Novelist and Poet Sherman Alexie

The novelist and poet discusses his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, a PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Sherman Alexie is a poet, short story writer, novelist and performer. A Spokane/Couer d'Alene Indian, Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alexie has been an urban Indian since 1994 and lives in Seattle with his family.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with acclaimed writer Sherman Alexie. Over the past 20 years he’s garnered high praise and numerous awards for his poems and short stories about contemporary Native American life. He joins us tonight to discuss his first work of nonfiction, a very personal and moving memoir titled “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Sherman Alexie coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: So pleased to welcome novelist and poet Sherman Alexie back to this program. With more than two dozen published works, he’s out now with a memoir. It’s titled “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” It’s a collage of essays and poems about his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and his complicated relationship with his mother.

Sherman, an honor to have you back on this program, sir.

Sherman Alexie: Thank you. Great to be back, Tavis.

Tavis: I want to go right back. Jonathan, put this cover back up for me. Because when I saw — I’m curious as to how you felt when you saw the cover art. But when I saw it, that broken frame photo in the center, and that title, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” before I even got into this thing I was — it hit me.

Sherman Alexie: It made me cry the first time I saw the cover art.

Tavis: Yeah.

Sherman Alexie: And it’s exactly the first draft of the cover art.

Tavis: Yeah.

Sherman Alexie: It was so perfect, and it made me cry. And that is not me on the cover with my mother. That is my big sister. The broken frame, and two women who died. My big sister died in a house fire. My mother died in July of 2015 of cancer. So it is a photo of a mother and daughter who are gone. And the loss, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” which is a Dusty Springfield song, one of the sadder songs ever recorded. And so the entire holistic — it just encapsulates all my grief in one image.

Tavis:  Why did you go with that title?

Sherman Alexie: You know I searched, and searched, and searched, and then I looked up the top 10 hits of my birth year, 1966.

Tavis: Yeah.

Sherman Alexie: And “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” was number two. And as soon as I read it on the list, I remember hearing it from my youth. And my mom sang a lot, so my mom was always singing the top 40 songs. So I remember her singing “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”

And in fact, as soon as I titled that, then I started remembering other songs she used to sing that I include in the book. You know, she sang “I’m Not Lisa” by Jessi Colter. She sang a lot of Linda Ronstadt. She sang Dolly Parton. So the idea of naming this book after a pop song just seemed perfect.

Tavis: Yeah. There’s a piece on page — what is that? Page 113, I think, a piece that I want you to read, because I think it probably encapsulates pretty nicely what this story is that you tell in the book. But the piece is called “Utensil,” and I wonder if you’d read it for me?

Sherman Alexie: Utensil. While feasting on venison stew after we buried my mother, I recognized my spoon, and realized my family had been using it for at least 42 years. How does one commemorate the ordinary? I thanked the spoon for being a spoon and finished my stew. How does one get through a difficult time? How does the son properly mourn his mother? It helps to run the errands, to get done. I washed that spoon, dried it, and put it back in the drawer, but I did it consciously, paying attention to my hands, my wrists, and the feel of steel against my fingertips. Then my wife drove us back home to Seattle where I wrote this poem about ordinary grief. Thank you, poem, for being a poem. Thank you, paper and ink, for being paper and ink. Thank you, desk, for being a desk. Thank you, mother, for being my mother. Thank you for your imperfect love. It almost worked. It mostly worked, or partly worked. It was almost enough.

Tavis: Okay.

Sherman Alexie: Yeah.

Tavis: Let me get myself together here. Why was your mother’s love imperfect?

Sherman Alexie: Like many Native American women now, and in the past, she was a target for all sorts of violence, and oppression, and racism, and misogyny. And I think the pain she endured growing up prevented her in some ways from being able to fully express her love, from being able to fully trust the world. So I think in some ways she was not built to be a mother. It was more like blue-collar labor for her, I think. I think she had to concentrate.

And the thing she ended up being, the thing she could do was she was dependable. She was a worker. My father was a random alcoholic. My mother sobered up and became the breadwinner. She was the one who paid the bills. She was the one who bought the groceries. She was the one who kept the electricity on. So in a lot of ways she ended up being my mother and my father. She ended up fulfilling every gender role inside of our family, and she did it without being very affectionate.

I can remember her hugging me twice in my life. So it’s interesting to talk about a mother that way, of not having an affectionate mother. And I get very jealous when I meet people who have or have had affectionate mothers. I did not.

Tavis: This is real sensitive territory, for you because you wrote it, and for me for different reasons. But I wonder whether or not you think your mother was — what I mean is — I don’t want to come with a question. Why do you think your mother was not affectionate? Was it — it wasn’t intentional?

Sherman Alexie: I think because of the abuse, because she was sexually abused. Because she was raped, I think it cut off a part of her emotional life. I think it prevented her from fully expressing herself emotionally. I think her scar tissue was very deep.

