On his first day in the seventh grade, Sherman Alexie opened up his school-assigned math book and found his mother's maiden name written in it. "I was looking at a 30-year-old math book," he says — and that was the moment he knew that he needed to leave his home.
Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. His mother was one of the few people who could still speak the native language, but she didn't teach it to him. In his new memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, he describes growing up surrounded by poverty, alcoholism and violence.
"I knew — because of my race, and my class, and rural geography ... all these forces that crush all sorts of American kids, crush their hopes and dreams — I knew I had no chance unless I left and went to a better school," he says.
The reservation school, Alexie explains, not only wasn't preparing him for college; it wasn't even preparing him to think about college. Eventually, he found his way to college and became an award-winning writer. He received the PEN/Faulkner Award for his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Alexie says he came of age as a writer during a "golden era" of Native American literature. He remembers a very active period of publishing for dozens of Native American writers all across the country. More recently though, he's seen a "fallow period."
"There was more going on in Native American literature in 1991 than there is now," he says. "I kept making the joke about being 'Indian du jour, and it's been a very long day.' "
He's hoping that, with the emergence of new writers, some of whom he's taught and mentored, the sun is setting on that very long day.
"I really hope that like 10 or 12 Native writers, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, really launch into the national consciousness ..." he says. "So I don't have to answer all the questions, so I don't have to get invited to all the conferences. Share the burden of being a public figure Indian! Come on, people! Hurry up, finish your books!"
On the legacy of a very difficult childhood
I've been sober now for 26 years, but I am bi-polar, I do have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A recent study from Johns Hopkins studying reservations found that Indian children on reservations have the same rate of PTSD as combat veterans. So I imagine if they did that study in poor white communities or other poor minority communities they'd find the same sort of numbers.
On being bullied as a kid
When you grow up in a warrior culture, an extremely masculine culture, tears can be seen as a sign of weakness. ... Any surrender, any conceding of anything can also be seen as a sign of weakness. I've always been a rather androgynous, emotional person, so my emotional state, my androgyny — I was more androgynous as a youth than now — but I think all of that combined to make me a target.
It wasn't just the influence of tribal cultures, it was the assimilation into fundamentalist Christianity, which is even more warrior culture, even more honor culture, and even more suspicious of difference. So I was getting bombarded not only by the more fundamentalist aspects of my tribe, but the more fundamentalist aspects of our assimilation into Christianity. So that was going on all around us, and, in fact, in second grade we had this ex-nun teacher who put us into stress positions as torture.
On learning that his mother was conceived by rape
She told me that in my teen years as I was going to school off the reservation, as I was preparing for a life off the reservation, as I was preparing to become this person I am now. Looking back, I think it was my mother's highly dysfunctional way to tell me, to warn me, about what a man can be ... hoping that I would become a good man, a man who treated women with respect. A man who honored women and their power, and a man who would not become a criminal. I think it was her highly dysfunctional version of the sex talk.
On the book's title, taken from the Dusty Springfield song
My mom sang a lot and she was always singing the songs on the radio. ... Music filled my childhood, as it does with a whole bunch of folks. So I looked at my birth year and I thought, "What songs would my mother have been singing in my birth year?"
I looked through the songs and I hit on Dusty Springfield's song ["You Don't Have to Say You Love Me"], which of course I've heard, everybody's heard, everybody knows. Somebody called that the most heartbreaking love song of all time, and I don't disagree. ... I mean, sitting here right now I can't remember a specific instance of [my mother] saying "I love you." Nothing is coming to mind, and not from my father either.
On being influenced by white medical professionals as a child
I had brain surgery when I was a kid, and I spent most of my first seven years of my life off the reservation, in and out of hospitals, for speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, so it ended up being as a toddler that my primary peer group was white, adult doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, nuns, priests at the Catholic hospitals, so you become who you're with.
So in those early formative years, I was primarily influenced by all these obsessive-compulsive workaholic white people who had gone to college. So I was imprinted by white college graduates, I was like a little duckling following these white doctors and nurses who were wondering, "What's this strange feathered creature following me?"
So at the time, I was being raised by my native family, of course, but I was being influenced by them, but I was also being influenced by white folks in a way that natives of my generation on my reservation did not receive then. I was being given so much kindness and care. I was being taken care of in a way by white folks that natives on my reservation of my generation were not.
