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?

 

 

My Absolute Darling

MyAbsoluteDarling“Martin holds his burning cigarette upright. The cherry is just barely visible in the dark; above it, the tower of ash. He turns it slowly, inspecting it from all angles. He says, ‘You want me to eat that scorpion?’

‘Try it!’ Cayenne says.

Turtle can see that the girl wants to share this with him. She wants this to be something they’ve all done together. But Turtle doesn’t want him to do it. She wants to show Cayenne something important here, about her own substance and about Martin’s because Martin, Turtle thinks, is afraid.

Martin says, ‘You didn’t eat a scorpion.’

‘Why would we make this shit up?’ Turtle says.

Martin chews his lip. At last, he says, ‘You really want to see me eat this scorpion, huh?'” – My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

This novel and its author have been getting so much attention, I had to find out what all the fuss was about. Stephen King declared My Absolute Darling a masterpiece, and there are endorsement quotes on the book jacket from Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for the short story collection Redeployment, and Celeste Ng, author of the novel Everything I Never Told You. All are writers I’ve enjoyed whose opinions I respect.

On the other hand, another writer I like, Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, is not a fan of My Absolute Darling.

So readers are divided about this first novel by Gabriel Tallent, whose mother, by the way, is the writer Elizabeth Tallent. I decided to read other reviews before I wrote this post because I was conflicted about the novel, and I wanted to see if these could help clarify my thinking. If you are up for reading a disturbing story of incest and obsessive love, I do recommend My Absolute Darling. I think the book has flaws but, in the end, they didn’t fatally undermine the story for me, which is a true page-turner – I stayed up late reading it on two consecutive nights. And despite its dark theme, the protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle, is a brave, noble spirit I won’t soon forget.

Turtle lives with her father, Martin, on the northern California coast near Mendocino. Martin is an autodidact partial to reading David Hume and other inscrutable texts of the great philosophers, a survivalist waiting for the end of the world, and a sociopath who is sexually abusing his daughter. Guns are everywhere in their decrepit house, as well as stocks of food and medical supplies. Martin began teaching Turtle how to shoot when she was six, and now she is an excellent markswoman with superb survival skills.

Martin worships Turtle as a goddess he can’t live without, but his mood can turn on a dime and Turtle suddenly turns to filth in his eyes. Having endured this abuse for years, Turtle has a fragile sense of herself. When two boys from the local high school come into her life and Turtle develops a crush on one of them, Turtle realizes that forming bonds with others endangers them. Turtle must go to great lengths, both inside herself and out in the world, to break free from the dark power her father holds over her.

Tallent’s prose can be flashy and mesmerizing. There is a strong sense of place, with lush descriptions of coastal California. Sometimes the language is technical and the paragraphs are long, peppered with words I wasn’t familiar with but, generally, this didn’t bother me; other readers may feel this interferes with the story. I love good nature writing and, for the most part, I felt that Tallent nailed the dramatic beauty and wildness of the California coast.

The writing was sometimes over the top in other ways. For example, Martin, Turtle’s father, could be so senselessly sadistic, he sometimes wasn’t believable. I think the author wanted to write a keep-the-pages-turning story, and he may have been influenced by the current highly sensational nature of movies and television drama. I’m revealing my age as far as literary taste goes, and younger readers might not find aspects of the story so extreme. That said, there are also echoes of fine literary works evident, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. These deepen and enrich the story of Turtle and Martin.

More problematic than Tallent’s occasionally self-conscious prose are issues that Roxane Gay points out in a Goodreads review. Gay, who has written about sexual abuse, feels that there are elements of Turtle and Martin’s incestuous relationship that Tallent simply got wrong. I can’t speak to this, but I did feel, occasionally, that Turtle would not have acted in certain ways or that she would have made different decisions. Destructive relationships are complicated, and it’s incredibly difficult to capture the psychological dynamics involved.

I’m listing so many caveats you might think I didn’t like the novel, but that’s not the case. Turtle is an unusual heroine, a real survivor, though not the kind her father envisioned. Gabriel Tallent is young – about thirty – and he chose to tell an extremely challenging story.  His writing will mature. He’s now working on a second novel.

Here are a few more excerpts from My Absolute Darling:

“‘You are the most beautiful thing,’ he says, ‘that’s what I think. Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that?'”

********

“Walk away, Turtle. Just walk away from him, and if he follows after and if he will not let you go, you kill him. He’s given you everything and all you need to do is walk away. Do you remember when blood ran in your veins like cool, clear water? You could find that place again and it would be hard but it would be good. Nothing and no one can keep you away from it; only you can take yourself back into the dark, only you can do that. He can’t do it to you, and don’t lie about that. So walk away, Turtle. Think about your soul, and walk away.”

Who else has read this novel by a brand new American novelist, and what did you think? I’d love to hear from other readers.

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