Tavis: Did your siblings feel the same way?

Sherman Alexie: It’s interesting. In writing the memoir, and as I was writing it I was calling my sisters a lot. My brothers less so, but my sisters a lot to fact check myself, to test our memories against each other. And in writing the memoir I came to realize that my siblings were much better children than I was, and that my mother was a much better mother to them.

And what I’ve come to realize is that my siblings, my brothers and sisters, are far more like my father, who was a very passive, gentle person. And my mother was this arrogant, opinionated, domineering, aggressive, ambitious person, and I’m very much like her. And also, I think she was undiagnosed bipolar, and I am diagnosed bipolar. So I think — because I say in the book that we lived our lives on parallel roller coaster tracks, so I think we were built to fight each other.

Tavis: When you say that your siblings were better children, by that you mean what?

Sherman Alexie: Sure. They were more affectionate. They stayed. They saw her more. They took care of her more. They were there for her. They were far more dependable, and far more of an everyday presence in her life than I was.

Tavis: Is that an indictment against yourself?

Sherman Alexie: I would call it that, yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

Sherman Alexie: You know, one of the things in writing a memoir, I didn’t want to come off as heroic. I wanted this memoir to be about the ways in which I failed my mother, as well as the ways in which I think she failed me. And I did fail her.

You know, at some point, no matter how bad a mother she was to me as a child, at some point as an adult I chose to be a bad son. I chose not to pursue forgiveness. I chose to keep my anger precious. And so in that way I failed her.

Tavis: By keeping your anger precious you mean?

Sherman Alexie: Holding onto it, valuing it, making my anger toward her such a part of the way I lived in the world that I couldn’t see any other alternative. I couldn’t forgive. I couldn’t forget. I couldn’t let it go.

Tavis: The obvious question, as you well know, that every viewer no doubt has right now watching this is well what happened? What happened? If you indicted yourself into your adulthood, what happened to make you even want to, much less to sit down and write it, but even to want to dig into your past?

Sherman Alexie: Well, my mother died in July of 2015, and poems just roared out of me, about 75 poems in about a month. And I’d never written about her. I’d only written fiction before. This is my first nonfiction. And I’d never written about her even in fictional form, not really. She was always absent from my work. I was scared of her. I was scared of her magic, and her power, and her rage, and her love. And when she died, it gave me permission to start thinking about her.

And one of the amazing things I realized is I’d spent my whole career thinking my father was the primary engine behind my storytelling. He was the one who talked. He was the one who went on long drives with me, and told me long stories about his childhood. He was the one who gave me autobiography, and my mom didn’t.

But in writing the memoir I realized that she, the artistic force, you know, she was one of the last fluent speakers of our tribal language. I mean, they’re resurrecting it now, but she was one of the last old-time speakers. She was a powwow dancer. She was a powwow person. She was traditional. She was one of the elders in the tribe, all this knowledge. She was the one who most directly connected to thousands and thousands of years of tribal traditions, storytelling traditions. And I never thought of her in that way until after she was gone.

Tavis: How much of your relationship, or lack thereof, with your mother had to do with what you referenced a moment ago, Sherman, and that is your fear of her, your being scared of her?

Sherman Alexie: Oh, her judgment. Her judgment. Not being good enough, not being loved enough, not loving her enough. I never felt like I measured up to her. And the thing is, because of her, what I think was her bipolar disorder, she was completely emotionally unpredictable. So she could rage at you for no reason. She could be tender. She would work all night on quilts, to make money so we’d have food to eat. So she was incredibly dedicated to one thing at a time, or to everything at a time. And you could never get a handle on her. And it was just easier to run away from her than it was to be in her presence.

Tavis: I don’t know that I discovered this going through the text, going through the book, but how much of the difference — you have, obviously, you mentioned you have sisters and brothers. But how much of the difference in the relationship between you and your mom had to do with your gender? I’m just trying to get at — you know what I’m getting at here? Your sisters had a different rapport with your mother.

Sherman Alexie: And my brothers had a different…

Tavis: Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sherman Alexie: You know, it’s — I had a really tough time writing this book and being honest about my mother. I was very worried that it would come off as being misogynistic, that it would become as a son being mad at a woman, a man being mad at a woman. So I was very concerned about that.

But I think it was less about gender and more about that we shared a mental illness. I think it ended up being that she and I were the most alike, and I think that’s why we fought so often. I’ve always thought of myself as being my father’s son, but one of the working titles of this memoir was “My Mother’s Son.” And I think that’s what I’ve discovered that I am. That she is my primary parent.

Tavis: If your mother was undiagnosed bipolar, as you believe she was, and you’ve already acknowledged that you are diagnosed bipolar, I don’t know that there’s a real answer to this question. I’m going to ask it anyway, which is if you could go back and change anything about that relationship, do you know what that would be?