On the moment he woke up after a recent brain surgery
It's been, I guess, 19 months since surgery, and whenever I even ponder that question, as I am pondering it now, I start to cry. Waking up after surgery is the greatest moment of my life. It made me realize despite all the trauma, despite all my past and current mental illnesses, despite any pain that I have, that my life as I've constructed, as it has been constructed around me and for me, is something amazing, and I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful to be an indigenous man married to an indigenous woman with indigenous children in 21st-century United States. I am happy to be here, despite everything. That feeling has made me a slightly different person.
Radio producers Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner and Web producers Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sherman Alexie, has written a new memoir about growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation in the state of Washington. His mother was one of the few people who could still speak the Native language, but she didn't teach it to him. He grew up surrounded by poverty, alcoholism and violence.
He was pretty young when he realized he wanted to get off the reservation and go to college. He succeeded in doing that and in becoming an award-winning writer. He won the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award for his short story collection "The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven." In 2007, he won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for his book "The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian."
Alexie's new memoir includes poems with titles like "How To Be An Atheist At A Spokane Indian Christian Funeral," "The Urban Indian Boy Enjoys Good Health Insurance" and "After Brain Surgery." He had his first brain surgery when he was 5 months old and his most recent in 2015. He's a writer with a lot of stories to tell.
Sherman Alexie, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from deep in the book. But this is a theme that kind of recurs through the book.
SHERMAN ALEXIE: OK, yes, this is chapter 117, "All My Relations."
GROSS: (Laughter) People are going to think it's, like, 10,000 pages long, this book. It's not.
ALEXIE: Most of those chapters are one page or one poem. So the title of this chapter is "All My Relations."
(Reading) I am related by blood and marriage to men who hit women and to men and women who hit children and to men and women in jail and in prison and on parole for stealing and robbing and raping and shooting and stabbing and punching and kicking and forging and abetting and neglecting and manslaughtering (ph) and murdering and dealing and buying and mewling and abandoning and vandalizing and breaking and entering and jacking and driving without insurance and driving under the influence and driving without a license and vehicular homiciding (ph) and shoplifting and deserting and violating and failing to pay on time and failing to pay at all and failing to yield and failing to stop and failing and failing and failing and failing.
GROSS: All right, that's Sherman Alexie reading from his new memoir, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." Are passages like that going to make you very unpopular with some Native Americans including maybe some members of your family and some friends?
ALEXIE: Well, I imagine so.
GROSS: I like the way you said that.
ALEXIE: Yeah. But I would - I mean it's not on purpose to offend them. But when you tell the truth, it's naturally going to offend people afraid of the truth, afraid of what the truth might force them to do. Especially other artists, academics, intellectuals, writers in the Native world have to reconcile and reckon with their own lives, their own families.
I'm reminded - I was at Stanford University recently, and a young student said to me - asked me how I felt when white people used my books as weapons against other Indians. And I found that remarkable, I said to him, that you think that question is new. But I've been getting asked that since 1987 (laughter).
And it also presumes that I as a Native American have nothing to show or teach people who are not Native American, that my story, my lived experience has nothing to say of any importance to anybody but other Native Americans. And that's not true. So I think that student's question and that entire line of questioning by anybody is really sort of a sign of racial and ethnic and cultural insecurity.
GROSS: Well, your memoir starts at a dangerous New Year's Eve party thrown by your parents in your home in 1972 or 1973. You're 6 or 7. Everyone is drunk. You write child molesters are there. And you tried to barricade shut your bedroom door to prevent anyone from getting in, particularly the child molesters. Your father ends up in a drunken fight. Your mother's so upset she takes you and your siblings away from the reservation but then realizes she has no place to go. So she and you go back to the reservation. Why did you want to start the book there?
ALEXIE: Well, that New Year's Eve party was the last - it was the bottom for my mother. You know, the morning - at the party, I saw her punch another Indian woman in the face. That's the most overt act of violence I ever saw my mother commit - bloodied another Indian woman's mouth. And the other Indian woman was screaming. In fact I can still hear that sound, you know, that keening.
