Thursday, July 14, 2016
July 14, 2016: 20th Century Women Writers: Leslie Marmon Silko
[This Wednesday, my summer hybrid grad course on 20th Century American Women Writers kicked off (we started with a discussion of Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some exemplary such writers, leading up to a weekend post on some of what I’m most excited for with that summer course.]
Two texts that can complicate and enrich our understanding of a unique and vital writer.
I’ve written a good bit about Leslie Marmon Silko in this space, and in every such post have focused specifically on aspects of her debut novel, Ceremony (1977). I’ve had good reasons for doing so—not just that Ceremony is one of my couple favorite American novels (although yes), but also that it is (to my mind, but I’d argue the case any time) one of the most unique and important works of 20th century American literature. It’d be important in making that case to contextualize and complement Silko’s novel both with an influential predecessor such as N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1969) and with the works of her many contemporaries in the “Native American Renaissance” of the 1970s and 80s. Yet all great individual works have contexts and complements, and none of those for Silko’s work take away from the unquestionable significance and power of Ceremony. I’d put it on the short list of greatest American novels, and am continually blown away that it was Silko’s debut novel, published before she was thirty years old.
Because Ceremony was the debut novel in a multi-decade career that has continued into our own 21st century moment, however, no understanding of Silko’s works can or should stop there. Just a few years after that debut, Silko published Storyteller (1981), a hugely distinct work in both form and content. Formally, the book includes not only short fiction by Silko but also Laguna Pueblo folktales and numerous photographs (taken by Silko or her family members) of her Laguna Pueblo reservation and the surrounding communities and settings. Although some of the book’s individual short stories have been frequently anthologized (such as the mysterious “Yellow Woman,” which I’ve taught in my First-Year Writing I course for more than a decade), the ideal way to read them is as part of that multi-genre and –media whole, as the stories themselves engage with themes of Native American spirituality and storytelling, community and setting, and history and identity in ways that parallel and depend upon the book’s materials and contexts. For all those reasons and more, Storyteller reflects very distinct and important sides of Silko’s talents and works, and demands its own attention.
And then there’s Almanac of the Dead (1991). This novel of Silko’s is once again formally distinct from her earlier works, this time moving through numerous perspective characters, settings across North and Central America, and time periods to create a multi-generational historical novel of European and Native American contact and conflict. But I would argue that it differs even more in tone, focusing consistently on darker and more horrific histories and stories, and on protagonists whose lives and professions (such as arms and drug dealers, assassins, corrupt leaders, even a black market organ dealer) mirror and amplify those darknesses. Certainly characters like Tayo in Ceremony and the unnamed narrator of “Yellow Woman” have their struggles and traumas, but they are also seeking healing or wholeness or a way to move forward through those histories into a future beyond them. The characters and stories in Almanac, on the other hand, not only exist and dwell in the dark histories, but reflect a world in which (in a reductive but not I believe inaccurate summary of the novel’s central themes) it is only through present darkness that justice can be achieved for those who have suffered from it in the past. That’s a far different theme from those at the heart of Ceremony, and an illustration of why we need to read and engage with all of Silko’s works to understand her multi-faceted and evolving career.
Last writer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other women writers (20th century American or otherwise) you’d highlight?