Tuesday, June 13, 2017

You Don't Have To Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie

When I was a sophomore at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, I landed my dream job: shelving books at the library. I'm not being facetious. It was (and, low salary notwithstanding, might still be) my dream job. It afforded me hours upon hours of wandering the quiet stacks, investigating several floors of collections, and continued my lifelong habit of randomly being drawn to books for no reason whatsoever apart from some ethereal book genie guiding me toward them. It was in this way that I found Sherman Alexie. I was "shelving" poetry one day. In those days "shelving poetry" was a euphemism for surreptitiously reading poetry on the clock. I kinda want that to become a universal euphemism for something clandestine. "What did you get up to last night, Allison?" "Man, I was shelving poetry, allll night!" I digress.

I fatefully pulled Alexie's First Indian on the Moon. I was struck by its cover.

It didn't look so dated to me then (this had to be circa 1996-ish). It just looked...lonely. Then I devoured the book, standing there in the quiet, carpeted aisle of the Sojourner Truth Library. To this day I remember how the poem Tiny Treaties affected me. I had never read anything like it. I was at the crossroads of just waking up to poetry and becoming a writer and it arrived to me like a clearly labeled arrow sign telling me: THIS WAY. And I have read and re-read and followed his career ever since.

Today is the release date of his memoir, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me. I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy a few weeks ago thanks to the folks at Little, Brown and Company.

Written in part prose, part poetry, this memoir focuses on Alexie's difficult relationship to his mother. Alexie was raised on a Spokane reservation in Washington state and spent his childhood in extreme poverty with his siblings, alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother. He was born with a brain condition that required surgery in his infancy and then again as a toddler. His health issues made his childhood all the more difficult. The issues in his brain carried on into his adulthood and in this book, he also details recent brain surgery and recovery.

As a teenager he elected to go to a white high school off the reservation and throughout the memoir he explores the enormous impact this had on him, his relationship to his friends and family, and how it shaped the rest of his life. Alexie has explored these themes through his poetry, short stories and novels but he never fails to do so with eloquence, making each story feel brand new.

To say his relationship with his mother was complicated is an understatement. But in true Sherman Alexie fashion, he relays his story in a unique and beautiful way through his own memories as well as talking to his surviving siblings. From writing about his unreliable memories of her, to relaying her stories, many of which he isn't sure are even true to expressing the deep grief he feels at her loss, Alexie gifts us with his heartbreaking and inspiring story. He has said in interviews that following the death of his mother, he began to manically process his grief about her loss through writing, and by extension, his grief about many other of his losses. In true Alexie fashion, he does so with heartbreaking beauty.

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