And the next morning, she woke us up really early in the morning, pre-dawn, and drove us to Tooele where she was born, a little white town now that - but for centuries was a gathering place for our tribes. And there she promised us that she would never drink again. And despite all the bipolar dysfunction she displayed and sometimes the emotional and spiritual cruelty and occasional physical cruelty in the years after that, she never drank again. That's when she got sober. And our house became a safe place. Prior to that, it was not a safe place. But after my mother sobered up, there was no alcohol allowed in the house, and that saved us.
GROSS: Even though your father continued to drink.
ALEXIE: Well, he continued to drink, but he had to leave to drink. So he wanted to leave anyway, but he would go on binge-drinking journeys back to his reservation, the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho. So he would leave us to pursue some drunken vision of his childhood. And he would be gone for days or weeks at a time, but he was not allowed to drink in the house.
GROSS: So among other things, your mother was one of the few remaining people - 1 of the maybe 5 people who still knew the Native language, the Salish language. So she was really looked up to for that, and she was - it sounds like in a lot of ways, she was an important member of the community because of that. So I was wondering if you feel like you were brought up in the middle of the two ends of what a lot of people think about when they think about Indians? You know, like, there's two stereotypes. One is, like, they're mystical and spiritual. And the other is, they're poor and drunk on the reservation - I'm sure some truth in the mystical and spiritual part and some truth in the poverty and alcoholism on reservations.
ALEXIE: Well, you know, I've spent a few decades now in the recovery community and in fact spent 90 days in the summer of 2010 in a rehab facility for my bipolarism. And I've spent a lot of time in those recovery groups and in recovery with a wide range of people from various ethnic groups, racial groups, economic classes. And the idea of a party - of a house being a party house where people would gather to party and that it was dangerous and filled with sexual assaulters and potential murders is actually very universal.
So when you look at damaged adults of any kind, you're going to find damaged parents and damaged families. And religion often has a lot to do with it. Fundamentalist Christianity is not so different in its various dysfunctions from the fundamentalist varieties of tribal religions. So I recognize in a lot of survivors of Christian fundamentalism the same sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that I have.
GROSS: So this might be too personal, but when you say you spent a lot of time in recovery communities, was that for your own recovery or being the child of somebody who was in recovery?
ALEXIE: Well, I'm the child. I am in recovery. I've been sober now for 26 years. But I am bipolar. I do have post-traumatic stress disorder. A recent study from Johns Hopkins studying reservations found that Indian children on reservations have the same rate of PTSD as combat veterans. So I imagine if they did that study in poor white communities or other poor minority communities, they'd find the same sort of numbers. But I have various emotional problems caused by brain disorders and brain chemistry but also by trauma. So it's hard to separate - you know, it's the chicken of egg of my alphabet soup of mental illness acronyms and abbreviations.
GROSS: Yeah, and let me just mention here. You were born with hydrocephalus, which is an over - like, too much spinal fluid pressing on the brain. So you needed surgery for that when you were 5 months old.
ALEXIE: Yeah, I've had three brain surgeries. I had brain surgery at 5 months old, 2 years old and then in December of 2015 to remove a benign tumor which I write about in the memoir.
GROSS: Wow. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Sherman Alexie. His new memoir, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," is in part about growing up on a reservation in Washington. And the memoir is a lot about his life and also about his parents. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sherman Alexie. And his new memoir, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," is in part about growing up on a reservation in the state of Washington. We mentioned earlier that your mother was one of the few people who still knew the Native language of her tribe, the Salish language. What did the language mean to your mother, and what did it mean in terms of her place within the community?
ALEXIE: Well, certainly her biggest connection to her own mother. Etta Adams, who was called Big Mom - she was quite the spiritual leader in the Northwest. So I think there was this incredibly strong relationship with her mother who spoke the language. But more than that, it's a connection to thousands and thousands of years, millennia of tribal culture of words and concept and songs and stories that had been told for thousands and thousands of years.
So my mother in speaking the language felt ancient. And (laughter) I mean, she became highly contemporary in all sorts of ways and very assimilated in all sorts of ways, but speaking the language made her an iconoclast. It made her different than everybody else, and she always enjoyed being the iconoclast.
GROSS: You were diagnosed as being bipolar, and you suspect your mother was bipolar, too. So that must have made for a pretty combustible relationship.
