He's On Fire

The Mystique of Sherman Alexie: An Appreciation

He's On Fire
Read a short excerpt of Sherman Alexie's memoir below.

Is basketball poetry and poetry basketball?

If you read Sherman Alexie, the answer is yes.

Is life poetry and poetry life? Again, if you read Sherman Alexie, yes.

Finally, is memoir poetry and poetry memoir? In Sherman's latest book, the heartbreakingly beautiful You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, memoir is poetry with a kick to it. Sherman has launched a 457-page, multi-genre wonder of story and personal confession, and people have been carrying it around like a love child since its release in June. Already on the New York Times bestseller list, the book has won the nation's readers despite, or more likely because of, its brutally honest, often unsettling depictions of hate from mother to son and son to mother, followed by Sherman's tectonic gravitas with regard to the mysteries of forgiveness and grace.

The book is oxygen, heat, fuel, chemical reaction.

In other words, Sherman is on fire.

In basketball terms, Sherman is what is commonly called a baller or a gamer; in fact, I've seen Sherman's jump shot. Guess what? It's on fire too: a graceful, arcing parabola that routinely leaves the net smoking and the crowd smiling. He owns the art of the follow-through and the net pop, dating from his days as a prep star at Reardan, to epic battles in independent tournaments, to rat-ball extravaganzas that ranged from Montana to Seattle, north to south and east to west throughout Indian Country and beyond. Yes, he announced his retirement from basketball recently, but his team knows he still has the hot hand. His love for the game is legendary. In fact, given the choice of outdueling the infamous Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant, on national television or having one of the most creative, robust, versatile and important literary careers in America (which he's already earned), he might actually choose the former.

A man of graceful intensity, be it in basketball, writing books, or increasingly now in how his art inhabits the national psyche, Sherman is familiar with crucibles. Common definitions of the word "crucible" include "a vessel in which substances are subjected to high heat", "the hearth at the bottom of a metallurgical furnace" and "severe tests or trials." What Sherman's work reveals, not least in his new memoir, is a life lived in the hearth of a metallurgical furnace in which he calls us as individuals, families, and nations, Native and otherwise, to burn off the dross of what we are in order to see what we might become. His is a white-hot fusion bearing us from one phase of existence to another. Born into fracture, beset by hydrocephalic brain wounding, abused, violated, in love with books in a country plagued by racist educational policies, subjected to the loss of his father and now his mother, suffering his mother's and his own bipolar tendencies, and having lived through another significant brain event recently, Sherman is familiar with combustible things.

He's On Fire
Miramax photo
Sherman Alexie, right, with director Chris Eyre on the set of Smoke Signals in 1998.

Writer Annie Proulx famously said, "Have you ever seen a house burning at night?"

Sherman has, and as his work attests, he is uncommonly attuned to and seemingly undaunted by even the hungriest or most fearsome flames. The roots of the word "crucible" are found in the 15th century Medieval Latin word crucibulum, meaning "melting pot for metals," and originally, "night lamp." If ever there was a night lamp we needed to see us through what we currently face as a nation, domestically and globally, it is Sherman Alexie.

Sherman is Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and American. Having been born into two nations still emerging from the wake of American genocidal policy, he writes against the illness and self-insulation of dominant culture. He invokes and berates, calls out and encourages. He is also vulnerable, he loves openly, and his readers adore him like few other contemporary authors.

His body of work in poetry, short stories, novels, young adult literature, children's literature, film and now memoir is symphonic, laced with a string music not unlike two of his beloved, belated Seattle SuperSonics fire starters from the past: Ray Allen, with his taut, swanlike follow-through, and further back, the electric smooth stroke of the Wizard, Gus Williams, who led the Sonics to the NBA title in '79.

With each new book, Sherman's gifts of illumination seem to gain in radiance even as his audience grows in loyalty and numbers. His narratives sing with sincerity, transparency, Tolstoyan understandings of human nature, fervent, almost feral creativity, and the reality of love despite our deepest misgivings about love. In You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, he speaks what we can't or won't speak, and because of this, his honesty is a national treasure. He speaks of our hatred for our mothers, our favoring of our fathers; our hatred for our fathers, and our favoring of our mothers. Always, fiercely, he speaks of the national shadow, but gets at it by noticing more acutely the shadow of his family and tribes and himself. In his work, trauma, brokenness and loneliness mirror not only our hatred of others, but our hatred of ourselves.

He's On Fire
Bruce Matsunaga
Sherman Alexie reading from his children's book, Thunder Boy Jr., at a literary event at Arizona State University last year.

