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Sherman Alexie's New Book Is An Emotional Memoir About His Mother


Sherman Alexie won a National Book Award for "The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian." It was a novel, and it sprang from his experiences living on and leaving the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. Now Alexie has gone straight to nonfiction with a raw, emotional memoir about his mother. Here's our own David Greene.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: To understand Sherman Alexie's tense, messy, infuriating relationship with his mother, you have to know this. They once didn't talk for three years. It wasn't like they were estranged. They spent time together and still didn't talk. Alexie can't remember why. He does remember vividly that moment from his childhood when a beloved cousin was murdered over the last swig of alcohol in a bottle. He wept and wept until his mom just told him to shut up.

It was Lillian Alexie, though, who kept the family going while Sherman's own father went off drinking. She earned money. She stayed up nights making these beautiful, handmade quilts. And when you open this new book, called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," one of those lovingly made quilts is the first thing you see.

SHERMAN ALEXIE: The endpapers of the book are actually the quilt my mother made for my wedding to my wife.

GREENE: That must have made the first time you saw the book in hardcover very special.

ALEXIE: I've never cried looking at my book so often (laughter). I imagine I'm going to spend the whole summer doing iMessage, iChat therapy (laughter) with my psychiatrist.

GREENE: Sherman Alexie does try to make sense of conflicting emotions. And his book reflects that tension. It veers from prose to poetry. Here's Alexie reading from one of his poems written not long after his mother's death in 2015. It's called "Lasting Rites."

ALEXIE: (Reading) I assumed I'd be freed from my mother and her endless accusations, falsehoods, exaggerations and deceptions. But looking at this book, I was obviously mistaken because my mother continues to scare the [expletive] out of me.

GREENE: And it's not just the memories that scare him. He says he's still literally haunted by her.

ALEXIE: Because I'm bipolar, because I'm obsessive compulsive, because I'm an alphabet soup of mental illness acronyms, I see things. I see ghosts. I don't believe in ghosts. I see them all the time. And so my mother kept appearing in my vision. I'd see her in my peripheral vision in the supermarket. I'd be trying to find which apples I wanted, and my mom would be looking at me, judging my apple-picking ability. So...

GREENE: That doesn't sound fun to have a ghost constantly judging you.

ALEXIE: No, not at all.

GREENE: Well, I mean, you write about how Lillian Alexie was just beloved in the community.

ALEXIE: Well, she was revered by many, but she was also reviled by many in our tribe for many of the same reasons she and I had a difficult relationship. Over the years, she founded the youth club on the reservation. She founded the senior citizens organization. She was the drug and alcohol treatment counselor. So at her funeral, one of my cousins got up, and he talks about how she was so generous but she was also so mean, and that she's probably scolding Jesus in heaven for playing the wrong welcoming song.

GREENE: (Laughter).

ALEXIE: But in talking about the book these last few weeks, I'm realizing that what I've written - it's a memoir. It's about me and my mother, but it's also, on one level, the biography of a great, complicated human being with all this unrealized potential. You know, my mom's face is on the cover. But I'm realizing this could be the kind of book, you know, called Roosevelt, or Churchill, Jefferson - and that because she's only - and I put that in heavy quotation marks - Native American woman from a small tribe in a small place, her greatness in that place went unrecognized. She should have led the tribe. She never did.

GREENE: You know, what comes to mind is when you wrote that if she'd come back to life and you could ask her one question, it would be was there ever a moment in your life when you felt powerful.

ALEXIE: You know, indigenous women in Canada and United States are the single most vulnerable people in terms of domestic violence, in terms of assault, in terms of murder. And my mother was not spared from feeling that powerless against the world - not only against whiteness and colonialism, but against some of the villains inside our own tribe.

So I don't know if she ever had a chance to feel good about herself. You know, in one of the poems in the book, I talk about if I could time travel, I wish I could go back and be her parent. And maybe if I could go back and adore her as a good parent to a good child, then maybe that would have taught her how to be adoring more consistently. I don't know that she was ever adored.

GREENE: I feel like, being someone myself who had a complicated relationship with my mother, there is something universal here when it comes to these kinds of relationships.

ALEXIE: You know, one of the things I'm doing at the readings is I will ask the crowd to raise their hand if they had a bad mother. And very few people have raised their hand. So I think culturally speaking, it's incredibly difficult for people to speak about having a bad mother. And I think it's even more difficult for a man to say it.

I mean, I was so terrified, and I'm still terrified, of the ways in which I might be accused of misogyny. I mean, because the guilt and the shame and the self-judgment I feel even now talking about her, talking about the ways in which I failed her is enormous. Because the thing is, regardless of how bad a mother she could be, at some point in my adulthood, I actively became a bad son.

GREENE: In what way?

ALEXIE: I became responsible for my actions and my own emotions. I did not do enough to even try to reconcile with her, to try to forgive her, to try to talk about it. We never had this conversation that this book has in equal parts self-protection but also about revenge, about vindictiveness. I think as much as this book reveals how complicated and difficult and terrible my mother could be, it also reveals how difficult and complicated and terrible I can be.

GREENE: Sherman Alexie, it is - it's always such a pleasure talking to you. We really appreciate it.

ALEXIE: Well, thank you, David.


MARTIN: That was our co-host David Greene speaking with Sherman Alexie. His new memoir is called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.