ALEXIE: Well, yeah. I describe us in the book as roller coaster cars on parallel tracks.
GROSS: So another thing with your mother is that you think she was the child of a rape. She told this story in different ways to different people in the family, and you've tried to piece together what's true. But am I right in saying that you're now concluding that she probably was the child of rape?
ALEXIE: I choose to believe her as the victim of this crime. And she only told me of the siblings. I'm the only siblings who got that part of her history, and she told me that in my teen years as I was going to school off the reservation, as I was preparing for a life off the reservation, as I was preparing to become this person I am now.
So looking back, I think it was my mother's highly dysfunctional way to tell me, to warn me about what a man can be and that hoping I would become a good man, a man who treated women with respect, a man who honored women and their power and a man who would not become a criminal. I think it was her highly dysfunctional version of the sex talk, and that's what I choose to believe about it.
GROSS: Were you ever able to have a real talk with your mother about this, or did she just kind of drop this information and then change the subject?
ALEXIE: No, we danced circles around all of this stuff. And my father never said anything of real emotional (laughter) courage. My father was a passive, gentle, shy man and got even more gentle and shy and funny when he was drunk. So I never had an in-depth conversation with him, and the same is true with my mother. We would have fragments of connection, moments of connection and a lifetime of silence and lies and deceptions and evasions.
GROSS: You initially went to a reservation school. And you asked to go to another school because you knew you wanted to get off the reservation for good. How did you know that?
ALEXIE: Well, as we've said earlier, you know, as I say in the book, I had brain surgery when I was a kid. And I spent most of my first seven years of my life off the reservation in and out of hospitals for speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy. So it ended up being as a toddler that my primary peer group was white, adult doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, nuns, priests at the Catholic hospitals. You know, you become who you're with, so in those early, formative years, I was primarily influenced by all these obsessive-compulsive workaholic white people who'd gone to college.
ALEXIE: So I was imprinted. I was imprinted by white college graduates. I was like a little duckling following this - white doctors and nurses who were wondering, what's this strange, feathered creature following me? So you know, at the time I was being raised by my Native family of course, I was being influenced by them. But I was also being influenced by white folks in a way that Natives of my generation on my reservation did not receive then.
I was being given so much kindness and care. I was being taken care of in a way by white folks that Natives on my reservation of my generation were not. They pretty much only got the terrible teachers. Their primary memories of white folks are negative. Mine are more mixed. Mine are more about how complicated all human beings are, that I saw the good and bad of our colonizers. And like a lot of really sick, like a lot of critically or terminally or even just moderately ill children who spend a lot of time in hospitals, when you ask them as kids what they want to be, a lot of them - an overwhelming number of them will tell you they want to be a doctor.
GROSS: You wanted to be a doctor for a while.
ALEXIE: Yes. So I was motivated from the earliest ages to become a doctor, a pediatrician. I had a dream unlike anybody else in my little town. So I grew up in the tribal schools knowing that they weren't preparing me for college. I knew that from an early age. But more than that, they weren't even preparing me to even think about college, to do well at college.
And then on the first day of seventh grade, I opened up my math book, and my mom's name was written in it, my mom's maiden name. So I was looking at a 30-year-old math book. And at that moment, I knew because of my race and my class and rural geography - for all these forces, not just about being Indian but about being poor and about being from a small town - all these forces that crush all sorts of American kids, crush their hopes and dreams - I knew I had no chance unless I left and went to a better school.
GROSS: And your parents allowed you to leave the reservation school and go to another school. What did it take? Was it hard to change schools?
ALEXIE: (Laughter) No, it wasn't hard. It's still astonishing to me how easily my parents let me go. I came home that day and asked them - I said to them, I need to leave. And they both agreed quickly and without argument.
GROSS: So this was a public school.
ALEXIE: Yes, it was a public school. But I got extremely lucky. You know, I don't believe in magic, but I believe in interpreting coincidence exactly the way you want to.
ALEXIE: I ended up with a generation of white farm town kids who were brilliant in a private school kind of way. To give you one example, out of the 12 of us on my senior year basketball team, 11 of us went on to get bachelor's degrees, and four have gone on to get master's degree - this from a high school of 150 kids in a community of about 2,000 people. So it was an astonishingly talented, intellectual and ambitious group of white farm kids who became my second tribe.
