On a more problematic kind of ambiguity, and a couple reasons why it’s worth experiencing nonetheless.
As I mentioned in this post on Leslie Marmon Silko’s impressively multi-part career, I’ve been teaching her short story “Yellow Woman” (1981) as part of my First-Year Writing I course (and now also part of the online Short Story class I teach most semesters) for more than 15 years. That means I’ve read Silko’s story at least a couple dozen times by now (pretty closely each time), and yet I’ll admit to still being unable to say with any certainty which of three quite distinct descriptions best captures what is happening to her unnamed 1st-person narrator: she’s having an extramarital affair with a stranger named Silva; Silva has kidnapped her and she has developed a bit of Stockholm Syndrome toward him; or she has somehow found herself within a Laguna Pueblo “yellow woman” legend and Silva is a fellow legendary creature. Given how distinct the tones, meanings, and effects of those very different plots would be (and, for that matter, given the 21st century epidemic of missing Native American women), it feels at least a bit problematic that we can’t be sure which of them describes what this fictional woman is experiencing or what we’re reading.
Yet while Silko’s ambiguity might thus be more problematic than that which I highlighted in Monday’s post on Hawthorne’s “Kinsman,” I love “Yellow Woman” at least as much as Hawthorne’s story, and would argue that Silko’s ambiguity serves a couple of significant purposes. For one thing, I think it does capture the perspective and emotions of a character going through a traumatic experience, which is what is happening regardless of how we choose to interpret the precise nature of that trauma. In my First-Year Writing class Silko’s story is paired with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and despite their very different time periods and contexts I think there’s a far deeper connection between the two stories than simply the yellow in their titles: both use an immersive 1st-person narration to capture the multiple, confusing, even contradictory layers to their narrator’s perspectives, consciousnesses, and voices, and in so doing depict a number of distinct yet interconnected psychological and social layers to identity.
In the case of “Yellow Woman,” one of those layers is the complex question of what it means to be a Laguna Pueblo young woman growing up in late 20th century America. Just as is the case with Tayo, the main character of Silko’s magisterial novel Ceremony (1977), for the story’s unnamed narrator the lines between past and present, tradition and change, indigenous culture and national community, are far less clearly demarcated as we might expect. And seen through that lens, the fact that she might be Yellow Woman experiencing a legendary connection and might be a late 20th century young woman in a fraught sexual liaison with a stranger isn’t just a problematic ambiguity in this particular short story, but also and especially a representation of difficult and crucial questions of identity facing Native American young people like this narrator and many others. Which makes Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman” not just a story I love, but also one we should all read.
Last short story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Short stories (or other works) you especially love?