In July, Sherman Alexie canceled his book tour for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, his new multigenre memoir about his mother, Lillian, who died in 2015. In a statement posted to his website, he described a sense of being haunted by his mother on tour stops for the book, and mounting grief and depression culminating in a dream in which he envisioned himself and his mother as characters from the screenplay he wrote for Smoke Signals: “In my dream, I am the one fallen to the road,” he writes. “And I reach toward a vision of my dead mother. But she is also the highway construction worker. And she is holding a sign that says STOP. I think the meaning of that dream is obvious.”
When Alexie canceled his book tour, this review was already on the calendar for this issue of the Mercury, but I hadn’t written it yet. With any other book, I might have substituted it with a piece tied to a local reading or event, but in this case, I didn’t even consider it. Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and has lived in Seattle for more than 20 years, is the writer I think of when someone asks about Northwest authors, and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a work of witness and experimentation that commands our attention. It’s a sprawling, ambitious project—a mix of prose and poems and sometimes even poems Alexie disrupts with more prose. It’s a structural choice Alexie aptly compares to his mother’s insomniac quilting projects, which she sold to keep their family’s electricity on. It’s also a choice that—satisfyingly—demands some work from its reader. But at more than 400 pages, it still reads with the compulsive quickness I’ve come to expect from Alexie’s writing.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a complicated portrait of two complicated people—not just Alexie’s mother, who reads on the page as an imperious, pragmatic, difficult, loving, and drily funny character prone to chronic fabrication, but of Alexie himself. It’s also a tribute to the indigenous women in Alexie’s life—his wife, his sisters, his friends—and an examination of the ways indigenous women have been historically subjected to some of the worst government-issued and interpersonal abuses imaginable. This is presented not with distance, but with close empathy and genuine horror of the kind I’ve only rarely seen from male writers discussing gender-based violence. Alexie compares this violence to what might happen if a society was designed by an evil scientist to be as inequitable as possible. “My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment,” he writes. “In my most blasphemous moments, I think of that evil scientist as God.”
Alexie’s a writer who’s always given his women characters full humanity. He’s also made a career out of work that’s by turns lyrical and plainspoken, despairing and funny, and equally convinced of the world’s awfulness as its potential for transcendence. His fiction has long confirmed that fabrications can be capable vessels for reality. Or as he puts it: “If it’s fiction, then it better be true.”
In You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Alexie positions himself as an unreliable narrator raised by an unreliable narrator, but he’s one you want to believe.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
by Sherman Alexie