GROSS: So you became - in that high school, you became captain of the basketball team, president of the Future Farmers of America. I love that because your goal was to be urban.
GROSS: And you were - what? - prom king.
ALEXIE: I was prom royalty. Doug was prom king. I was...
GROSS: OK, I didn't know there was, like, prom..
ALEXIE: I was his...
GROSS: ...Royalty and prom king, OK.
ALEXIE: I was his Lancelot.
GROSS: OK. All right, so that's a pretty good run in high school. And you of course wonder in the book if your race would have been more of an issue if you'd been a nonathlete or if you'd only been an average student. And you say it's easy for a white racist to fall in love with and accept one member of a minority, one Indian and their real and perceived talents and flaws. It's much tougher for a racist to accept a dozen Indians and impossible for a white racist to accept the entire race of Indians or an entire race of any nonwhite people. When you look at the town where you went to school, when you look at the people you went to school with, do you wonder if they grew up to be racist?
ALEXIE: Well, I see their Facebook pages, so a certain percentage have remained or become racist or have become more racist in the last few years, especially during the Obama administration and now that Trump has been elected. And straight-up numbers-wise, Lincoln County where Reardan High School, the farm town where I went to high school, is located, voted 72 percent for Trump, which rivals pretty much any voting district in the country for conservative thinking. And it's also incredibly white.
So I do know that it's an incredibly conservative place. I do know that it's an incredibly nondiverse place. And considering the political environment we live in now, I don't think I would've been as readily accepted not just in that community but roaming around in the small towns of eastern Washington. I think I would have been viewed with more suspicion. I mean I've been a commie leftist since birth.
ALEXIE: So you know, I came out of the womb talking about, you know, income inequality. So I don't know that my - the combination of my politics and my race and culture - it would have been a lot harder I think to become who I am now.
GROSS: My guest is Sherman Alexie. His new memoir is called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." After we take a short break, we'll talk about waking up after brain surgery for a benign tumor two years ago. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "HAWKS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sherman Alexie. His new memoir, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," is about growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. It's also about how and why he left the reservation. He's an award-winning novelist and short story writer.
So I want to get back to you leaving the reservation to go to a public school and how that kind of saved your life. You got a better education. You were able to go to college. You thought you wanted to be a doctor or maybe a lawyer. You became neither. You dropped out of college shortly before you would've graduated then eventually went back. But once you found writing, like, that was it for you.
So when you started to publish, were there many Native Americans who were making a name for themselves in the publishing world? And you did you try to kind of compare what you were going to do as a writer with what they were doing?
ALEXIE: When I started publishing, when I started realizing there was such a thing as contemporary Native American literature, there were at that point dozens - at least 30, 40 - Native American writers from all over the country actively publishing with major presses, university presses, prestigious small presses. In fact, there was more going on in Native American literature in 1991 than there is now. So I was actually coming of age as a writer in this golden era of Native American literature. So there were so many influences, so many ways of looking at the world as a Native American writer. There was Leslie Silko, James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Adrian C. Louis, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, I mean, the list goes on and on and on.
And for various reasons, many of those writers stopped writing as much, stopped publishing as much. And it has been a sort of fallow period. I mean, Indian writers keep working, but there hasn't been a huge book of a new Native American writer since Susan Powers' "The Grass Dancer" in 1995. You know, I kept making the joke about being Indian du jour. And it's been a very long day.
ALEXIE: So, I mean, Louise and I keep writing away, but we have a couple new writers coming up that I actually helped teach. Tommy Orange and Terese Mailhot have new books coming out. And so I think there's going to be another resurgence now of young Native American writers. And I'm hoping - I really hope that, like, 10 or 12 Native writers - fiction writers, nonfiction writers - really launch into the national consciousness so they have to answer more questions, so I don't have to answer all the questions, so I don't have to get invited to all the conferences.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
ALEXIE: Share the burden of being a public figure Indian. Come on, people. Hurry up, finish your books.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Sherman Alexie. His new memoir "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" is about growing up on a Native American reservation in Washington. And the book is also a lot about his parents. Some of the book is about the deaths of your parents. And I'd like you to read one of the poems that's included in your book. This is a very short poem called "Benediction."
