You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”, Because We’ll Do It For You

It’s a Sherman Alexie Fest! We’re beginning our 2018 book-reviewing habit with a look at the latest offering of the renowned and beloved Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. While the new memoir about the death of his mom is our primary focus, we’ll touch upon his National Book Award-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2007)—as well others. Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American writer and poet, very often writes of his experiences growing up on a reservation.

Lara: I will start with a confession—a common beginning to our columnsYou Don’t Have to Say You Love Me was the first book by Alexie that I have ever read. And to be totally truthful, I listened to it, which I think is the way we are recommending this?

Jennifer: Yes, we are—and I have mixed feelings about audiobooks. I love them—don’t get me wrong—but I’m probably a visual person, as opposed to an aural person (or whatever that distinction actually is), and I like to dwell on my sentences on a page. But certain authors are treasures to hear, and he is one of them. (I’m partial to audiobooks in which the author narrates—for this reason: I want to hear the cadence of their voices. I’ve got two recommendations for our readers: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. Oh, and Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime. Three recommendations.) That said, I read the paper versions of True Diary and his debut, Reservation Blues. So, your impressions of the memoir?

Lara: I agree that hearing Alexie read his own story—which is not an easy story to tell or hear—takes this up a notch. It took me some time to warm up to it and it took some time for him to warm up to being as vulnerable as he was. By the end, I was so glad to have listened. He’s not just a remarkable storyteller, but a remarkable person. I also love that he refers to himself not a as a writer but as a storyteller.

Jennifer: We should probably say a little bit about the book’s subject. The book centers on the death of Alexie’s mom, Lillian Alexie. It is, in many ways, a narrative quilt about grief (more on the quilting later). As Alexie mourns, he traverses the terrain of his life: a childhood on the rez, a mom who was a liar and a hero, memories that may or may not be true, a drunken father, an intellectual acumen that whisked him away to another world. We see the grown-up Alexie still navigating his identity, the places in which he belongs, the people he’s with, and the Indian man he chooses to be. The book is very, very complex.

Before I deliver any verdict, I want to ask you about your thoughts on his mom. The book’s title is striking to me. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. Why not? Was she a good mother?

Lara: That’s a good question. On the surface, no, she was awful. But then you learn more about her and her history, and I think that’s a more difficult question to answer. I think she was as good a mother as she knew how to be.

Jennifer: I really, actually, admired her. And I think Alexie—in super fine/literary trickster ways—shows how his “unloving” mom (who definitely loves her children) is both his real mother and a kind of symbol for the quiet, apathetic violence done to our very own indigenous populations. A violence wrought without comment, an understated but mighty presence felt. Does that make sense? Lillian Alexie is both literal and figurative.

Lara: I totally agree with you. Alexie’s story is very eye opening. And important.

Jennifer: I really had a visceral and personal response to Alexie. There was shame, I’d say. As it turns out, I have a friend—like a college-friend, which makes him (nowadays) a life-long friend—who pretty much spent decades on Arizona Indian reservations: living and working. . . And I have, to my own horror, never visited and never taken more than nominal interest in the details. My “other life” or my life as a pathetic career woman in international relations has revolved largely around human rights—yet I had entirely neglected to really consider (consider is an understatement) the Native American experience on the reservations. So hearing Alexie was very convicting . . . I’m, like, This is right in my backyard! What kind of human rights advocate am I? I loved the book. I was deeply moved. It’s written supremely; the subject-matter is relevant and heartbreaking and honest; Alexie is a pro.

Lara: My dad and stepmother live in Oklahoma. My stepmom worked as a Communications Director for Chief Wilma Mankiller during her two terms with the Cherokee Nation. So, while I feel like I have more exposure than you do to Native American history, I have also not visited a reservation and could absolutely learn more and expose myself more to American Indian culture and history. I think Alexie is a great start to that and also to the challenges he faced leaving the reservation, losing his native language, and his integration into white America—and eventual rise as a literary darling. I think Alexie is very much an artist’s writer/storyteller, while still being accessible to the common reader, like me. So, let’s talk about his storytelling. What makes you love the book?

Jennifer: Wait. What is “an artist’s writer”? I’m not disagreeing, but what do you mean?

Lara: I mean that he’s likely an artist who is lauded by his peers, while still appreciated by the regulars.

Jennifer: Okay. So what I love . . . Oh, well, so much. I loved lines like this one:

“I want my grief to be baroque . . .”

