Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sherman Alexie's memoir: love, loss, and breathing room

In the first chapter of  You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie presents a bit of dialogue with a former writing teacher who finally tells Alexie, "Since you've just invented this entire conversation about storytelling and truth that you and I never had and put it in the first chapter of your memoir, then I'm just going to call you the unreliable narrator of your own life."

This metanarrative play is just one of many indications that this is not the ordinary memoir. Sparked by Alexie's mother's sudden death in 2015, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me is an angry, joyful, bitter, free-wheeling roller-coaster ride through Alexie's attempt to understand his complex relationship with his mother and his heritage. Prose chapters alternate with poetry in a dizzying variety of forms including free verse, couplets, prose poems, haiku, ceremonial chants, sestinas, and a highly unconventional "Sonnet, with Fabric Softener." Any poet could congratulate himself for having written one really good villanelle, but I lost track of how many villanelles Alexie included in this volume.

Alexie admits that his verbal dexterity is a coping mechanism helping him transform personal pain and anger into art--but my goodness, what wonders his pain creates. "I am always in pain," he writes, "But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home."

"Home" was a never-finished house on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where Alexie lived until he left for college and a writing career. He vividly portrays the poverty and uncertainty of his early life; in a poem called "Eulogize Rhymes with Disguise," he describes a time when fear of his mother's irrational and uncontrollable anger led the young Alexie to sleep on the porch with the dogs: 
I never stopped

Being afraid of her. I never left
That dark porch. I am still
Sleeping with those dogs.
Yes, I am always cold and curled

Like a question mark
Among those animal bodies.
The question marks multiply as Alexie tries to separate reality from fabulation, admitting that he has inherited his mother's facility with lying. He clearly admired his mother, describing her once as "so beautiful and verbose and brilliant she could have played a fictional version of herself in a screwball Hollywood comedy if Hollywood had ever bothered to cast real Indians as fictional Indians." However, her best qualities seem intricately intertwined with her worst. Nowhere is this more evident than in "The Quilting," a long haiku cycle portraying Lillian Alexie's tenacity in supporting her family by her skill as a quilter, a skill that created warmth and beauty intermingled with neglect and pain. The poem ends thus:
Square by square by square,
She punched anger through our skin
And turned us into quilts.

Wrapped around our mom,
We quilts absorbed her anger
And her fear and pain.

Wrapped around our mom,
We quilts absorbed her courage
And her love and grace.

Square by square by square,
We quilts honor our mother
And her strange genius.

She taught us survival
With needle, thread, and thimble
All stained with her blood.

Like a quilt, Alexie's memoir juxtaposes apparently unrelated fragments to create a composite picture that nevertheless remains blurry. Part of this blurriness results from a lack of reliable information: given conflicting stories about his mother's birth, which should he believe? Given an absence of historical records about his ancestors on the reservation, what can he know about their lives? "I suppose I could really dig into the research and get stuff as accurate as possible," he writes, "but I like the blank spaces. I like how they feel. I want readers to feel how I feel. I want them to feel the loss. I want them to know how guilty I feel for not knowing this stuff."

Alexie plays with this sense of absence by presenting alternate versions of the same event and inventing new clan names to describe his heritage, including "the Clan of Doing Our Best to Re-Create and Replicate the Sacred Things That Were Brutally Stolen from Us," in a chapter that concludes with a statement of identity founded on absence: "My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss. And loss."

Among the losses Alexie explores is the loss of certainty after his surgery for a benign brain tumor in 2016, which led him to drastically limit his pace of travel; the chapter describing his drugged-up conversation with his nurse is among the most amusing in the book. The comedy, however, is sharpened by the fear of further loss (of life or brain function), which helps explain why this book sometimes feels like a frantic pouring forth of words before it's too late. 

Out of all those losses he creates a memoir that is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. "I return to her, my mother," he writes, "who, in these pages, dies and dies and dies and is continually reborn." He resurrects her as a wolf, a ghost, or even a tree, as in the poem "Pine," in which he prays that his Mother Tree will 
Turn every toxin
Into oxygen.

So that my siblings
And I can finally
And simply breathe.
I hear Alexie breathing in You Don't Have to Say You Love Me,  but I also hear him screaming with anger and laughing with joy. What better epitaph could a mother ever ask for?

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