Carl Jung said, "The less embodied the shadow, the darker and denser it is."

In other words, the less spoken our personal and collective shadows, the more dangerous they are. Without artists with Sherman's honesty, we might be no more than the sum of a national suicidal and homicidal self-fulfilling prophecy. With artists like Sherman, we discover, by embracing our shadows awkwardly and in the end, lovingly, we can become more than we imagined. I don't know how many people — it's hard to count them all — who've expressed to me personally how deeply they love Sherman, having met him only through his books. I think it's because the way he sings leads us inevitably to greater humility, and to the will to love more authentically and more fully: to give love not just to beloved others but to the stranger, and not just to the stranger, but even to our enemies.

But contrary to this impulse, and contrary to a nation of readers who adore Sherman, there are those who love to hate and vilify him too. In Indian Country he is sometimes maligned as much, if not more, than in the white America famous for banning his books. His novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is among the most banned books in contemporary American literature. He's bold, loud and audaciously funny. He says it like it is and takes no prisoners. He's not politically correct. He's politically incorrect, and happily so. That said, because of his uniquely genius gift for penetrating truths, great humor, lean and inviting prose and richly compelling plot lines, his 26 books have sold more than 2.5 million copies and been published in 25 languages. I don't think I'm crazy in saying Sherman's body of work, from fiction to filmmaking, from poetry to memoir, created against all odds and containing his singular capacity for national soul-searching, is Nobel-worthy. Below everything he writes, we sense an unflagging commitment to human flourishing.

He is utterly unique, and this uniqueness forms the largest part of his mystique.

So what makes him so unique?

I'll venture a guess. Unlike many of the dominant male writers of his generation and the generation before him (Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jim Harrison come to mind, among others), Sherman receives the influence of the feminine. He welcomes the influence of the beloved women in his life, and sings honor songs to them with his poetry and prose. His honesty with and eventual compassion for his mother, and for his own failings, radiates a warm and welcome light that is in fact the opposite of the male-centric patriarchal and misogynist dark so many of us have either propagated or experienced. By receiving the influence of the feminine, of the women beloved to him — his wife, his sisters and crucial others — he succeeds in helping to heal the heart of America and the world. Take a deep dive into his books of poems, from The Summer of Black Widows to Face, from One Stick Song to What I've Stolen, What I've Earned, from First Indian on the Moon to The Business of Fancydancing, and you'll notice that in receiving the influence of the feminine he acknowledges, names and transcends dominant culture's lust for degrading the stranger, for gross structural inequities, and for the myth of regeneration through violence.

In basketball terms this is the ballet of the game, rather than the brute force. The sound it makes is soft, sweet, swish. The result, like what we saw in this year's NBA Finals from the assist-abundant Golden State Warriors, is a revolution in the game. You could say for the past three years, Golden State has been on fire. You could also say since that first book of poems published by Hanging Loose Press in the early '90s, Sherman has been a conflagration of literary polymathic proportions the likes of which the country has never seen. Though he's not a Plains Indian, not Cheyenne or Crow or Blackfeet, if he had been he might have been given the name of two of the great plains basketball stars from Montana: Takes Enemy and Killsnight. When America has been his enemy Sherman takes that enemy, changing America's image of herself forever. When night encompasses him, his family and the human community, he kills night.

Perhaps Sherman's greatest gift is that he replaces fracture with communion. He is so adept at it, we laugh and cry with him as he takes us through the most terrible pain into a place of unforeseen emotional and spiritual strength. Sherman is clarity and contradiction. Filled with joy. Beset with sorrow. Spiked with anger. Gentle as a country stream. He courts both atheism and belief, and surveys love and abandonment with equal fervor. More centrally, he comprehends the heart, winning the heart in spite of just how heartsick we are over the killing fields of history, the desolate present, and the foreseeable hopelessness of the future. Sherman's memoir is a multicolored quilt, a shout into the dark, and a melody of peace. Listen to his music:

Later, after the game, when I returned home to the rez, my mother was sedated and asleep in the back bedroom.

I stood in the doorway and listened to her breathe.

I mourned with her and for her. She'd lost her mother, brother, and daughter to the next world.

And I understood that she'd also lost me.

She didn't cry out my name. She didn't whisper it.

I was now a ghost in her world. She was already haunted by who I might have become. Awake, I wept. My mother, still asleep, reached her hand toward somebody only she could see.