Sherman Alexie: I write about it in the book. You know, the thing — one of the things I really realized, I don’t think my mother was ever adored.

Tavis: Yeah.

Sherman Alexie: You know, and being a native woman for her generation, any generation, nobody adored her. And I think if somebody had adored her, if there’d been people there to adore her, that she could’ve been somebody incredible, amazing. She had all these gifts and talents and ambitions. And I think if somebody had been there to protect her, if somebody had been there to protect her dreams, to protect her soul and her heart, I think she would’ve been magnificent.

Tavis: All right. I say this respectfully, that’s a lot of baggage to carry through life, as if you didn’t already know that. That’s a lot of luggage, Sherman.

Sherman Alexie: Yes.

Tavis: When, where, how did you come to believe, accept, or become courageous enough to know, or to convince yourself, that with all that baggage, you could still be a worthy partner in a relationship?

Sherman Alexie: I’m still working on that. You’d have to ask my wife. I’ve been married for 24 years. I’ve been married for almost half my life, so I think I’m doing okay.

Tavis: Something’s working.

Sherman Alexie: And…

Tavis: But that might, I mean, I don’t know, you tell me. Was that ever intimidating?

Sherman Alexie: Yes. I’m married to an indigenous woman. I married a Native American woman. We have two sons. And often, I mean, my wife is also an incredibly powerful…

Tavis Smiley: You could still be a worthy partner in a relationship.

Sherman Alexie: I’m still working on that. You’d have to ask my wife. I’ve been married for 24 years. I’ve been married for almost half my life, so I think I’m doing okay.

Tavis: Something’s working.

Sherman Alexie: And…

Tavis: But that might — I mean, I don’t know. You tell me. Was that ever intimidating?

Sherman Alexie: Yes. I’m married to an indigenous woman. I married a Native American woman. We have two sons. And often, I mean, my wife is also an incredibly powerful, magnetic, charismatic person, and at times she scares me and intimidates me in similar ways.

But in writing this book, and writing about my relationship with my wife, and meeting her, and sharing this journey with her, with my mother’s death, and with examining my mother’s death, I think we’ve become closer. And she read — I didn’t let her read the book until…

Tavis: Until you were done with it?

Sherman Alexie: Until I was done. And she read it, and the thing she said is — the first thing she said is, “I feel cherished.” And I thought, “Well, good, because you are.”

Tavis: Maybe you said more than that, and this is on television, so you don’t have to say anymore if that’s all you want to say. But it seems to me that if your wife, given all that you’ve described to us tonight about your mother, and what you did not feel, what you did not receive, if your wife reads your manuscript, and she says nothing else other than, “I feel cherished,” that’s got to feel like — that’s powerful. That’s arresting. I mean, it’s like…

Sherman Alexie: My most important audience.

Tavis: Yeah.

Sherman Alexie: My most important reader, the most important person in my life, and I wrote something that honors her. And she feels honored, so yes.

Tavis: So my point is there’s obviously one less native woman who was made to feel the way your mother felt.

Sherman Alexie: I hope so, yes. And I think my sisters as well, my little sisters. They’re twins. I think I’m loving the reviews, and people talking about how funny, and smart, and witty they are in the book, and how they challenge me, and they contradict me, and they mock me. I think their power comes through in the book as well, my amazing sisters.

Tavis: And talk — go ahead.

Sherman Alexie: And Shelly Boyd, who was the wife of one of my best friends who died, and she’s learning the language, and became very close to my mother. And I think her power, and her efforts to speak Salish again, and to establish a school to teach younger people to speak our tribal languages again. So I think the power of women is in the book.

Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of the power of women, we talked about one of those women on the front of the book, your mother.

Sherman Alexie: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me about the other.

Sherman Alexie: My big sister, Mary, my half sister who was this, you know, as I say in the book, my memories of her are of this incredibly romantic figure. I mean, she ran away to Haight-Ashbury in the 1970s and got pregnant. And she’s incredibly beautiful like my mother, and smart, and charming. And I didn’t know then that romantic heroes are often aimless nomads in disguise. And my sister died in a drunken house fire with her husband when I was 14, so it was one of the major deaths in my life, one of the major griefs.

And she was the first person who ever told me I could be a writer. I’d written a little short story in fourth grade, a Halloween story. And she read it, and it scared her, she said.

Tavis: Mission accomplished.

Sherman Alexie: Yes.

Tavis: If the Halloween story scared you, you did your job.

Sherman Alexie: And, you know, and at that point as a poor reservation Indian kid, the idea of becoming a writer, the idea of becoming anything seemed like going to the moon or going to Mars. So the fact that my sister said that to me all those years ago resonated.