ALEXIE: In writing this memoir and thinking about how to write a memoir, Mary Karr's "Art Of Memoir" became very important to me. It became sort of my bible for writing a memoir. And one of the things she was very clear about with examples was about how you had to be very honest about yourself. In writing a memoir and you're writing about other people, you had to be just as accurate and honest about yourself and your weaknesses as you are about other people's weaknesses. So this poem came out of that attempt at honesty - about personal honesty.
(Reading) I only spent a few hours with my mother as she lay dying in her rented hospital bed. I kissed her, told her I loved her. And then I fled.
GROSS: When you write you fled, what do you mean?
ALEXIE: I didn't want to be there when she died. I didn't feel strong enough on one level to be there, but I also didn't feel that I needed to be there, that I thought being there for me was something that was going to be damaging. And I thought it would be something of a lie.
GROSS: Why did you think it would be damaging?
ALEXIE: My relationship with my mother after being so contentious for so many years had settled into a truce after my father died in 2003. I maintained my love for her. I maintained the peace. And we stayed cordial by maintaining distance. I imagine she would have wanted me to be closer to spend more time with her, but I stayed away in physical and emotional forms. I protected myself. I put on armor. And in order to be with her in those last moments, I would have had to have taken down that armor, and I couldn't do it.
GROSS: Do you have any regrets about that?
ALEXIE: Yes, and I'm sure they will grow. I mention a few times in the book that I'm highly anticipating the growth of my regrets.
ALEXIE: I mean, I - but my father, who - I mean, one of the great contradictions in my life, in my work is that my father was a random undependable alcoholic. He went on these binge drinking journeys all the time during my childhood. And I would cry myself into the emergency room - dehydrated into the emergency room because he was gone. And my mother was always there. She was the one who had jobs, who financially provided for us, who was predictable and consistent. She was industrious.
And yet, I've always thought of my father as being the primary influence on my literary career. He was easy to love. That's why I thought that. He was easy to love. And my mother was difficult to love. And I fled him as he was dying and wasn't with him when he died. I mean, I pulled some indigenous version of "Cat's In The Cradle." And with my mother, it was the same thing. So I'm highly aware and readily admit that there was some personal weakness I'm still pondering and dealing with in not being with my parents when they died.
GROSS: You write about your father's death.
(Reading) My father often abandoned me when I was a child, so to be blunt, I chose to leave him in the same way he'd left me.
And you write that you visited him, but then you left and chose to be with your wife and children.
ALEXIE: My sons.
ALEXIE: When I heard the news my dad died, I was in a toy store with my two sons. And the indigenous family I've created with my wife and my two sons, I chose that. I've made that work. And I've been the best person I can possibly be inside that family. The best version of me exists inside that family, so that's the most important thing to me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Sherman Alexie. And his new book is a memoir called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." And it's about growing up on a Native reservation in Washington. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS' "PEACOCKS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Sherman Alexie. His new book is a memoir called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" about growing up on a reservation in the state of Washington.
A few months after your mother's death, you had surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. You had an experience that sounds a lot like a near-death experience, although you didn't nearly die but the surgery had complications. And you were bleeding a lot. It wasn't looking good for a while. Can you describe how you experienced that, like, what your dream state was during that time?
ALEXIE: Well, it's interesting. You know, I vividly remember certain events. Like, it's funny. I remember when they put the drugs in. Like, the sedative they put in is called midazolam, which is a perfect term for how it made you feel. Midazolam. And I remember being wheeled into the operating room. And there were a couple dozen people in there. And I heard so many accents. It was such a diverse room. My surgeon was - is East Indian. And then the room was filled with all sorts of first-generation immigrants. And, you know, I was so happy to be in that room. And I remember saying, you know, look at all the brown people. And they laughed.
And that was my last memory. So if I had died, the last thing I would have been doing was celebrating all the, you know, brown health care professionals. But, you know, what they couldn't see before surgery with the MRIs and CAT scans is that my tumor had adhered to the dura, the brain, the sinus, the main vein across my brain. And they think that was probably due to my hydrocephalus, some after effects of my hydrocephalus as a child, that my brain did not react properly when they pulled the skull cap off.
