Alexie always thought he would write a memoir about his
father, Sherman Alexie Sr., a gentle man with a lifelong
alcohol addiction who still managed to convey his deep
love to his son.
Lillian Alexie died, and an entirely different book came
Alexie, Shermanís mother, was diagnosed with cancer in
2015 and died soon after. She was a recovering alcoholic
who helped members of her Spokane Indian tribe kick
alcohol and drugs, and an incorrigible liar who could
lash out at loved ones in cruelty and anger.
her funeral one tribal member delivered this rueful
elegy, recalled in her sonís poem "Eulogize
Rhymes with Disguise:" " Ö Lillian was/Our
last connection to the ancient/ stories and songs.
Lillian was/also a mean and foul-mouthed/Woman who
scolded everybody./Right now, I bet you Lillian just
arrived/In Heaven and is scolding Jesus/For playing the
wrong welcoming song."
probably suffered from bipolar disorder, a burden Alexie
also lives with ó "My mother and I were roller
coasters on parallel tracks," Alexie writes. She
and her rebellious son waged a lifelong war with one
another. In the poem "Blood" Alexie writes:
"I loved my mother./I donít know/If she loved
author Alexie has drawn on his childhood many times
before, notably in his National Book Award-winning
young-adult novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a
Part-Time Indian." But his new book, "You Donít
Have to Say You Love Me" (Little, Brown, 457 pp.,
$28) explores new material, much of it painful. It is
Alexieís attempt, through poetry and prose, to come to
terms with Lillian, and itís a searing account of his
childhood on the Spokane Indian reservation ó he was
relentlessly bullied until he left the reservation for
an all-white school. Itís the story of how violence
begets violence ó Lillian may have been the child of a
rape, and one of her daughters was the result of Lillian
tough material, shot through with lyricism, insight and
wit. Alexie, who appears at Town Hall on June 14,
answered some questions about the book ó hereís an
edited version of that conversation.
A few years ago, you told me you were working on a
memoir but were having a hard time finishing it. Have
you now written that memoir?
I had really thought the memoir would focus on my
father, but after my mom died it seemed like something
opened up in me and these poems came roaring out Ö itís
much harder for people to talk about their mothers than
fathers. The bad father thing was common and easy and
expected. The bad mother thing is much more difficult to
say aloud. I was worried that my honesty about my mother
and our relationship would be perceived as misogyny. Ö
Thereís so much microscopic political judgment going
on, and everyoneís scared and angry.
You write about the shifting, elusive nature of memory
in this book. How do your siblings remember your mom?
They just had better relationships with her. They didnít
try to rebel Ö they are nicer people. They are far
less arrogant than I am, far less ambitious, and far
more patient. I think in the end, she and I were the
ones that were alike. My siblings took after my father;
I took after my mother.
You write that "my fatherís drunken kindness and
my momís angry sobriety" sheltered children on
the reservation from violence, including their own and
others. How did that combination turn them into
My mother was organized. And disciplined. So the house
had order, the kind of order that other houses on the
rez may not have had. My father was just sweet ó in a
very masculine environment, to have a sweet man in the
middle of a warrior culture really appealed to a lot of
You and Lillian had a lot of hard times. Did you and she
ever have fun?
She was smart and funny and verbally quick ó she, like
the rest of my family, are amateur comedians. Sitting
around the dinner table, we would have a great time
bantering. We could have a great time talking to one
another, but we never engaged in the same activities.
She was very much a powwow woman, part of the Spokane
Indians. She was fully engaged in the reservation.
What was your momís relationship with her mom?
My parents were both closed off to stories of their
past. When (Lillian) did talk, she told my siblings
conflicting and contradictory stories. Whether
consciously or subconsciously, she made sure we all had
different sets of the family lore.
thing is, who hurt her? I donít know. I can only tell
her that she was hurt as a child, but I canít say who
did it. Life was tough for everybody, and weíre
talking about a poor reservation Indian woman. Even now,
indigenous women are the most vulnerable.
You believe that your mother was a child of rape. She
had one child as a result of a rape. How did that shape
Iím the only sibling that she told that she was a
child of the rape. She told me that when I was in my
teens. All I could think of was that it was her damaged
way of telling me to be a decent man.
You write that your mother had a "focused
cruelty," and yet at her funeral, you wrote that
half the mourners talked about being rescued by her. How
do you reconcile that contradiction?
All sorts of men are that way ó they get celebrated
for their accomplishments outside the family and receive
no judgment for their inadequacies inside the family. To
use a word you canít use in the paper, maybe my mom
was just an amazing a******. Ö There was greatness
about her. There was greatness and horribleness, and it
was bound together. Were it not for my tribeís sexism,
my mother should have led the tribe. Ö Maybe in this
different world, my mother would have been a better
person to all of us. Maybe she would have been a better
person to her children if she had been allowed to be the
powerful person inside the tribe that she should have
How did living with your mom shape you as a writer?
Before this memoir, I had always seen my father as the
primary influencer of my literary life. He and I spent a
lot more time talking than my mother. Iím realizing
now that my father gave me storytelling tools, but it
was my mother that was so raw and so vulnerable and so
emotional. She gave me the ability to reach deep inside
myself. My father gave me the toolbox, but my mother
gave me the soul. Ö My judgment of her prevented her
from seeing something great about her.
Have you been able to forgive your mother? Are you still
working on it?
I think I got to the point that I am thinking about it.
Ö My whole artistic life is carrying my burdens around
ó has any artist ever really forgiven anyone?