And she died the year I left the reservation school to go to the white high school on the border. I lost eight people in two years, close relatives. So it felt like a curse, like me leaving had caused it to happen. Of course that’s a narcissistic way of looking at it, but it’s hard not to look at it that way when you’re 14 and 15 years old.

Tavis: I’m not so sure that’s narcissistic. I’m reminded now of the late, great Maya Angelou, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” You know her story, that she went quiet, because she thought her voice had killed the man who had raped her. And I didn’t see that as narcissism anymore than I see this as narcissism. I don’t see it that way at all.

But speaking of your leaving to go to the white high school outside the reservation, for those of us who are fans of your work, and know in detail the trouble you’ve gotten into with people, some people won’t — some schools won’t let your book be read.

Sherman Alexie: Yes.

Tavis: Your part-time Indian notion has got you in some hot water here and there. But I wonder how much of this relationship with your mom, or lack thereof, the stories you tell in this beautiful book, how much of that influenced your decision to get off the reservation. And whether or not revisiting that childhood has made you rethink a decision obviously that you can’t change at this point. But have you rethought that decision?

Sherman Alexie: Well, my mom always, you know, half in admiration and half insultingly, always said I was born with a suitcase in my hand, that I was always leaving. And my sisters, during the course of writing this book, said that to me in various ways too, that they always knew I was leaving. So I think I was born to leave.

And I’ve lived in the city now for 25 years. And I realized that a lot of my sadness as a kid certainly had a lot to do with poverty, and alcohol addiction, and my mental illnesses, and all the brain surgeries I had. But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was born to live in the city. We often think of Native Americans as being born to live, you know, in the wilderness, in the forests, in the deserts, closely connected to nature. But I think I was born to live in crowds. I’m happiest in crowds.

Tavis: Can you leave your people without leaving your people? And when you leave your people, can they accept that you’re not leaving your people?

Sherman Alexie: When you come from a very specific tribe like I do, I think you do leave your people. And then I think you spend the rest of your life reclaiming pieces of what you left behind. And I think every one of my books is an effort to reclaim something I left behind, and I think this book is an effort to reclaim my mother.

Tavis: As you reclaim your mother, what do you intend to do with her?

Sherman Alexie: I’m just starting that ceremony. I realize writing the book was the first half of this. And now, going out into the world with it, talking to you, talking to audiences, having people read it, responding, and thinking, and hearing other people’s stories about their relationship with their mothers, I think that’s where I’ll be carrying her into all these other stories I’m going to hear.

Tavis: We talked a little bit, Sherman, about how your life has impacted your relationship with your wife. We talked a bit about that. I’m curious to know how it’s impacted your choices as a parent. Based upon your back-story, what kind of parent did you want to be? And have you become that, or are you becoming the kind of parent you wanted to be?

Sherman Alexie: Well, we have two sons. You can’t predict, you know, who you’re going to have. We have two sons. So I certainly wanted to raise them to be very respectful of women, to be very respectful of native women in particular. And I think we’ve done that. I wanted kindness above all else, kindness. I wanted to have kind men, and I think my wife and I have done a good job.

Tavis: So that’s not oxymoronic to be kind and a male.

Sherman Alexie: Exactly.

Tavis: Okay.

Sherman Alexie: Kind men. Kindness overall.

Tavis: Yeah. All right. All these years later — I’ve spent some time on reservations here or there for interviews and other events. I was at Standing Rock last year as a matter of fact.

Sherman Alexie: Yeah.

Tavis: What’s your sense of how much better, worse, the same women today are treated on the reservation?

Sherman Alexie: You know, Native American women, socially speaking, deal with more violence and more poverty, more social problems than any other group of people in the United States and Canada. They are the primary targets of so much hatred and so much animosity within and from inside and outside the communities. And that has gotten better somewhat. At least there’s more voices talking about it. But it still persists.

In fact, in Canada, you know, there are dozens, and dozens, and dozens of indigenous women who’ve gone missing. And, you know, every day I see on the Internet somebody else has gone missing. So it continues to be an epic problem for indigenous women, and we need to continue to speak about it, to use our voices to promote the voices of indigenous women, and their stories, and their power, and to celebrate and honor them, and to listen to indigenous women.

Tavis: Can I have my book back, please?

Sherman Alexie: Yes, you can.

Tavis: Thank you. It is a powerful book, and I suspect this conversation, I hope, at least to some degree has convinced you of that, so much so that you might want to read it. It’s called “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” It’s a memoir by the brilliant award-winning writer, Sherman Alexie, winner of the National Book Award. Sherman, great conversation.

Sherman Alexie: Thank you.

Tavis: Thanks for coming to see us.

Sherman Alexie: Thank you so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

Tavis: Hi, I’m Tavis Smiley. Join me next time for a conversation with legendary film producer and director Roger Corman, and blues giants Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. That’s next time. We’ll see you then.

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Last modified: June 15, 2017 at 6:53 pm