I whispered, "I love you," and walked, grief-drunk and afraid, into the rest of my life.

Sherman's work has been chosen for some of the most prestigious and time-honored awards in American literature: a PEN/Hemingway citation for The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the PEN/Faulkner Award for War Dances, and the National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In addition, he's won a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, and the American Book Award for Reservation Blues. Tack on the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy for his movie Smoke Signals, which is not only lovely and extremely witty but also succeeds in reminding America of her persistent genocidal amnesia and colonial imperialism. True to form, Sherman's movie asks if we can forgive our fathers, and does so at the historical zenith of water, salmon and memory, the falls in downtown Spokane.

I can't speak for the nation, but I want to say readers everywhere thank those elemental women of Sherman's life, his wife and sisters and friends, and yes, his mother, who like astral birds have sent him winging through space and time. For books that shake our foundations loose, and build us anew, we thank our lucky stars! We thank Alex Kuo, the Washington State professor who asked Sherman all those years ago, "What are you going to do with the rest of your life?"

To which Sherman replied, "I don't know."

To which Alex replied, "I think you should write."

Sherman wrote and wrote and wrote, and the things he wrote were quietly splendorous things, such as this passage from the closing pages of the memoir:

...I reached

Toward every other constellation.

I reached toward my sisters,

Niece, and brothers. I reached

Toward the memory of my mother.

And as I continued to shake, I felt

A sparrow-sized pain rise

From my body and—wait, wait, wait.

Listen. I don't know how or when

My grieving will end, but I'm always

Relearning how to be human again.

For honesty with regard to indifference and hate and loneliness, Sherman Alexie, Spokane thanks you. For your sincerity and for how you help us imagine love again, Spokane thanks you.

A world of readers thanks you.

On the shelf of books that have Sherman's name on the spine, and now in the memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman performs a rhythmic spin move just past half court and steps into a deep three for the game winner. His wife and children, his mother and father, his sisters and brothers and all his relations are with him.

For the price of admission we can witness it too.

Nothing but net.

He's on fire. ♦


Sherman Alexie had events scheduled in Moscow and Spokane this week, but on July 13, he announced that he had to cancel the remainder of his promotional book tour for his recently released memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. It was just too hard, reliving it all, he explained in a letter to readers posted to Facebook.

"I have been sobbing many times a day during this book tour. I have sobbed in private and I have sobbed onstage," he writes. "I have been rebreaking my heart night after night. I have, to use recovery vocabulary, been retraumatizing myself."

The memoir centers on his complicated relationship with his mother, Lillian, and in his letter Alexie said he couldn't shake the sense she was haunting him still.

"I don't believe in the afterlife as a reality," he writes, "but I believe in the afterlife as metaphor. And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass."


In late June 2015, my sister called me.

"You better get here," she said. "The doctor said Mom is near the end."

"Okay," I said. "I'm on the way."

My wife, Diane, and I and our teenage sons drove from Seattle to the reservation and made our way to my childhood home.

As we pulled into the driveway, I saw my sister sitting on the front porch steps.

"Oh, God," I said to my wife. "Mom must have died already. Arlene wants to tell me before I go inside the house."

I hurried out of the car and ran to embrace my sister.

"When did she die?" I asked.

"Mom's not dead yet," my sister said.

I was confused. I couldn't recall a single time when any Indian in my life had formally greeted me at their front door.

"Then why were you waiting for us outside?" I asked.

"I have to warn you," my sister said.

"What?" I asked. "Is Mom deformed or something?"

I couldn't imagine how lung cancer, how any cancer other than skin cancer, might dramatically change a person's appearance.

"No," my sister said. "It's just—well, it's just—"

She hesitated and covered her face with her hands. I thought she was crying.

But then I realized she was laughing.

"What?" I asked. "What's so funny?"

"I wanted to warn you," she said. "I wanted to prepare you. You see, Mom is being affectionate. She's, like, hugging people and telling us she loves us. It's weird."

My sister and I laughed together.

We hugged again.

And then we walked inside to greet my dying mother.


Shann Ray, professor of leadership studies at Gonzaga University, is the author of the poetry collection Balefire, as well as American Copper, American Masculine and Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity. His friendship with Sherman Alexie started through Spokane author Jess Walter over basketball a number of years ago, with a few epic hoops moments at the Day Court at Gonzaga, at Sherman's infamous basement gym in Seattle near the Space Needle, and at an Elliott Bay Book Company books and baseketball night with Sherman, Jess and poet/hoops star Natalie Diaz.

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