When Sherman Alexie’s mother died, they had only spoken a handful of times preceding that full stop event.
They were estranged by things Alexie spends 454 pages of poems and essays exploring: their commonality of bipolar disorder, her perceived lack of love for him, the fact he left the reservation to live in the city and become an author, and a million other slights and injuries embedded in family and the heritage, good and bad, of being an American Indian. In You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, he seems to be trying to solve a mystery: the mystery of his mother and if she loved him.
At Lilian’s funeral, her mourners are sincere and lavish in their praise of Lillian’s care for them and her protection of their community’s culture and language. Alexie is not in agreement: he lists the members of their family dead or impacted by alcoholism.
“My mother was a lifeguard on the shores of Lake Fucked … My mother, the healer, could not heal the people closest to her. I don’t know if she tried to help us.”
Certainly, Alexie gives her credit where it’s due: he knows if she had not found the wherewithal to give up drinking when he was a child, he may in fact be dead.
He casually accepts violence as normal and uses a poem to talk about the time his mother and her niece pulled a part a cat.
“Would you be shocked to know that I wasn’t shocked
By that story? On the reservation, violence is a clock,
Ordinary and relentless. Even stopped, it doesn’t stop.
But, Jesus, as an adult in the city, I am rocked
By that story’s implications. My mother was not …”
As he peels back the layers, he also tries to figure out how his family and his larger community has ended up where it is. It is a raw and painful journey, filled with tragedy, deliberate neglect, violence, rape, malnutrition, dangerous housing and a struggling community. It is hard to imagine anyone growing up how Alexie did. And that’s the point. He writes:
As you read my brutal poems
About rape and murder
And assault and dangerous
From the earth …
That nearly every Indian kid
Had it worse.”
He makes his points best. I’ll leave him to it.