Complex Grief as Metaphor: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

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You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie is creative writing at its best. The memoir is a combination of prose and poetry, with intentional repetition of stories and various symbols that give the reader an authentic, moving take on grief. He writes “this book is a series of circles, sacred and profane,” (288). These circles, the repetition and symbols, are what I wish I could discuss with a book club or with students in a reading or writing course. Why does grief take us around and around? How do we work through the sacred and profane and hold both in our hands at the same time?

Alexie demonstrates how to address difficult truths through exploring his complicated relationship with his mother.

It’s not only a book about grief, though. Alexie explores identity and racism–and his grief for his mother almost works as a metaphor for a reader wanting to engage with how racism is at work in our country and how he or she might face it and fight it. One of the best piece of advice out there right now, a starting place, for white people to think about racism is to listen. Alexie’s accounts and insights across the book took my breath away. This passage in particular:

I have visited museums of genocide in other countries. Though I realize “visited” is the wrong verb. “Endured” is too self serving. Perhaps the best sentence is “I have experienced museums of genocide in other countries.” And what do I remember? I remember that I kept having to close my eyes against the pain. I often had to look away from the pain. I often had to sit on benches and stare at the blank floors. And what do I make of the genocide museum in our own country? What do I make of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? It is a vital place. It is a grievous reminder. A warning. It is as necessary as any museum ever built. But it also proves to me how the United States closes its eyes against the pain it has caused. The United States often looks away from the pain it has caused. The United States often sits on benches and stares at the blank floors (296).

For readers, for me anyway, this book felt like a call to grieve, to sit and wrestle with, the racism of the past and think of how it impacts the present. What systemic processes created the realities Native Americans faced and continue to face? What policies? What small decisions on part of politicians and voters? What other areas of history do I need to reflect on with the same lens?

It’s the sitting and wrestling that our culture seems to be without these days: one is right or wrong, good or bad, tweet about it and move on. Alexie digs and circles back and digs and circles back, and the technical aspects of his writing style in this book couldn’t more beautifully capture that process. After finishing it, it feels like an invitation, knowing that it could be a process that doesn’t have a clear ending, or any ending at all. And that’s ok.

(Side note: this intersects with my reading of Prairie Fires, which is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also a record of government and Native Americans, government and the environment, the ways history books have narrated our understandings from limited perspectives. I love when books layer one another.)

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