The cover of Sherman Alexie's memoir: You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

Words by Rajah Bose

Sherman Alexie was the keynote speaker for the 2017 undergraduate commencement ceremony and recipient of an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Gonzaga. It was his first official visit since he began writing poems here in 1985.

I had been bereaving Alexie’s canceled book tour a few days after I’d picked up a copy of his memoir, “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.”

The book was published less than a year after his recovery from a brain tumor and less than two years after the death of his mother, about whom much of which the book is written. After its release, Alexie continued to struggle with the loss. “As I write in the memoir, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time. … I have been rebreaking my heart night after night,” he said in a letter to fans as he canceled many of the tour dates.

I’d already read a few of the stories when I took a drive to Seattle from Spokane, the path Alexie has traveled hundreds of times – his escape route from the city of his birth to the city where he now lives. For my trip, I downloaded the audiobook and listened to Sherman read those stories to me, as if sitting in the passenger seat.

The book is a collection of 78 prose and 78 poetry pieces, one for each of the years of his mom Lillian’s life. Chapters range from a few words to almost 100pages, and while such a structure left a possibility for writerly excess, Alexie, who has proved himself in multiple genres, finds his home in this one-of-a-kind work. He proves that he is not The Finest Native Writer or the Greatest Writer of Color – he’s simply one of the greatest living storytellers.

After nine novels and short story collections, nine books of poetry and two screenplays, Alexie’s first memoir is about childhood on the reservation and wrestling with his connection to his culture, often illustrated through his loose grasp of the native Spokane language, of which his mother was one of the last fluent speakers.

His inability and frustration to understand this language is the same struggle that helps Alexie translate the native experience so well to those of us who didn’t live it. It brings his experiences with abuse and alcoholism and rape and poverty so close that we feel as if we are a confidant and friend.

Alexie’s stories and poems are gritty and tragic, and reading them will have you crying and laughing within the same page. When you hear them in the voice that wrote them, when you can hear Alexie smiling through the tears, it’s as if he could look over at you and tell you it’s gonna be alright.


Watch Sherman Alexie talk about poetry, his former professor, and more

Up next, Gonzaga Magazine will explore the role of music in the life of the University, our grads and our community.
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