By Sophie Jeffery, Contributing Writer
On the evening of September 22nd, author Sherman Alexie opened his keynote address for the inaugural BookFest St Louis by admiring the acoustics at The Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Gallery. Alexie ensured the crowd he was still going to use his microphone, however, because he could not stand macho poets who think their voices don’t need the extra boost. “My voice is so filled with poetic testosterone,” he mocked, “I’m going to speak directly to you through my penis.” It was clear from that moment this was not going to be a typical book-reading.
Sherman Alexie is an acclaimed writer, having published 26 books and received countless awards. He is a poet, short story writer, novelist and performer. He is also the 3rd tallest Spokane Indian, but says, “the other two are half white so they don’t count.” They, however, say he does not count because he has been an urban Indian since 1994, living in Seattle with his wife and children.
His latest book, a memoir titled “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, is a heartbreaking journey that explores the roller coaster of emotions Alexie experienced during and after his mother’s passing through poetry and short stories. Their relationship was a tumultuous one, possibly in part due to both Alexie (diagnosed) and his mother’s (undiagnosed) struggle with bipolar disorder. Alexie’s mother was highly regarded within the reservation community as a skilled quilter, a social worker, a drug and alcohol abuse counselor, and one of the last fluent speakers of their tribal language. Her children, however, experienced a whole different side of their mother, which in some ways makes her passing even more difficult. Feeling any sort of animosity towards such a publicly admired woman is painful, and Alexie’s book is a raw exploration of that struggle.
Alexie’s tour for the book was scheduled throughout the summer, and while he jokingly blamed the abrupt cancellation of 17 of his remaining 22 events on the summer heat and subsequent body odor, saying, “All my leftist fans are afraid of aluminum,” the real reason behind the cancellations is much more vulnerable. Alexie does not believe in ghosts, but said “the spiritual coincidences were piling up,” and he could not ignore them any longer. He hilariously described one of the tipping points to the audience, which occurred at a hotel he deemed “Bram Stoker’s IKEA”. Alexie said the hotel was decorated with the type of furniture that existentialists and hipsters would love: “This place is where hipsters would die from instant hipster tumors,” and “Existentialists would sit around on not-chairs and ponder ‘When is furniture not furniture?’” Walking through a hallway so dark he had to use his phone’s flashlight to find his room, he rounded a corner and stumbled upon a 19th century handmade quilt hanging and illuminated on the wall. He yelled out, “F— you, mom!”, and then cancelled the gigs and went home.
Vulnerability is very important to Alexie, which is perhaps why he spoke so honestly about his struggles with the tour. He shared the facts alongside humorous anecdotes, to keep up some semblance of armor against an emotional breakdown, but anyone who reads “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” can feel the vulnerability practically seeping through the pages. “If you, as a writer, are unwilling to be this vulnerable,” Alexie asked, “then why are you doing it?” Being vulnerable allows others to be vulnerable as well, he said. It invites empathy, and allows them to let themselves feel emotions they may not have felt otherwise.
It’s clear to Alexie that what the country needs is a little vulnerability and love, as he writes in his poem Hymn, written after the incident in Charlottesville in which a vehicle was driven into a crowd of protestors. Alexie said he posted the poem on Facebook and was shocked to discover it had been read 1 million times: “Wow, people are desperate,” he said he thought at the time. “Maybe we’re always desperate, though…desperate for comfort.” In the poem, Alexie wonders why we applaud people for loving their own inner circles when it is much more difficult to love a stranger. The poem serves as a battle cry for Alexie and his readers, inviting them to resist hate with love; a short selection follows:
My friends, I’m not quite sure what I should do.
I’m as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.
But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist
To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.
Alexie also shared his thoughts on the current unrest in St. Louis, being careful to point out that he is an outsider to the situation. “Continue to resist”, he said, “I know we get exhausted, but resist. Resist according to your gifts.” He told writers to write, singers to sing, political activists to protest…whatever you can do, do it, and do not quit. “It’s easier to remain powerless than it is to do something dangerous,” Alexie told the audience, not necessarily encouraging anyone to put themselves in physical danger but instead to attach some kind of risk to a position that they obviously care deeply about and then convey this importance to people who will see the demonstration. In reference to video footage of white males causing property damage while wearing masks, Alexie criticized them for taking advantage of a painful situation to cause destruction. “Put your future at risk [by revealing your face], then I’ll believe you, white liberal,” he said.
At the end of his address, Alexie awkwardly shuffled off stage to the sound of a rousing standing ovation like a man who does not know what to do with admiration. He then stayed behind to sign hundreds of copies of his memoir and any other of his books the attendees purchased at the event, including the 10th Anniversary edition of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian”. Greeting each person with a friendly, enthusiastic smile and warmly embracing those who asked for a photo, he seemed to be putting into practice his own advice to use his gifts to resist, to be kind, and to fight hate with love.