When they cut the skull to create the operating theater, they pulled the skull cap off. And that tore the tumor. It tore my brain. It tore the sinus. So I started bleeding in a way that required transfusions. And I was never in critical condition, but I was in serious enough condition where my LeBron James of a surgeon called his colleague, the Steph Curry of brain surgeons, and they discussed the next steps. So there was enough concern where there was a doctor consulting with another doctor.
And in dreaming, I remember two dreams during surgery. And the first one was my mom and dad were on a hill above me in this field. And there was a light behind them shining, you know, very typical near-death experience imagery. But even inside my dream, I was suspicious. Well, what if this is real? What if that is heaven? What if my parents are gesturing toward me? And I've done so much dream therapy over the years, I've learned how to be active inside your own nightmares and dreams.
So I flipped off my parents in my dream to tell them no, I am not coming up that hill to that light. I am not. I am not. I am not. And looking back, I think that dream happened when my brain was bleeding. I think I knew I was in trouble.
GROSS: So when you emerged after this maybe near-death experience, were you happy to be alive?
ALEXIE: You know, it's been, I guess, 19 months since surgery. And whenever I even ponder that question, as I'm pondering it now, I start to cry. Waking up after surgery was - is the greatest moment of my life. And it made me realize despite all the trauma, despite all my past and current mental illnesses, despite any pain that I have, that my life as I've constructed, as it has been constructed around me and for me is something amazing. And I'm grateful for that. I am grateful to be an indigenous man married to an indigenous woman with indigenous children in 21st century United States. I am happy to be here despite everything. And that feeling has made me a slightly different person.
Last night in our hotel room, my wife and I, who's traveling with me, we were talking about how much I've changed because of brain surgery. And it just - and I did mime, I said, well, it feels like this. And I was standing there in my boxers and undershirt. And I took a little shuffle 2 inches to the left. And then I shuffled back to the right and then to the left. And I said, it feels like I moved 3 inches to the left. I feel that much different. And it seems like it would be insignificant but it's not. I am only probably 85 percent of who I used to be. But I think if you ask the people who know me best, most especially my wife and sons, they would tell you that I've become a slightly better person because of brain surgery.
GROSS: What's the 15 percent that isn't there anymore?
ALEXIE: Blind rage.
GROSS: Oh, so you lost the bad stuff?
ALEXIE: I lost a large part of the bad stuff, a certain part of the bad stuff. And I think that allows the better parts of me to shine a little more.
GROSS: You had some cognitive recovery you had to do. And there's a poem I'd like you to read, a short poem called "After Brain Surgery." And this poem is included in Sherman Alexie's new memoir, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," which is a mix of prose and poems.
ALEXIE: It's interesting what brain surgery and brain injury does to you. I've been dealing with it my whole life. And my current - my latest brain surgery has caused me emotional and language problems, which is a deadly thing for a writer. But as my neurological nurse said about me and people like me after surgery, she said, we really have to monitor you creative types because you can talk your way around your deficiencies. And I told her I've been talking around my deficiencies since I was born.
ALEXIE: So - and this poem comes out of my recovery from brain surgery.
"After Brain Surgery." (Reading) I forget what I was trying to say. One word or another gets in the way of the word I meant to use. Nothing stays. I forget what I was trying to say, so I say something else. I compensate. Like a broken horse, I've learned a new gait. But wait. Are these the words I meant to say? I think these rhymes help me to map the way. I think these rhymes help me to map the way. But wait. Are these the words I meant to say? Am I a broken horse? Is this my new gait? Damn. I've lost the path, so I'll compensate by repeating the words I meant to say. But these words migrate. They refuse to stay in place. This is my new life, my new way. I forget what I was trying to say.
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. I really like that poem a lot. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Sherman Alexie. And his new book is a memoir called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." And it's about growing up on a Native reservation in Washington. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "REMEMBER ME AS A TIME OF DAY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with writer Sherman Alexie, author of the new memoir, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," about growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. When we left off, we were talking about having undergone brain surgery for a benign tumor in 2015. And he read his poem called "After Brain Surgery," about how during his recovery, he sometimes forgot what he was trying to say.
Are you still writing?
ALEXIE: Yeah. I mean, I wrote half of this book after brain surgery.
GROSS: Oh. Can you tell the difference between the writing before and the writing after?
