The local author’s new memoir addresses his complex relationship with Lillian Alexie, who likely suffered from bipolar disorder.
Sherman 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.
Then Lillian Alexie died, and an entirely different book came thundering out.
Lillian Alexie, Sherman’s 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.
At her funeral one tribal member delivered this rueful elegy, recalled in her son’s poem “Eulogize Rhymes with Disguise:” “ … 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.”
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She probably suffered from bipolar disorder, a burden Alexie also lives with — “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 don’t know/If she loved me.”
Seattle 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 Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (Little, Brown, 457 pp., $28) explores new material, much of it painful. It is Alexie’s attempt, through poetry and prose, to come to terms with Lillian, and it’s a searing account of his childhood on the Spokane Indian reservation — he was relentlessly bullied until he left the reservation for an all-white school. It’s the story of how violence begets violence — Lillian may have been the child of a rape, and one of her daughters was the result of Lillian being raped.
It’s tough material, shot through with lyricism, insight and wit. Alexie, who appears at Town Hall on June 14, answered some questions about the book — here’s an edited version of that conversation.
Q. 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?
A. 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 … it’s 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. … There’s so much microscopic political judgment going on, and everyone’s scared and angry.
Q. You write about the shifting, elusive nature of memory in this book. How do your siblings remember your mom?
A. They just had better relationships with her. They didn’t try to rebel … 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.
Q. You write that “my father’s drunken kindness and my mom’s angry sobriety” sheltered children on the reservation from violence, including their own and others. How did that combination turn them into protectors?
A. 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 — in a very masculine environment, to have a sweet man in the middle of a warrior culture really appealed to a lot of kids.
Q. You and Lillian had a lot of hard times. Did you and she ever have fun?
A. She was smart and funny and verbally quick — 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.
Q. What was your mom’s relationship with her mom?
A. 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.
The thing is, who hurt her? I don’t know. I can only tell her that she was hurt as a child, but I can’t say who did it. Life was tough for everybody, and we’re talking about a poor reservation Indian woman. Even now, indigenous women are the most vulnerable.
Q. You believe that your mother was a child of rape. She had one child as a result of a rape. How did that shape her?
A. I’m 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.
Q. 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?
A. All sorts of men are that way — they get celebrated for their accomplishments outside the family and receive no judgment for their inadequacies inside the family. To use a word you can’t use in the paper, maybe my mom was just an amazing asshole. … There was greatness about her. There was greatness and horribleness, and it was bound together. Were it not for my tribe’s sexism, my mother should have led the tribe. … 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 been.
Q. How did living with your mom shape you as a writer?
A. 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. I’m 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. … My judgment of her prevented her from seeing something great about her.
Q. Have you been able to forgive your mother? Are you still working on it?
A. I think I got to the point that I am thinking about it. … My whole artistic life is carrying my burdens around — has any artist ever really forgiven anyone?