Writers & Company

Sherman Alexie on his bittersweet relationship with his mother

The award-winning writer has released his first memoir, which focuses on his difficult upbringing on a Spokane reservation and his complicated relationship with his mother.
Sherman Alexie began writing his memoir after the death of his mother in 2015. (Lee Towndrow)

The son of a Coeur d'Alene Native American father and a Spokane Native American mother, Sherman Alexie grew up on his mother's reservation in eastern Washington State. When he was 14, he took the unusual step of going to a high school off the reservation. He went on to become the first member of his family to go to university, where he started writing and getting published. 

He's a funny and perceptive writer who has published more than 20 books, ranging from poetry to short stories, novels to screenplays. He's won the National Book Award and the the Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction. Now, he has a new title, a memoir titled You Don't Have to Say You Love Me that focuses on his complicated relationship with his mother.

Alexie spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Seattle, Washington.

The violence and trauma that haunted his mother

My mother was a Spokane Indian who was raised on a reservation by her mother and her father. But one of the huge secrets of her life was that she was the child of a rape. Indigenous women are extremely vulnerable. In Canada and the United States and other parts of the world, Indigenous women are subject to the most violence, the most oppression, the most misogyny. And my mother was no exception. She was the victim of violence and she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, as she herself was also raped. My older sister is the child of that rape. And with all that pain and trauma my mother tried to raise her family, and she tried to take care of us. She was a very good mother sometimes and a very terrible mother at times. She was sometimes physically violent, sometimes emotionally violent, and we tried to survive that.

The side of his mother he never knew

On the other hand, my mother was a senior citizen counselor and she worked with youth. She was the drug and alcohol addiction treatment counselor for my tribe for many years. At her funeral, dozens of people talked about how she helped them sober up and stay sober and put their lives back together. In the meantime, her children are sitting in the room listening to this, and realizing that we did not get as much pure love as some strangers did, as some other members of the tribe did. In the book, it's inside those contradictions that I try to understand who my mother was.

Memory quilts

Watching my mother painstakingly work on her quilts was probably my introduction into world art. It was also a glimpse of her mental illness — her manias would often manifest themselves in working on these quilts without sleep for days at a time. There was beauty and madness in equal measure. Memory quilts, as my mother made them, were celebrations. They often had photos and dates and images, and people hired her to make them so that they would have a highly edited version of their own lives. But my definition of memory quilts, in constructing this memoir, was to include everything, from the worst possible memories to the great memories. I wanted to have this book as a memory quilt that represents my mother and I and our entire lives.

Sherman Alexie's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Dreams of Wounded Knee," composed and performed by Bill Miller.