Humour and anger combine in this story of the Native American experience
Sherman Alexie has emerged as one of the US’s greatest writers. And because he has always written of the terrible beauty of Native American life with an honesty and humour that makes white people uncomfortable, his work has been deemed controversial. Alexie’s young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has appeared near the top of annual US “banned books” lists. Each year, new challenges arise to his thinly veiled autobiography of his years growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state.
In addition to his fiction, Alexie is also well known for his poetry. All told, he has written 26 books, and he wrote and co-produced the film Smoke Signals. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is his long-awaited memoir. In it, he focuses much of the story on one particular year – the year in which his irascible mother, Lillian, died, but also the one in which he underwent brain surgery to remove a large tumour.
A native American, Sherman Alexie was raised on a reservation, where his family still live. Taught by Jesuits, he became a songwriter, comedian, poet and film-maker and was hailed as one of the best young American novelists. His work subverts ideas of the nobly suffering Indian and often presents the hard reality of urban life
Those who are familiar with his novels will relish the true-life stories behind some of his fiction; those who aren’t will find that his writing provides a powerful alternative to the stock figures of the mythological wild west – the brave cowboy and the stoic, noble Indian. At the centre of the book, though, is his relationship with his mother, a difficult, abusive woman who could perform acts of enormous maternal sacrifice on behalf of her children at the same time as treating them shockingly badly.
Alexie’s recounting of his mother’s death differs from standard grief memoirs, most of which are accounts of love or at least move towards reconciliation. He is angry at his mother, even after her death and despite his efforts to forgive. However, although he comes to realise that the reasons for her rages were understandable and even though he is now a parent himself, Alexie still resents the impact her rage had on him and his siblings.
The book is infused with laugh-out-loud humour. Some of the funniest moments are his writings about basketball, the game he made the centre of the drama ofThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He also writes about the variation of the game of exchanging insults, “the dozens”, that Indians play among themselves, especially when wrestling over whose suffering has been worse. Other moments are more typical: that first phone call from the deceased’s phone, for example:
On the morning of her funeral, my phone rang. The Caller ID announced it was “MOM”. For a moment, I believed it was her calling from the afterlife so I pondered what I would say. And I decided I would go with, “Hey, Lillian, gotta say I’m impressed with your resurrection, but is it a Jesus thing or a zombie fling?”
It turns out, of course, that it’s his sister caling him from his mother’s house.
Alexie’s mother was Spokane while his father was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe. Both his parents were born into a world where the creature on which their tribes were reliant, and about which their holy stories were told, was the salmon – the magnificent fish whose five-year life cycle is the stuff of legend. Alexie writes about the salmon’s journey with characteristic wit.
I pointed out to an audience of 800 that salmon go on their epic journey from ocean into the insane mouths of rivers and up those rivers against the currents, over dams, dodging bears and fisherman – and a lot of those fishermen are Indians by the way – and then through and over and around trees and rocks and pollution and garbage – swimming hundreds, even thousands of miles – in order to fuck.
Alexie’s audience doesn’t find his crudeness all that funny, but he is correct: the salmon’s mythic journey is driven by the need to reproduce. “‘Salmon,’ I said, ‘are the most epicfuckers in the animal kingdom.’”
I have never forgotten sitting on rocks next to the shore of the Stillaguamish River, where the water was only a few inches deep at the edges. The water roared and tumbled over boulders in the centre of the river, but in the shallows I watched dozens of Coho salmon in their death throes after they had fulfilled their journeys. But on the Columbia River the series of dams created barriers that even the most motivated salmon were unable to pass. The Grand Coulee Dam was constructed in the 1930s.
“The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings,” Alexie writes. “That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.” But over the course of five years following the dam’s construction, the salmon vanished. “My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon. My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”
The loss of the salmon was just one of the great injustices in his parents’ lives. Alexie’s father drank himself to death, but his mother stopped drinking when Alexie was a boy. She made her living by making and selling quilts. Alexie recounts a time when, after the lights had been turned off because she couldn’t pay the electricity bill, his mother sewed in the dark non-stop until she had made a quilt that would earn enough to get the power turned back on. And while she did such things, he also recounts the night when, responding to his 10-year-old anger, she threw a full can of soda at him, hit him on the forehead and knocked him unconscious. And then left him there to sleep it off without seeking medical attention.
And yet, even as he writes about incidents such as this, he reflects on his mother’s life, and begins a new poem for her:
I want to reverse this earth
And give birth to my mother
Because I do not believe
That she was ever adored.
I want to mother the mother
Who often did not mother me.
I was mothered and adored
By mothers not my own,
And learned how to be adoring
By being adored.
Mothers and sons. Sons and mothers. Alexie’s memoir of his relationship with Lillian reflects the complicated love that many of us have for our parents. It is his gift to us, through his willingness to be honest without being vengeful, that those of us who have felt shut out of the grief memoirs in which parents and children had perfect relationships can read these pages and weep.
• You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie is published by Little, Brown.