When the time came to compile our list of the Best Books of the Year, Sherman Alexie's You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me was an obvious top pick, and after some discussion, we made a decision: this was the best biography published in 2017.
We were bowled over by Alexie’s artfully crafted memoir of his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His mother Lillian is both the heroine of this family saga and its chief antagonist. She kept her children out of the hands of social services by getting sober and sewing innumerable quilts for sale. But she also had a volatile temper and could be abusive, traits Alexie traces back to her experiences of violence and oppression as a woman and as an Indian.
Alexie, who is often described as a “rock star” for the wild popularity of his personal appearances, writes poetry as well as fiction and memoir. His books have won several of the biggest literary awards: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award, and War Dances won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. His short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was made into the film Smoke Signals, for which Alexie wrote the screenplay.
We hope you’ll enjoy the following excerpt from You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. At this point in the memoir, Alexie, an eighth grader, has recently transferred from a school on the reservation to a predominately white school in the nearby town of Reardan.
C h r o n o l o g y
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 1980, my father drove my big brother, Arnold, and me from our home on the Spokane Indian Reservation twenty miles south for my first day of eighth grade and my big brother’s first day of eleventh grade in Reardan, Washington. My brother and I became the only Spokane Indians in the Reardan school district, which was 99 percent white. We were brown kids in a sea of white kids inside an ocean of wheat fields. I’d made the decision on my own to leave Wellpinit. But I don’t remember why my big brother had followed my lead. He was a great basketball player, and Reardan had a legendary sports program, so I can only assume he transferred for athletic reasons. He and I were brothers, but I think he’d always been emotionally closer to his reservation Indian friends and cousins than he’d ever been to me, which explains why he dropped out of Reardan before Thanksgiving and returned to the rez school. I love my brother. And I didn’t want to be alone in a white town. I didn’t want to be the only one. So I almost followed him back to the rez. But then I didn’t. Because the thing you learn as a hugely ambitious Indian is that you’re often going to be the only Indian in the room, so you’d better get used to it.
A couple of weeks before school started, my mother’s brother, Leonard Cox, had died of cirrhosis. He was a gregarious alcoholic and gave me onedollar bills whenever he saw me. At the end, his belly was so distended and black that my mother said, “He looked like an orca.”
So I walked into that new school with multiple griefs. As I lost my uncle,
I had also untethered myself from my tribe. I was terrified. And then it got worse.
On October 22, 1980, only a few weeks into school, my mother’s mother, Etta Adams, Big Mom, died of cancer.
Big Mom’s funeral was so crowded with Indian family, friends, and strangers that I was able to sneak out and walk home to mourn alone. Before she’d died, Big Mom had given me a battery-powered wall clock that didn’t work even with batteries. Yes, my dying grandmother had gifted me a hell of a metaphor. But I wasn’t thinking about metaphors on that day. I lay on my bed, held that stopped clock against my chest, and mourned.
Like my mother, I would often turn sleep into a weapon of self-defense. Or, if unable to sleep, I would throw the blankets over my face, turn toward the nearest wall, and pretend to sleep. Like my mother, I would turn my insomnia—my inability to sleep—into a weapon.
After her mother’s funeral, my mother stayed in bed for two days.
Then, early in January 1981, less than three months after Big Mom’s death, we learned that my big sister, Mary McCoy, and her husband, Steve McCoy, had died in a trailer-house fire in St. Ignatius, Montana. The fire started during a party. My sister and my brother-in-law were drunkenly passed out in the back bedroom and had no chance to escape. Mary was my half sister. We shared our mother, Lillian. Mary was only twenty-seven years old when she died.
In six months, my mother had lost her mother, daughter, and brother. I was not a superstitious kid but I worried that I had jinxed our family when I’d left the rez school. But then I reasoned, “Hey, I still live on the rez. I just go to a different school. There’s no reason for our family to be cursed.”
Today, as a nonsuperstitious adult, I still worry that I’m at fault. It’s a ridiculous narcissistic worry, but real nonetheless.
At my sister’s funeral, my mother tried to climb into her coffin. My mother screamed in the tribal language. She wailed in English.
My mother screamed, “Mother!”
My mother screamed, “Brother!”
My mother screamed, “Daughter!”
My mother collapsed and said my sister’s name.
She said, “Mary. O Mary, Mary, O my daughter, O Mary.”
Of course, it was a prayer. That prayer sounded so powerful that I wondered if my mother might bring my sister back to life.
But she didn’t.
Nobody has that kind of power.
Even God has brought back only a fistful of people.
And my mother was not God.
Then my mother wailed so loudly that I thought she’d snapped her ribs. I think something broke inside her. But not something anatomical. I believe that she broke her capacity to fully love the rest of her children. Or maybe to fully love me. Or maybe to fully love herself. That audible snap I heard—that crack of bone—was maybe her soul snapping in half.
That night, I traveled back to Reardan to play in a basketball game. I scored seventeen first-quarter points in a frenzied, irrational burst as I dribbled end to end without sense, fired up impossible shots that went in, and shoved my opponents and teammates into walls and to the floor. At the end of the quarter, I was enraged and exhausted. And I screamed at my teammates. My coach benched me after my outburst and I became a spectator for the rest of the game.
Afterward, in the locker room, my coach said, “I’m sorry I sat you. But you were playing too hard. You were going to hurt yourself. Or somebody else.”
“It’s okay, Coach,” I said. “You were right.”
“You didn’t have to play tonight,” he said.
“Yes, I did,” I said. “This is my team now. These are my teammates.”
I was talking in sports metaphors. But I was also talking about my tribal allegiances. My brilliant sister had died drunk in a fire. I feared—I knew—that I would die violently like that if I ever returned to my rez. I would die in a fire. In a car wreck. In a brawl. By my own hand. At that moment, sitting in that white-school locker room with my white coach and white teammates,
I knew I would never again fully be a part of my reservation. I knew I was going to be a nomad.
I decided to live.
Later, after the game, when I returned home to the rez, my mother was sedated and asleep in the back bedroom.
I stood in the doorway and listened to her breathe.
I mourned with her and for her. She’d lost her mother, brother, and daughter to the next world.
And I understood that she’d also lost me.
She didn’t cry out my name. She didn’t whisper it.
I was now a ghost in her world. She was already haunted by who I might have become. Awake, I wept. My mother, still asleep, reached her hand toward somebody only she could see.
I whispered, “I love you,” and walked, grief-drunk and afraid, into the rest of my life.
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