ALEXIE: Well, most of what I wrote before the brain surgery was poetry and most of what I wrote after was nonfiction. You know, the last - although - the last thing included in the book is this poem - is the "After Brain Surgery" poem about language. But it's remarkable. The thing is, I guess, when you survive the worst things imaginable, for an American kid, you end up being able to deal. (Laughter) I - one of the hilarious things that's happening to me is my hearing, which was a little compromised already, I have a hard time picking out individual words and phrases in crowded environments and noisy environments.
So that's worsened now, and that's, you know, whether that's a result of age or the brain surgery or some combination thereof. The other - a few weeks ago - a few weeks before I finished publishing the book, I was in a restaurant. And the waiter was talking to us. And this has happened a lot. In that kind of environment, when people are talking to me and I'm trying to understand them and I can't, my brain will compensate by filling in song lyrics.
GROSS: (Laughter) What?
ALEXIE: So - yeah. So this waiter was talking to me and telling us the daily special, and what I heard him say - vividly heard him say - what my brain registered, he said to us, American woman, get away from me.
ALEXIE: And I just started laughing because I knew that's not what he said. So I knew it wasn't real, but it was real because that's what I heard. That's what my brain registered. So the joke of the moment, the inanity of the moment - because I don't - I can't control what song lyrics I hear. I wish it was all Prince, but it's not. You know, sometimes they say Air Supply lyrics.
And so it's - the brain, I guess, when I think about my brain, I'm in this constant experiment now. I'm in this scientific, theological, philosophical experiment with myself, wondering what's going to happen. And it's amazing. It's amazing.
GROSS: You make it sound exciting. It's probably a little frightening, too.
ALEXIE: It's terrifying as well.
ALEXIE: Like, I'm not - and the thing is - the thing - and the numbers, I know the numbers. There's a 10 to 20 percent chance of the tumor reoccurring in the same place. There's a slightly smaller chance of a benign tumor returning in some other more dangerous part of my brain.
GROSS: So, you know, we were talking about song lyrics and how your brain turns things you can't really understand in a crowded room into a lyric, often a bad lyric, a bad familiar lyric. The title of your memoir, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," I suppose is a tribute to the, you know, a reference to the Dusty Springfield recording, a really great recording. So what does that recording mean to you?
ALEXIE: Well, in searching for a title for the book - and I went through many - I just had the thought one day of looking at the top 10 songs of the year of my birth because my mom sang a lot. And she was always singing the songs on the radio, you know, Christian hymns, Spokane Indian tribal songs and the songs on the radio. Music filled my childhood, as it does with a whole bunch of folks.
So I looked at my my birth year, and I thought, what songs would my mother have been singing in my birth year? And I looked through the songs, and I hit on Dusty Springfield's song which, of course, I've heard, everybody's heard, everybody knows. Somebody called it the most heartbreaking love song of all time, and I don't disagree.
GROSS: That seems to describe the challenging relationship you had with your mother, who didn't overtly express her love to you.
ALEXIE: You don't have to say you love me. I mean, sitting here right now, I can't remember a specific instance of her saying, I love you. Nothing is coming to mind. And not from my father, either. I can't - my father hugged me twice in my life that I can remember. And my mother - in my adulthood, I can only remember side hugs (laughter).
GROSS: Do you hug your kids a lot?
ALEXIE: I am overtly huggy with my kids.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
ALEXIE: I kiss them a lot. I tell them I love them. I'm on the road, so I'm texting them constantly. I'm going to start crying again but, you know, I, you know, we like to think that as parents our love for our children is our love for our children as it is. But in being affectionate with my children, of making them aware of how much I love them is also me attempting to fill the absence from my own childhood.
In fact, as I write in the book a poem, you know, I wish in the poem that I could defy physics, defy time and go back in time and be my mother's parent and adore her as a parent in the way I doubt she was ever adored. So I adore my children, as you should.
GROSS: Sherman Alexie, it has been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.
ALEXIE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Sherman Alexie's new memoir is called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be journalist Garrett Graff, author of a new book about the government's secret doomsday plans in case of nuclear attack. It's called "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself While The Rest Of Us Die." We'll also talk with him about Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation. Mueller was the subject of Graff's previous book. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews produced are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.