A few days ago I finished Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. It is an amazing and powerful book, mostly about his memories and experience of his mother, a member of the Spokane Tribe. She was a maker of quilts, and the book itself is a quilt of story, grief, and anger in sections of narration and poetry. Alexie, as he does in all his writings, draws us into the difficult and painful complexities of the history and present of our indigenous sisters and brothers and our relationship to all of that, and helps us laugh with him and at ourselves along the way. His own story of moving away from the “rez” is a strong one, but I came away wanting the “rez” life to be equally as strong and feeling his deep sorrow that it is not. He is a wonderful writer, so all the poems and narration are clear and beautiful even when the truth of the story is hard to absorb. And there are many parts that are emotionally hard to read in this book.
There are multiple ways in which we white people of privilege can find some pathway into our racism, and this book is one small way to think seriously about all of that. But Alexie’s book tells of the powerful force of racism in every culture, even Indian to Indian and Indian to white folk. Dealing with racism is a common topic in our culture right now, from many perspectives, and it should be. But this memoir, at least for me, has helped think about that for myself in new and profound ways. I am grateful to Alexie for allowing us this look into his life that helps us look well into our own.
But this book is mostly about grief, about his grief for his often difficult mother, for the loss of so much all the time on the reservation, for the loss of ways of life, and the gift of salmon. In a chapter entitled “Harvest,” Alexie writes about going to the funeral of one of his white high school classmates who was killed in a car wreck. My entire class, all fifty of us, went to Donny’s funeral. I sat in a back pew and cried for a while. I liked Donny. I would miss him. He died so young . And because I’d already been to a dozen wakes and funeral, it felt as if all of the separate grief had become one ever-growing grief, as if each grief was worse than the previous grief because of exponential math. So it felt like my grief for Donny was the same size as all the rest of my grief combined, plus one. But I stopped crying when I noticed that very few people were being openly emotional. I’d never seen that many stoic people at a funeral. I’d never experienced a silent and polite funeral. My tribe doesn’t bury our dead that way. We wail, weep, and tell dirty jokes at graveside. … That was the first time I truly understood that I was a foreigner. I might have been indigenous to the land I itself, but I was a first generation cultural immigrant to the United States. I was now living in a place where people did not grieve like me. Later, back at school, I was even more shocked to learn that it was the first funeral that most of my classmates had attended. Donny Piper was their first death. I thought they were kidding. But, no, it was true. My white classmates knew very little about death. We didn’t keep a tally, but based on the stories I remember from that day, I think I might have attended more funerals than all of my white classmates put together. [Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Little Brown and Company, New York, June, 2017. p. 217]
Often memoirs ask for the reader’s applause. This one asks for our participation, as we are invited into Alexie’s life and grief and journey.