The memoir I didn’t want to write about

YouDon'tHavetoSay“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.”  

 – Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

I was all set to write about Sherman Alexie’s newly published memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when I found out he has joined the ranks of those accused in the #MeToo movement.

I’d read a short while ago that children’s and young adult book publishing is the latest industry rocked by scandal, as women in publishing have come forward to tell of sexual assault and harassment by book editors, publishers, agents, and lauded authors who wield tremendous power in the literary world. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in abject poverty on a reservation and who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for his best-selling novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I was especially interested in this because I began my career in New York City, back in the day, in educational publishing for children and young adults. I experienced uncomfortable moments with a few men in the course of my work, but nothing like what has been recounted by women in the news recently. Now, looking back, what strikes me most is the pervasive gender inequality in the industry and how clueless I was about the serious sexual harassment and assault taking place in the workplace. (Granted, I worked in educational publishing, which was less glamorous and high stakes.) Women who experienced this were pressured into silence and isolation.

Men held nearly all of the power in book publishing – they were the ones who rose to become executive publishers and celebrated authors – while women, especially those in entry-level positions, were paid salaries difficult to get by on in New York. I don’t recall discussing this much with my female publishing friends and colleagues, except to complain about the low salaries. It was just the way things were.

So here’s a conundrum: In his memoir, Sherman Alexie writes about the rape culture on reservations. Combining prose and poetry, he writes beautifully and comically about his ambivalent relationship with his difficult, flawed, and heroic mother, Lillian, who was born of a rape and who was raped herself and subsequently gave birth to his half-sister, who later died in a house fire.

He writes of the Native American women in his personal life with ambivalence – he and his siblings were loved, protected (sometimes) and psychologically harmed by Lillian. But he writes of Native American women as a group with great empathy because of what they have endured on the reservation and in American culture. Sherman Alexie, in interviews, public appearances, and writing classes, mentors and encourages young writers, particularly Native American writers and women, to step up and take their rightful place in the world.

Yet now Sherman Alexie stands accused of inappropriate sexual overtures. He stands accused of appearing to encourage and value the writing of many a young woman, including Native American women, and of ultimately using his celebrity as a ruse to try and have sex with them. In addition to sexual harassment or abuse, he may be responsible for silencing, or at least shaking the confidence of, talented women writers. He has denied some of the allegations, while acknowledging that he has hurt people with his behavior.

On learning of this, my view of Sherman Alexie as a memoirist and as a human being has of course changed, and my thoughts about his work are complicated in ways I haven’t sorted out.

I would like to see Alexie’s career as a mentor and teacher curtailed, but I don’t think this means Alexie’s memoir should not be read.  Just as we shouldn’t remove from circulation the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, or cleanse our museums of Picasso’s paintings, or let the work of J.D. Salinger go out of print.

Maybe we need to critically view their work in a different light if we are to have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Here’s an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s memoir:

“If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people – of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers, and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And, finally, that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people.

My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment.”

Maybe part of the solution is to work toward a culture of greater compassion. To not turn away or remain silent if a person or a group is being harmed. Because they, in turn, may harm others.

“In 1938, five years after construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, a wild salmon made its way to the face of that monolith and could not pass. That was the last wild salmon that attempted to find a way around, over, or through the dam into the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. That was the last wild salmon that remembered.

The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings. That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.

My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon.

My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”

Can you separate the work from the artist or writer? Or are the two intertwined and to be viewed as such? Have you read Sherman Alexie’s memoir or any of his many novels and poems?



21 responses

  1. I hear you, Valorie.
    Wounded people sometimes wound other people. AND are sometimes capable of creating great works of painful beauty.
    Also true: no-one is totally bad or totally good. Our culture promotes these false, one-dimensional concepts, but has no mechanism for the inevitable revelation that the people we have beatified are human and therefore deeply flawed. So we resort to punishment and exile and the devil take the hindmost. It’s a terrible truth.

  2. Val, I join your readers in gratitude for this thought-provoking blog.

    What is it about human nature that makes us seem to expect perfection from those we admire? Disappointment seems natural, (sometimes disgust even) but why are we surprised and/or crushed by their imperfection? Do their sins, crimes, flaws and/or failings negate their gifts? Or make their gifts all the more remarkable?

