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Silko, Leslie Marmon

SILKO, Leslie Marmon

Nationality: American. Born: 1948. Education: Board of Indian Affairs schools, Laguna, New Mexico, and a Catholic school in Albuquerque; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, B.A. (summa cum laude) in English 1969; studied law briefly. Family: Has two sons. Career: Taught for 2 years at Navajo Community College, Tsaile, Arizona; lived in Ketchikan, Alaska, for 2 years; taught at University of New Mexico. Since 1978 professor of English, University of Arizona, Tucson. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts award, 1974; Chicago Review award, 1974; Pushcart prize, 1977; MacArthur Foundation grant, 1983. Address: Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, U.S.A.

Publications

Novel

Ceremony. New York, Viking Press, 1977.

Almanac of the Dead. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Gardens in the Dunes. New York, Scribner, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Bravura" and "Humaweepi, the Warrior Priest," in The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians, edited by Kenneth Rosen. New York, Viking Press, 1974.

"Laughing and Loving," in Come to Power, edited by Dick Lourie. Trumansburg, New York, Crossing Press, 1974.

"Private Property," in Earth Power Coming, edited by Simon J. Ortiz. Tsaile, Arizona, Navajo Community College Press, 1983.

Play

Lullaby, with Frank Chin, adaptation of the story by Silko (produced San Francisco, 1976).

Poetry

Laguna Woman. Greenfield Center, New York, Greenfield Review Press, 1974.

Storyteller (includes short stories). New York, Seaver, 1981.

Voices Under One Sky. Freedom, California, Crossing Press, 1994.

Rain. New York, Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Grenfell Press, 1996.

Other

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James A. Wright, edited by Anne Wright. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1986.

Yellow Woman, edited by Melody Graulich. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Rooster and the Power of Love (correspondence). New York, Norton, 1995.

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko, edited by Ellen L. Arnold. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

*

Manuscript Collection:

University of Arizona, Tucson.

Critical Studies:

Leslie Marmon Silko by Per Seyersted, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1980; Four American Indian Literary Masters by Alan R. Velie, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

* * *

Through her works Leslie Marmon Silko has defined herself as a Native American writer, concentrating on ethnic themes, motifs, and genres. She had already established a minor reputation as a short story writer when she published her novel Ceremony, which, along with N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, is one of the two most important novels in modern Native American literature.

Like the earlier novel, Ceremony focuses on a young American Indian who, under somewhat similar circumstances, struggles to realign himself with traditional Indian culture and reservation life after having been torn away. Tayo, Silko's half-Laguna, half-Anglo protagonist, returns to his New Mexico reservation just after World War II. The horrors of the war against the Japanese in the Philippine jungles have led him to the brink of insanity and the mental ward of a veterans' hospital. Back home, he is in constant danger of succumbing to mental illness as he faces a sad, apparently hopeless life. His half-breed status among his own people and the legacy of shame from his promiscuous mother, now dead, exacerbate the pain of living among a dispossessed people who are constantly reminded of their lost heritage. He associates with fellow veterans who fill their meaningless lives with alcohol and anecdotes about their sexual exploits among white women during the war, and he observes Indian prostitutes and winos in scenes of skid-row squalor that remind him of his own ruined mother. Guided by Betonie, an old medicine man, Tayo finds a helpmeet in a sort of Indian earth-goddess figure and gradually proceeds through the series of mystical ceremonies and rituals that will make him whole again, and in the process he outwits the witchcraft of his evil antagonist Emo.

