You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a wonderful, moving memoir by one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie. I first read Alexie’s work in high school, beginning with The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a short story collection about life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. There are some echoes of that earlier work here, when Alexie reminisces on his childhood growing up on that reservation. This book is mostly a tribute to his late mother though, and Alexie pays homage to her with 160 poems, essays, and reflections throughout the book. Some are no more than a sentence or two. Some span several pages. Each is thoughtful, stirring, and unflinchingly honest.
Alexie’s stories of being born with an abnormal brain condition, then growing up incredibly poor with his alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother are an interesting glimpse into his early life and formative years. He consistently struggles with his identity and Native American roots, attempting to understand the violence, social injustice, racism, and abuse that he sees around himself. He is bullied attending school on the reservation, and eventually leaves to attend a white high school. He struggles both with being perceived as too Indian and not Indian enough, a theme that continues into his adult life.
Alexie recounts a complicated relationship with his mother, incredibly strained at times. He recognizes her as being the more dependable of his two parents and yet also describes her as hypocritical, inconsistent, cold, unpredictable, and at times, cruel. She was revered and respected by many members of her tribe but could deal out a heavy hand of justice if necessary. He makes it clear that she was far from perfect. Still, the love that Alexie has for his mother is great, and all too obvious here. Alexie’s grief at her loss is palpable, his respect for her very evident. He references his mother as a salmon repeatedly, explaining that the salmon is a divine and sacred creature for his tribe, “our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.” He comes to terms with his mother as an unassailable part of his identity, and begins to understand and accept her in all of her complexity.
Alexie’s writing is witty, funny, heartbreaking, and unflinchingly candid. You feel each emotion, described in different ways: the rage, the sorrow, the hopelessness, and the reverence. There is a lot of repetition, in themes, words, and even whole conversations, but each repetition is purposeful and meaningful, at times resounding like the beating of a drum. “Great pain is repetitive,” Alexie writes, “Grief is repetitive. And, maybe, this repetition can become a chant inside a healing ceremony.” So, Alexie repeats the words and sentences as a form of grieving, and healing. “…I am always compelled to return, return, return to my place of birth, to my reservation, to my unfinished childhood home, and ultimately to my mother, my ultimate salmon. I return to her, my mother, who, in these pages, dies and dies and dies and is continually reborn.”
Alexie’s story is often heartrending, but he never lapses into self-pity or misery. He tempers his grief with lightness instead, often using humor and wit, and he goes on with his life. In one section of his book, he describes discovering that he had a brain tumor in 2007, his eventual surgery to remove it in 2015, and his subsequent recovery. “I was in great pain,” Alexie writes about that recovery time period, “but I took the time to write down these very words. This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am in pain. I am always in pain. But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home.”