His grief is, indeed, baroque. I loved the way his prose would morph into poetry, and a poem (“When I Die”) would begin like this:

“Bury me in my city . . .” And end like this: “But whatever happens, bury me near her. Please, please, let me be her favorite ghost.”

I love the way he speaks about his wife.

Lara: Me too! I love their relationship–or what we got to see of it.

Jennifer: In “Sonnet, with Fabric Softener,” he writes:

“Marriage is filled with, among many other things, laundry and unanswered questions.”

“Dear wife, I’m sorry that I am mysteriously incapable of folding clean laundry, but I iron, oh, I iron. Sweetheart, I’ll make your white shirt so crisp and sharp that it will split atoms as you walk.”

It’s electric! He makes laundry sexy! Ironing seductive!

I hung on every word.

You mentioned that it took some time for him to get vulnerable with the reader. I’m not sure I see any hesitancy. I was blown away—blown away—by his capacity to be vulnerable. I talk about a “candor aesthetic.” I think I made this up (I hope I did). I pride myself on my own self-exposure if it serves the art. Sherman Alexie takes first prize in his willingness to give of himself for the sake of his literary work. I will never, ever forget his story in this book of clogging up the toilet at his mother’s funeral.

Lara: The “Grief Poop” was horrifically fantastic. He’s also super vulnerable regarding his life on the reservation:

“My parents sold blood for money to buy food. Poverty was our spirit animal.”

I loved the story about the poor white family (poorer than his) that his mother was putting a food basket together for. Sherman took offense at her inclusion of his favorite cling peaches, especially when they didn’t have a “surplus of food.” It turned out the that family saw the gesture as pity, and declined the offering. When they closed the door, Sherman’s mother hesitated and left the box on their doorstep. Sherman is still pissed that she leaves the cling peaches too.

One of the most touching stories was when he shared why he left the reservation for a white school almost twenty-five miles away.

“I left the reservation in the desperate pursuit of a higher and better education—in search of a more epic life. But, with an equal amount of desperation, I also fled the reservation because I believed that no Spokane Indian woman would ever marry me. Because I was too ugly to be loved by any of them.”

This broke my heart.

And, of course, he found love. And it was with a native woman. But for the record: Sherman, if you are reading this, we think you are a Snotty Literati Hottie—smart and sexy—the perfect combo.

Jennifer:  True that!

And his experiences of attending that white school are fictionalized in True Diary. True Diary is written from the point of view of that kid who thinks he’s ugly. It’s a great read: human, funny, sweet. I read it first, and it’s clear that Alexie has spent a lifetime of being very sensitive to his surroundings.

True Diary Spoiler: Girls liked him.

Other things about this book, the memoir . . . his mother was an avid quilt-maker, and this book is quilt-like, with overlapping stories, threads woven here and there, patchwork, textured, etc. I know nothing about quilting, and I probably just revealed that.

I know, in our conversation, you mentioned repetition. It’s also part of that quilting thing. I think it’s a literary technique—and more. In True Diary, Reservation Blues, and his film (Smoke Signals, which I just saw), there are repeated images and motifs. A burning trailer, a car that someone drives backwards, a dorky sweet guy . . . I love this. I think it’s entirely normal for an artist to dwell on or worry over certain themes or images. There is an echoing effect that runs throughout his work. What about this repetition for you?

Lara: I didn’t get the repetition at first. And then he said this, “Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive.” And that was a bit of an a-ha moment for me. I don’t think you get over pain. I think you get through it, and the act of getting through it has you coping or not coping with it, remembering it, and avoiding it—and often re-experiencing it. I am not sure if that’s what he means by it. But that’s how I interpreted it.

Sherman Alexie is brilliant. There are so many stories I want to highlight here, but we simply can’t. I loved the stories with his wife, the stories dealing with his childhood bully showing up at one of his readings, and the surprising story about the book’s cover photo.

Jennifer: I loved that too.

Lara: Oh and the poetry! The poetry.

Jennifer: And lines like this one:

“I am profane but nearly always for specific reasons. My profanity has an aesthetic.”

Lara: And his relationship with the nurse after his brain surgery! There’s so much to love about this book.

Jennifer: This book is a treasure. Highest recommendation.

Next Up!

In February, we’re going for a hot debut – Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling.

Until then… happy reading Snotties!


Can’t get enough of Snotty Literati? Follow us on Facebook!

Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at 

Want to see what Lara is up to? Stay right here at