Literary Insights: A Series of Circles

Sherman Alexie’s Nontraditional Memoir

By Susanne Carter

You wouldn’t expect Sherman Alexie to write a traditional-style memoir in prose that follows a linear pathway. You wouldn’t expect Sherman Alexie to write a memoir focusing narrowly upon his life rather than casting a wider net to explore a wide array of issues. In You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Alexie has written exactly what you would expect—a nontraditional memoir in both content and form. In this guest blog I discuss the writing of Alexie’s first memoir. In the Writers Notes I discuss the qualities that give the memoir emotional power and literary strength.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

In the indigenous world we assign sacred value to circles. But sometimes a circle just means you keep returning to the same shit again and again. This book is a series of circles, sacred and profane. (p. 288)

Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington in an environment dominated by alcoholism and violence. “Poverty was our spirit animal,” he writes, “but there is a good story in everything.” Alexie has based his novels, short stories, and poetry on these indigenous stories, enhanced by the rich tradition of storytelling in the American Indian culture.

It was Alexie’s mother who kept the family of six children together while his father went on drinking binges for days at a time. She laboured deep into the night making handmade quilts and worked jobs on the reservation to keep her family afloat. But she never told her son she loved him.

Alexie always thought he would write a memoir about his alcoholic but gentle father, who died at the age of 62. But when his mother died at the age of 75, “an entirely different book came thundering out.”

The memoir is Alexie’s attempt to come to terms with his complicated relationship with his mother, who literally haunted him day and night after her death. Alexie says writing about his mother has not enabled him to forgive her, but to have a deeper understanding of her. “So if not forgiveness, I certainly have empathy,” he says. “And for me to be empathetic toward my mother might be a bigger thing.”

My Mother Gave Me The Soul

Thank you

Mother, for being my mother.

Thank you for your imperfect love.

It almost work. It mostly worked.

Or partly worked. It was almost enough. (p. 114)

When Alexie’s wife read the memoir for the first time, she commented that the book was “constructed in fabric squares like one of your mom’s quilts.” (p. 199) It was then that Alexie saw for the first time “the patterns and repetitions of patterns. I saw the stitches and knots,” he writes. “I saw that hands had worked in the same way that my mother’s hands had worked… “My mother, the quilter, will always haunt me.” (p. 199)

While writing the memoir Alexie realized the influence of both of his parents (“my father’s drunken kindness and my mom’s angry sobriety”) on his literary career. He says:

I’m realizing now that my father gave me storytelling tools, but it was my mother that was so raw and so vulnerable and so emotional. She gave me the ability to read deep inside myself. My father gave me the toolbox, but my mother gave me the soul.

Writers’ Notes:

What differentiates Alexie’s memoir from most traditional ones being published today are its structure, its raw honesty, and its broad scope.

  1. Structure: 

Alexie blends 142 pieces of prose and poetry and random thoughts in an almost seamless fashion that allows him freedom of expression. The narrative leaps back and forth in time and emotion, creating a patchwork quilt of thoughts, observations, and reflections—a pattern, Alexie says, that matches the way it felt to be his mother’s son.

In characteristic “Alexie” style, he also injects wit and humor into otherwise serious topics.   For instance, when a friend asks why there isn’t an American museum documenting Native American genocide, Alexie responds, “Because we Indians would spend years arguing about whose tribe suffered the worst massacre.” (p. 296)

Talking with his sister about his mother one night, Alexie complains, “Mom was so full of shit. What are we supposed to do with all this bullshit?” “Well,” his sister replies. “You got famous on that bullshit.” (p. 330)

  1. Honesty:

Not many people would admit they don’t recall their mothers ever saying “I love you.” But Alexie does and writes candidly about his mother’s lack of demonstrated love for him and his ambivalent feelings toward her.  His insights into the complexity of family relationships and their lasting imprint on each of us are refreshingly candid.

Alexie does not spare himself in this probing critique of his upbringing. While he resents his mother for not doing more for him, he is plagued by guilt for not being a better son. Alexie admits he is more akin to his mother than his father in temperament and owns his part in not trying harder to make the mother-son relationship more harmonious. He openly discusses his bi-polar mental illness, which he believes he inherited from his mother, and PTSD resulting from childhood trauma.

  1. Scope:

Traditional memoirs are often narrow in scope and self-absorbing. Although Alexie’s memoir is very personal, he uses the death of his mother as a springboard to explore a variety of personal and societal issues, often intermixing the two. These issues include family relationships, mental illness, racism, abuse, creativity, grief, guilt, torture, fame, colonialism, “rez” Indians vs. urban Indians, the environmental destruction of wild salmon and its significance to American Indians, and the experience of growing up as a modern American Indian.

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Have you read a non-traditional memoir, and how did it affect you?


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