Sher­man Alexie is back on the road: ‘I averted a cri­sis’

Texarkana Gazette - - BOOKS & AUTHORS - By Lau­rie Hertzel

In case any­one is won­der­ing, Sher­man Alexie is do­ing just fine.

Alexie’s pub­lic­ity tour for his new mem­oir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” had been go­ing great guns this sum­mer when he be­gan feel­ing haunted by the sub­ject of his book: his mother, Lil­lian, who died in 2015. He started see­ing her ev­ery­where—in a hand­made quilt that hung near a ho­tel el­e­va­tor; in an air­port valet sign that bore her name; in the sirens that went off three nights run­ning, al­ways at the mo­ment he was telling au­di­ences the story of her death. He felt him­self break­ing down. He wept, a lot. He re­al­ized that he needed to grieve in a more pri­vate way. He can­celed his events for most of July and all of Au­gust, and he went home.

It was, he says, the right thing to do.

“For the first time in my life, I pulled off the free­way and got a mo­tel room be­fore crash­ing,” Alexie said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view from his home in Seat­tle.

“In­stead of crash­ing, I averted a cri­sis,” he went on. “Which gen­er­ally I don’t have the fore­sight to do. So I’m good, and I knew im­me­di­ately it was the right de­ci­sion.”

At home, the vi­sions of his mother ended. For seven weeks, he wrote, read and shot hoops. He lay on the couch. “It’s re­ally been a very quiet, typ­i­cal writer’s life for that ex­tended pe­riod,” he said.

Quiet is un­usual for Alexie. “That’s one of the things I think aspir­ing writ­ers don’t un­der­stand—that a suc­cess­ful writ­ing ca­reer be­comes a job.” Tour­ing, speak­ing, in­ter­view­ing, meet­ing fans—“the pub­lic life gets in the way of the pri­vate life,” he said. “And it’s the pri­vate life that’s re­quired to be able to write.”

Alexie was not com­plain­ing. “It’s the prob­lem that ev­ery writer wants,” he said. “I’ve al­ways been re­ally adept at keep­ing that sep­a­ra­tion.” But writ­ing the mem­oir “ex­ploded that bound­ary,” he said.

“I didn’t an­tic­i­pate feel­ing this way. I def­i­nitely un­der­es­ti­mated my mother.”


Lil­lian Alexie’s life was vi­o­lent from the be­gin­ning: She was born of rape. She drank heav­ily un­til one ter­ri­fy­ing New Year’s Eve when Sher­man was 7 years old—and then never again. But her in­tense bouts of rage never abated.

Lil­lian lived her whole life on the Spokane In­dian Reser­va­tion in Wellpinit, Wash. She was a quilt maker and a keeper of the cul­ture and tra­di­tions, one of the last na­tive speak­ers of the Spokane lan­guage, one who al­ways brought food to the fu­ner­als she at­tended (and she at­tended them all).

She also might have been bipo­lar, Alexie said, al­though she was never di­ag­nosed. In his book, he re­counts how, when he was a boy, she once threw a “mostly full can of Pepsi” at his head, knock­ing him un­con­scious. When he came to, “my mother was still quilt­ing,” he writes. “I don’t know if she even moved from the couch af­ter she’d knocked me out. Maybe she’d thought I was fak­ing it. That’s the only way to jus­tify the fact that she hadn’t sought to help me.”

But Alexie’s mem­oir—his 26th book—is not a “Mom­mie Dear­est” screed. It is steeped in love and sor­row and feel­ings in con­flict. Lil­lian was his mother, af­ter all, and Alexie clearly loved her (and some­times hated her, he ad­mits). The book is told

through nar­ra­tive and po­etry. The po­ems came first, “a po­etry ex­plo­sion” in the af­ter­math of her death, he said. “I must have writ­ten at least 100 po­ems in the three or four months af­ter her death. So I thought I had a book of po­ems.”

But then Alexie un­der­went surgery for what turned out to be a be­nign brain tu­mor, “and af­ter a few months of re­cov­ery, my brain kicked in again and it came out with non­fic­tion. So ap­par­ently for me a tu­mor re­moval causes non­fic­tion.”

Now that he’s back on tour, Alexie plans to be care­ful not to con­jure up his mother’s ghost again.


Alexie’s other events this fall will be in con­junc­tion with the 10th an­niver­sary of his award-win­ning young-adult novel, “The Ab­so­lutely True Di­ary of a Part-Time In­dian.”

That book is fic­tion, but it tells some of the same sto­ries that Alexie tells more fully in the mem­oir. “True Di­ary” is a very funny, some­times bawdy story of a teenage boy on the Spokane Reser­va­tion—a boy a lot like Alexie once was.

Crit­ics loved this book (“It’s hu­mane, au­then­tic and, most of all, it speaks,” the Guardian of Lon­don wrote; the New York Times called it “a gem of a book”), but not all par­ents do. Al­though it won a Na­tional

Book Award, “True Di­ary” ap­pears con­sis­tently on lists of books par­ents asked to have re­moved from schools. In 2014, it was No. 1 on that list.

Ear­lier this year, a par­ent in the New Lon­don-Spicer School District in Min­nesota pe­ti­tioned to have it re­moved, call­ing it “im­moral drivel.” (The pe­ti­tion was de­nied.) The book was also chal­lenged this year in Cal­i­for­nia and Wis­con­sin.


Alexie is aware of the la­bels that of­ten go in front of his name: Na­tive Amer­i­can writer. In­dian writer. Sel­dom just “writer.” That is not what bothers him.

“I’m very much a Na­tive Amer­i­can writer,” he said. “The prob­lem is not my iden­ti­fier. The prob­lem is that white writ­ers don’t get called ‘white writ­ers.’ White writ­ers are ev­ery bit as racially and trib­ally and cul­tur­ally iden­ti­fied as ev­ery­body else. A Min­nesota white guy is a very dis­tinct kind of white guy. An up­state New York white guy and a Min­nesota white guy are two dif­fer­ent species of white guy.

“So if you want to com­bat the racism in the lit­er­ary world, white peo­ple need to start iden­ti­fy­ing their tribes. The prob­lem is not that I get la­beled, it’s that there aren’t enough la­bels.”

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