m sure the book alone is lovely but the audiobook is masterful and shouldn’t be missed.
Because I listen to audiobooks while driving and doing chores around the house, it took me a little longer to notice than I might have if I were reading, but You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is repetitive, like stanzas in a poem, even within the sections that are prose. In any other book, this would scream of the need for a better editor. In Alexie’s hands, because he is a poet, the loops of thought drive home the points Alexie is making.
The section where this became the most obvious to me (and initially made me check to see if the Overdrive app had accidentally backed up a section) is where he talks about his mother’s and grandmother’s sexual assaults. He cycles back, analyzing what happened, what these events meant to him, meant to his mother, meant for his family, mean for the larger context of the history of rape on a reservation. He repeats refrains while drawing different conclusions each time, such that his work is almost a mind map, returning to the central theme and following a new branch with each section.
Collective Memory and Rape on the Rez
Because of how common it is on the reservation as well as within Alexie’s own family, he spends a fair amount of time talking about rape—how it impacted him, his family, and the larger social context of rape on a reservation including its use as a means to destroy and subjugate and how victims sometimes become the perpetrators. The moment that hit home the most about the use of rape against First Nations came when Alexie read:
If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people. Of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And finally that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people. My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment. In my most blasphemous moments, I think of that evil scientist as God.
While nothing is graphically described, this book is not recommended if sexual assault is a trigger.
In discussing larger issues than just his individual memories of his mother, Alexie’s book is remarkably timely, with chapters addressed to his life as a minority in the Trump era. Admittedly, I was surprised to hear these chapters as it was my impression that books take longer than seven months to write-polish-publish, even if these chapters were a late addition. I am glad they made it in, as the book is better for them—we need to listen to more minority voices telling us what life is like now. What it means that in 2017 White Supremacists are emboldened to throw off their bedsheets and appear in public unmasked. What it means for them to feel safer in society than people of color.
Because the reservation schools were/are so dismal, Alexie chose to leave the reservation to obtain an education and opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. This meant he was essentially the only First Nation person in the sea of whiteness at the Reardan High School. Alexie was apparently quite popular—elected class president, star of the basketball team, and academically excellent. His experience in the early 80s was of being accepted there.
Yet, Lincoln County, the home of the town of Reardan, went 72% for Trump in the 2016 election. What does it say about the people Alexie grew up amongst—that they seemed to love him as a teenager, even with all of his liberalness and brownness—while they voted so solidly against his interests now? For those who would say that a vote for Trump wasn’t a vote for racism, Alexie writes:
Dear Reardan, I am afraid of you. Does that make you sad, or angry at me?
Dear Reardan, dear old friends, dear old lovers, do you realize that when you voted for Trump, you voted against me? Against the memory of the person I used to be in your lives? I was the indigenous immigrant. The first generation of my family to fully commit himself to world outside of the reservation. I was the eccentric brown boy. I was the indigenous leftist. And, for five years in the 1980s, I was a transformative figure. I made that little white town into a slightly more diverse and inclusive and accepting place. Or maybe I didn’t do any of that. Maybe I was just a cultural anomaly.
This is the message the election of Trump sent to the marginalized—whether this was the message you meant to transmit or not, this was the message. This is what it feels like for one man to not be safely in the majority. To realize he is less safe this evening than he thought he was when he woke up that morning.
Within the overall narrative, Alexie briefly mentions a few times his own sexual assault as a child as well as his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I love him for acknowledging these things have happened to him, are happening to him. That you can be a successful novelist/poet/filmmaker, win awards, and be someone who is a survivor. Someone who has a mental illness. That these things do not make you unworthy, unlovable, or incapable of success. That these things are not things to be ashamed of or to hide.
Both in the poetic prose and in theme, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me reminded me of When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. Both take the event of their mother’s death and use it to look both back at life with them and forward at life without them, drawing parallels and connections—for Williams to migratory patterns of birds and for Alexie to the larger socio-political history of the treatment of First Nation peoples—that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to others looking at the singular event of one woman’s death. If you enjoyed one, I believe you’d enjoy the other.
While I focused on the serious themes, because those are largely what I took notes on as impactful to me, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is equal parts humorous and serious. There are numerous points at which Alexie is chuckling, as is the reader. His life and, as he comes to see, his mother’s life had moments of beauty and comedy. She was many things to many people and, indeed, many things to the son who mourns her. So long as a reader is not triggered by discussions of sexual assault, this is a book with wide range and wide appeal and one I recommend whole-heartedly.
Published June 13, 2017 by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Sherman Alexie
Date read: September 12, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars