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Leslie Marmon Silko is one of the most important writers to emerge from the Native American Renaissance, a period of intense literary productivity that began in the late 1960s and brought a long-marginalized segment of American writing into the mainstream of literature. The variety and breadth of Silko’s writing have established her as one of the most creative and versatile of living American writers. Her work is widely known and respected in Europe as well, where she is considered a major U.S. author, rather than an ethnic writer.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up Amid the Mesas
Leslie Marmon was born on March 5,1948, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, of mixed European, Mexican, and Laguna ancestry. She grew up at Old Laguna, a Pueblo Indian reservation west of Albuquerque on the Rio Grande plateau, a high-desert area that has been inhabited by the Laguna people for at least a thousand years. Silko was raised next door to her great-grandfather Robert’s second wife, Marie Anaya, the Grandmother A’mooh of Storyteller (1981). She, along with Silko’s great-aunt Susie and paternal grandmother Lillie, filled Silko’s youth with ancient Laguna stories and encouraged her to keep the stories alive, a responsibility that later became an impetus and foundation of her writing. The old stories also helped to shape Silko’s identity, providing context for her relationships within the community and with the community of Laguna itself, which she came to know intimately through a childhood spent wandering on foot and horseback through its sand hills and mesas.
After a childhood in both Native American and Catholic schools, Silko graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of New Mexico with a degree in English. That same year, 1969, her first important publication, the short story ”The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” appeared in New Mexico Quarterly. Then, inspired by her father’s role in helping Laguna win back a piece of land from the state in the 1950s, Silko entered the Fellowship Program in American Indian Law at the University of New Mexico. In 1971 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Discover Grant. Frustrated by a legal system she had come to feel would never achieve justice for Native Americans, Silko dropped out of law school and began to think of herself as a writer. She entered a graduate program in English at the University of New Mexico but left to teach at Navajo Community College.
Writing to Live
In 1973 Silko moved to Ketchikan, Alaska, where she wrote Ceremony (1977), the novel that was to secure her place in what later became known as the Native American Renaissance. Isolated in an unfamiliar place and dealing with a troubled marriage—to her second husband, John Silko—as well as physical illness and the unfamiliar, depressing spectacle of continuous rainfall, Silko wrote to reconstruct the desert landscape of her home and to save her own sanity. The novel is at once a healing ceremony and an analysis of the effects of colonialism and world war on contemporary Native Americans. Above all, the novel is about the power of stories both to wound and to heal.
After the publication of Ceremony in 1977, Silko received greater recognition for her earlier short stories. Among her most noteworthy stories were “Lullaby,” ”Yellow Woman,” and ”Tony’s Story.” “Lullaby” is an old woman’s recollection of how her children were once taken away for education and how they returned to a culture that no longer seemed familiar or comfortable. ”Yellow Woman” concerns a Navajo woman who is abducted by a cattle ranger; she begins to believe that she is simultaneously herself and the mythical Yellow Woman. ”Tony’s Story” is about an Indian who kills a vicious policeman and equates the murder with the Pueblo exorcism ritual, enacted as a way of dealing with external forces outside human control. Some of Silko’s stories were included in the anthology The Man to Send Rainclouds (1974), which derives its title from Silko’s humorous tale of conflict between a Catholic priest and Pueblo Indians during a Native American funeral. Silko also included some of her early stories in her 1981 collection Storyteller, which features her poetry as well.
Storyteller brings many of her previously published stories and poems together with accounts of family history and photographs (many taken by her father, Lee Marmon, a professional photographer), carefully arranged to create a coherent whole. Originally termed a “collection,” Storyteller is now more often considered autobiography. The relationships of materials in the book emphasize the continuity of oral and literary traditions and the power of story to shape experience, while the photographs evoke a sense of place that helps readers imagine themselves inside the stories.
Silko returned to New Mexico in 1976, but left again to teach at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, in 1978. She earned a reprieve from the demands of teaching in 1981, when she was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation ”genius grant” for her small but influential body of work. The award—at the time worth $176,000—was particularly appreciated by Silko, who had produced most of her writing while also working as an English professor. Acknowledging her cash prize, she told Time that she was now ”a little less beholden to the everyday world.” Indeed, Silko used that money to work on an epic novel, Almanac of the Dead (1991), which ultimately took ten years to complete and whose unconventionality raised more than a few eyebrows. More than seven hundred pages long, Almanac of the Dead weaves history, myth, prophecy, cultural analysis, and political diatribe with several strands of narrative involving more than seventy primary characters in an intricate web. It is epic in scope, taking in hundreds of years of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers, and following one mixed-race family on their far-flung voyages.
Silko’s third novel, Gardens in the Dunes (1999), counters the destruction portrayed in Almanac of the Dead by restoring bonds and drawing parallels between Native American and European experience, and exploring ways humans can restore their contiguity with the world and participate in the recovery of Earth from the devastation of colonial and capitalist greed.
Married and divorced twice, Silko has two sons, Robert William Chapman, born in 1966, and Cazimir Silko, born in 1972. Silko still lives in Tucson, in the desert landscape that first inspired her to write.
Works in Literary Context
The Native American Renaissance
While Native Americans have oral and storytelling traditions that predate what we now think of as American culture, their myths and folktales remained something separate until 1968, when N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize. This achievement ushered in a phase of literary productivity by Native Americans, as well as writers of mixed Native and European ancestry, dubbed the ”Native American Renaissance” by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln in his 1983 book of the same
name. Such writers as Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie blended a rich sense of Native American identity with unmistakably modern stories. But Leslie Marmon Silko’s writing has not just helped to shepherd this movement; it has added another dimension as well: nature writing. Native American writers are just beginning to make their way into studies of this genre, which until recently was the purview of European and American male writers in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Ecocritics see Silko as bringing a particularly rich voice to the genre. Silko’s biographer Gregory Salyer observes that with her work ”comes a new chapter in the imagination of land in American literature.”
Works in Critical Context
With its depiction of life on the Indian reservation and its exploration of philosophical issues, Ceremony established Silko as an important Native American writer and marked her as the first Native American woman novelist. Charles R. Larson, writing in Washington Post Book World, calls Ceremony a novel “powerfully conceived” and attributed much of the book’s success to Silko’s incorporation of Native American elements. ”Tayo’s experiences may suggest that Ceremony falls nicely within the realm of American fiction about World War II,” Larson writes. ”Yet Silko’s novel is also strongly rooted within the author’s own tribal background and that is what I find especially valuable here.” Similarly, Frank MacShane writes in the New York Times Book Review that Silko skillfully incorporates aspects of Native American storytelling techniques into Ceremony. ”She has used animal stories and legends to give a fabulous dimension to her novel,” he declares. MacShane adds that Silko is without question . . . the most accomplished Indian writer of her generation.” Some critics also considered Ceremony a powerful confirmation of cosmic order.
Elaine Jahner, who reviewed the novel for Prairie Schooner Review, writes that the book is about the power of timeless, primal forms of seeing and knowing and relating to all of life.” She observes that the Native American storytelling tradition provides the novel with both theme and structure and adds that the main character, Tayo, eventually perceives something of his responsibilities in shaping the story of what human beings mean to each other.” Peter G. Beidler focuses on the importance of storytelling in Ceremony by writing in American Indian Quarterly that the novel is both ”the story of a life [and] the life of a story.” Beidler calls Ceremony a magnificent novel” that brings life to human beings and makes readers care about them.”
- Arnold, Ellen L., ed. Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press, 2000.
- Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983.
- Nelson, Robert M. Place and Vision: The Function of Landscape in Native American Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
- Salyer, Gregory. Leslie Marmon Silko. New York: Twayne, 1997.
- Allen, Paula Gunn. ”The Psychological Landscape of Ceremony.” American Indian (Quarterly, no.1 (1979).
- Beidler, Peter G. Review of Ceremony. American Indian Quarterly (Winter 1977-1978).
- Jahner, Elaine. Review of Ceremony. Prairie Schooner Review (Winter 1977-1978).
- Larson, Charles R. Review of Ceremony. Washington Post Book World (April 24, 1977).
- MacShane, Frank. Review of Ceremony. The New York Times Book Review (June 12, 1977).
- Pierce, Kenneth M. ”The Most Happy Fellows.” Time (August 8, 1983).
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