    The problem of Ezra Pound’s facism/treason inspired quite a discussion at my most recent book club meeting. (The book, which I’m not recommending, was The City of Falling Angels, a non-fiction, gossipy book about Venice written after their beautiful opera theatre burned down.)

    Often when I tell people Theodore Roosevelt is my favorite president, someone points out that he was an imperialist (which cannot be denied) even before I can say what I admire about him!

    English classes in inner-city schools in Rochester read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. It was their only first-person glimpse into the reality of life for contemporary Native Americans…

    The last line of the movie Some Like it Hot comes to mind. A man who had proposed marriage to the woman he loved would not be deterred even after he found out “she” was a man. He said, “Nobody’s perfect.” Seems he still loved her.

    • Great comments, Judy. I’d heard of his Part-Time Indian novel and how popular it has been, but hearing your talk about seeing young people reading it in the Roc city schools is gratifying – I would imagine they enjoy it, unlike many of the books thrust upon them in English class. Despite what has come out – and we don’t really know the truth – I found his memoir to be painfully honest in many aspects. He’s a bold writer. I suppose we, both sexes, need to have open, honest, difficult discussions.

      • You know, I’m still considering this blog and the readers’ comments, too. I’m with Vishy; the last wild salmon made me cry.

        And I remain haunted by the image of that last wild salmon who remembered its destination but never made it up-stream, having been thwarted, destroyed really, by a man-made monster. I keep seeing that dam blocking the natural flow of a river, denying the salmon’s natural right to reproduce, and extracting the spiritual heart from an entire people, condemning, as Alexie so eloquently expressed it, his parents (and all his people) to living life as
        “spiritual orphans.”

        And I appreciate the Thomas Merton quote Bookbii shared ever more upon reflection. The thought that keeps coming back to me is that being wrong is not something we face with “equanimity and understanding” and yet, of course being wrong is something each and every one of us experiences, and not infrequently.

        In the Rochester city schools we are beginning to recognize that toxic stress is blocking healthy child development, including emotional intelligence. Poverty, racism and the endless woes that accompany it are the mother of the toxic stress experienced here. It can lead to people “being wrong” and not being understood by others.

        Being spiritually orphaned generation after generation seems like a chronic case of toxic stress to me. I don’t think we should excuse Alexie’s (or anyone’s) bad behavior, but I sure would like to understand how it could happen so that something gets done to stop it from continuing.

        Meanwhile, I do think I will read his memoir. It is still a valuable and insightful glimpse into a world I could not know otherwise.

      • Judy, let me know what you think of his memoir. He did some things I’ve never seen memoirists do, so I learned from him, aside from also being moved. Yes, toxic stress is huge – and you live in it and witness it nearly every day in your job in Roc’s inner city schools. I guess that is something of what this blog has become – I like to share books that help us to be more compassionate and inspire us to adopt a more humanitarian ethic or to change in some good way – in the case of Native Americans in the US, we have certainly not done well.

  3. Lovely thought-provoking piece. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Not being a regular consumer of news, I am not up to speed on who has been named and shamed and who hasn’t. Sometimes I think it’s better not to know until later, lest it sully your appreciation of the work, but I think the test of a good post is that you’ve made me think about the issue for days. Thank you.

    • I almost didn’t write about this memoir because I wasn’t sure how I felt about this situation or how I’d write about it. I changed a sentence in my post today – originally, I said that I wanted to see Alexie’s public career come to an end, but I think what I’d really like to see is his mentoring and teaching curtailed. We seem to be banishing men in this #MeToo movement and I think we need to be careful of that. I still really like his memoir, and I’d recommend it with some minor reservations that have nothing to do with what’s been in the news.

