Since Sherman Alexie is a poet and plays with form, I am deviating from my usual reviewing style to better capture my thoughts on his latest book. Thus, a smattering of impressions upon finishing You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me:
* I didn’t want to read this book. A memoir about someone’s mother dying? And not even a particularly good mother? No thanks. But for some reason, I listened to the audio sample. And then I bought it. And then I listened to Alexie tell his stories. And by about the halfway point, I knew I was going to miss his voice when it was over. I’ve listened to over 100 audio books, and that has never happened to me before.
* I didn’t realize how exhausted I had become by the constant barrage of lies spewed by the current president and his enablers until I heard Alexie speaking the truth. Loudly and unapologetically. It made me think about gaslighting, and how doggedly those in power have told us we don’t know what we know. Racism isn’t racism. Violence isn’t violence. Hate isn’t hate. Words themselves are losing their meaning because they can be commandeered by the powerful and twisted into their opposites. Alexie is holding the line. He refuses to compromise on what these words mean. They mean what they have always meant.
* Alexie, a Native American (or as he would say, Indian), has been treated by white people as if he were an immigrant to this country. A judge in a competition once docked points from his score because he had a “distracting foreign accent.” White people, we are the foreigners. We are the invaders. We are the ones who have taken what is not ours. And now, some of us ignore all that history and try to keep others out of “our country” because we fear they will take something from us that is rightfully ours. There is a moment when, as Alexie discusses this hypocrisy, he laughs. I mean, belly laughs. Hearing that laugh gave me feelings I still don’t know how to name.
* There were other moments, as Alexie talks about the legacy of sexual violence in his family, when he cries. It made me wish he were a voice actor and the book were fictional. Then I could laud his performance and exclaim about how well he embodied the character. But no. He is a real person, suffering through the telling of his real memories. There will be no comforting distance.
* Hearing poetry read aloud magnifies the experience for me. I don’t read poetry much because it always feels like work and I am lazy. But hearing Alexie read his own poems out loud, they made sense to me in a way I suspect they wouldn’t have if I read them off the page. If poetry isn’t your jam, don’t let that deter you, just make sure you go with the audio version.
* Memoir is a funny craft. Alexie acknowledges his own faulty memory, exacerbated by brain surgery and his bent towards the creative and fantastical. There are moments in the book when Alexie tells two versions of the same story and holds them up, trying to determine which is the true one. I’m sure he got a lot of details technically or historically wrong. But memoir isn’t about writing down as factual an account of events as possible. Memoirists are all unreliable narrators. Maybe that’s why I love them so much.
* I think this might be one of the best and truest books I have read in my entire life. Not just this year. Ever.