Storyteller, an anthology of tribal folk tales, short stories, family anecdotes, photographs, and poems, demonstrated Silko's continuing fascination with narrative, but fourteen years passed before she published her second novel, Almanac of the Dead. The reason for the interlude is obvious: Almanac is massive and ambitious. This apocalyptic novel, set in the unspecified present, describes the collapse of white European-American civilization and the resurgence of Native American peoples. It is divided into six sections: "The United States of America," "Mexico," "Africa," "The Americas," "The Fifth World", and "One World, Many Tribes." The main action begins at a heavily fortified ranch near Tucson, Arizona, and focuses on the characters Lecha and Zeta, sixty-year-old twin sisters of Mexican extraction and grand-daughters of Yoeme, a Yaqui woman who escaped a death sentence for sedition in 1918. Lecha is a psychic with visionary powers. Zeta, with Lecha's estranged son Ferro, directs an operation for smuggling drugs, illegal immigrants, and arms. The sisters inherit from Yoeme an ancient, fragmentary almanac of tribal narratives which, Yoeme believed, contains a mysterious power "that would bring all the tribal people of the Americas together to retake the land." The working out of this prophecy generates the novel's plot as a whole, and at the open-ended conclusion, a series of bombings and murders in Tucson coincides with a gathering of shamans and would-be revolutionaries while in Mexico an army of disfranchised Indians begins to march north. But in developing this overall scheme, Silko weaves together multiple interrelated tales and anecdotes, employing about seventy characters and a wide range of settings. The overall movement toward the destruction of decadent Western culture in North America is associated with the rapid decline of late capitalism predicted by Marx.

As a Native American writer, Silko deals with the usual dichotomies: white culture is cruel, artificial, dead, cut off from nature, based on greed; traditional Indian culture is holistic, natural, communal. However, Silko is by no means simple-minded in working within this framework of values, and she is a close observer of both nature and human nature.

Like many contemporary writers, Silko experiments with the narrative line, weaving in and out of chronological time as she explores the consciousness of her characters. However, her habitual use of what she takes to be the Indian concept of realityor at least one's experience of realityas narrative (or myth) enables her to avoid the morbid extremes of self-consciousness that can result from an analysis of the narrative process. She begins Ceremony with a description of Thought-Woman, the spider, "sitting in her room/thinking of a story now/I'm telling you the story she is thinking." In Almanac of the Dead the visionary or mystical mode of storytelling is represented by the almanac itself, as well as by the visionary Lecha and by a character named Tacho, who offers prophecies about "The Reign of the Fire-Eye Macaw" (the present era).

The success of Ceremony was largely due to Silko's ability to deal convincingly with Indian traditions and myth while recognizing the demands of psychological realism and exercising a strict control over her narrative art. Almanac of the Dead is extremely ambitious but uneven and finally unsatisfying as a work of fiction: narrative control seems to break down toward the end of the novel as realism is sacrificed to apocalyptic vision.

Silko, of Laguna Pueblo, Mexican, and Anglo descent, has become more than a personal, tribal, or even regional writer: she is an important figure in Native American literature. As such, she writes for two audiences: the small group of readers who identify with her ethnic background and share her Indian sensibilities and the general readers who, regardless of their sympathy for Indian problems and concerns, find her works somewhat exotic. Indeed, this exotic quality provides a large part of their appeal. Silko herself reveals insights into her art of storytelling in the series of letters she exchanged with James Wright prior to that writer's death in 1980, published as Delicacy and Strength of Lace. Since the image of the Indian has always been problematic in American culturewith strong tendencies toward the mythic, either "Devil" or "Noble Savage"Silko, like other writers in her position, must be wary of appealing to easy sentimentality or other conventional responses.

One interesting development in literary criticism in recent years has been to place Silko and other Native American writers in the context of postcolonial, postmodern literature. Silko is said to be searching in her fiction for an alternative to both traditional Western, humanist discourse and the postmodern critique of that discourse (which denies the autonomous subject). From this point of view her project as a Native American writer has been to model a "dynamic" identity and redefine multiple possibilities of the subject. On the one hand, Silko obviously offers a powerful critique of the Western, "imperial" self that has worked toward the dominance and destruction of nature and native peoples. On the other hand, Silko has expressed biting criticism of fellow Native American novelist Louise Erdrich for her "postmodern, so-called experimental influences." Silko remains committed to the referential dimension of literary language and to the shared, communal experience that she associates with Native American oral tradition.

Clinton Machann

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