  4. A thoughtful blog, Valorie. Not an easy thing to reconcile. I’m not sure how I would feel about it either, I wonder (but without reading the book, wonder only) whether I would feel that Alexie is appropriating his mother’s experience, and the experience of Native American women, to further his own social or political goals. It is notable that his mother does not write / speak for herself in this memoir. But perhaps that would be a misreading. In contrast I think Louise Erdrich writes very effectively of the impact of rape for Native American women in her book The Roundhouse. Similarly she writes from the perspective of the son of the rape victim, but more importantly she represents him as appropriating his mother’s experience and being potentially as prone to the kinds of attitudes that allow rape culture to thrive. It’s a good book, sensitively nuanced, if you haven’t read it.
    On a separate note, I’ve been reading Thomas Merton recently and he makes an interesting point concerning ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ (or bad behaviour, for a less religious term) which I thought pertinent and I’ll share here. Where Merton is writing about war, I think his observations have relevance beyond the limitations of that subject. What he says is:
    “Even when a man starts out with good intentions, if he fails we tend to think he was somehow “at fault”. If he was not guilty, he was at least “wrong”. And “being wrong” is something we have not yet learned to face with equanimity and understanding. We either condemn it with god-like disdain or forgive it with god-like condescension. We do not manage to accept it with human compassion, humility and identification. Thus we never see the one truth that would help us to begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.”
    I notice that when I feel someone has behaved appallingly, criminally, I have a tendency to turn away, to reject and deny, to put the ‘criminal’ out of sight. But perhaps that, as Merton suggests, is not the best course. Perhaps having the compassion, the humility and the openness to read Alexie *in spite of* his errors is a more humane approach?
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

    • What an apt response and valuable contribution to this discussion, thank you. The Thomas Merton quote is so applicable. There is so much self-righteousness and blaming and condemnation currently. Merton is right, we are all at fault.

  5. I thought about this post a lot, Valorie, and felt I wanted to come back to you… one of my secret grouches for years has been that in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement – (I don’t know US literary publications,) most of the books reviewed are by men, and the reviews written by men, though women – I have a feeling – write as many books if not more, than men, yet their books don’t get either the helpful publlcity, the reviews or the appreciation that men’s books seem to…
    P’raps it’s just me… and maybe things are changing, though my experience has been that they have not !!!!

    • Valerie, thanks for coming back. I think it is the same here. I remember back in the day when I was in my 20s, after women’s lib (second wave) thinking we women had achieved what we needed to – but I was naive. I think we still have a long way to go.

  6. It’s such a difficult question to answer and one I waffle on. Sometimes it is possible for me to incorporate what I know of the artist’s flawed personality to their work and then to see the work in a different, more nuanced light. Other times, no. Would you still recommend him to readers who have never read him?

  7. Beautiful review, Valorie! It is really sad that that Sherman Alexie is the latest person named by the #MeToo movement. I was hoping to read his award winning book sometime. This book you have reviewed, looks like a beautiful book. It is unfortunate that though what the writer says is insightful and thought-provoking, his behaviour in the real world seems to have been not-so-good. It is sad. Because the story told in this book deserves better. The passage about the wild salmon made me cry. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • You’re welcome Vishy. I do hope you read his memoir, I think you would really like it. I guess we have to remember we are all human and have failings. Despite some of his actions – and I suppose we don’t really know what the real truth is – I think he has made an important literary contribution to the world.

  8. What hurt me most about reading this powerful blog, was the last salmon who found his ancestral ways blocked, and the end of the wild salmon… unbearably sad…it may be possible to heal broken people, but it’s impossible to re-create memory for the wild creatures dispossessed by our insensitivity to their very existence… this is how the world is dying…

  9. This is terribly sad. I think we need to get beyond pointing fingers at the perpetrators (though the silencing does have to stop and painful truths need to be revealed) and look at how we can stop the cycle of abuse at its roots. How is our culture permitting this horror to go on?

    I think you make a good distinction that an active abuser should not engage in teaching or speaking but their work may still be read. Sometimes even that is terribly uncomfortable though, as with some writers and artists who, I’ve found, actually used their work to lure or portray their victims. Ick.

    • Lory, yes, you’re right, if we could at least try to stop these kinds of abuse at its roots, but we seem to let things go on. We need to stop looking away; and the dialogue and action we now seem to be taking are often going in contentious, unhealthy directions.

  10. I’ve always been good at separating the life of the writer from what he wrote, ever since I was first introduced to Ezra Pound or Orson Scott Card.

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