Authors: Leslie Marmon Silko

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and novelist

Identity: American Indian (Laguna and Plains)

Author Works

Poetry:

Laguna Woman: Poems, 1974

Long Fiction:

Ceremony, 1977

Almanac of the Dead, 1991

Gardens in the Dunes, 1999

Short Fiction:

Yellow Woman, 1993

Drama:

Lullaby, pr. 1976 (with Frank Chin)

Nonfiction:

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright, 1986

Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures, 1993

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today, 1996

Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko, 2000 (Ellen L. Arnold, editor)

Miscellaneous:

Storyteller, 1981 (includes poetry and prose)

Biography

Leslie Marmon Silko, one of the most acclaimed writers of the American Indian literary renaissance of the 1970’s, was reared on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation, in the house where her father, Lee H. Marmon, had been born. During her childhood she spent much time with her great-grandmother, A’mooh, who lived next door. A’mooh and Silko’s Aunt Susie, Mrs. Walter K. Marmon, were among the people who taught her the Laguna traditions and stories that became the principal resource for her poetry and fiction. Silko’s family background included Laguna, Mexican, Plains Indian, and white ancestors. Her great-grandfather, Robert Gunn Marmon, was a trader who had been elected to one term as governor of the pueblo. Nevertheless, the family, which lived at the edge of the village, occupied a marginal place in the community. After attending schools in Laguna and Albuquerque, she went on to the University of New Mexico, where she graduated in 1969 with a B.A. magna cum laude in English. She entered law school and attended three semesters before deciding to devote herself to writing. Silko taught at Navajo Community College, Many Farms, Arizona; at the University of New Mexico; and at the University of Arizona. For a time she was married to an attorney, John Silko, with whom she had two sons, Robert and Cazimir.{$I[AN]9810000719}{$I[A]Silko, Leslie Marmon}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Silko, Leslie Marmon}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Silko, Leslie Marmon}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Silko, Leslie Marmon}{$I[tim]1948;Silko, Leslie Marmon}

In Silko’s first book, Laguna Woman, she set out many of the themes she developed in her later work. Laguna myth, culture, and ceremony are embodied in the contemporary experience of these poems, as in “Prayer to the Pacific,” where she refers to one of the Laguna creation myths: “Thirty thousand years ago/ Indians came riding across the ocean/ carried by giant sea-turtles.” The poem conveys a cyclic concept of nature, in which the ocean separates, but also connects, the landmass of North America and China. In her novel Ceremony the central character, Tayo, a veteran of World War II, remembers refusing to kill a Japanese soldier, who looked like his uncle, Josiah. Weather patterns in the Philippine jungles and at Laguna are also shown to be related to one another and to the people living in these places. Other poems, such as “When Sun Came to River Woman,” reveal nature as both the setting and the result of copulation. Human intercourse, the rain and sun, and the ceremonial songs are all necessary in the bringing of new life; they are interconnected and interdependent. An essential part of Tayo’s recovery in Ceremony is his relationship with T’seh Montano, a medicine woman who revives his sexuality and teaches him how to use and protect medicinal plants growing in the natural locale.

In Ceremony the prose narrative, set in the aftermath of World War II, is juxtaposed with ancient myths, told in centered verse. The nonchronological prose narrative is told in segments with many flashbacks, similar to the structure of N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1969). The nearly five-hundred-year existence of Laguna at its present location has made it possible for Silko to write out of a cultural tradition intricately tied to the natural environment. Yet it is a place that suffered severe trauma in the second half of the twentieth century. The atom bomb was developed at nearby Los Alamos, and the first atom bomb exploded just 150 miles from Laguna. In the early 1950’s the Anaconda Company opened a large, open-pit uranium mine on Laguna land. The danger of nuclear war is a central concern in Ceremony. Tayo comes to understand that this threat could have the effect of uniting all the world’s people into one clan again.

Silko collected her short fiction, nonfiction prose, and poetry, including the poems from Laguna Woman and the centered verse in Ceremony, in Storyteller. The selections in the book vary greatly in content and form, from the directly autobiographical poetry at the beginning to the title piece, “Storyteller,” which is set in Alaska, and “Lullaby,” the story of a Navajo woman who, like most Native Americans, has suffered cultural and personal losses. Out of these diverse selections emerges the central idea that all live in relation to the earth, and that the individual’s physical, mental, and spiritual survival depends on an awareness of that relationship.

In 1991 Silko published the novel Almanac of the Dead, which she had begun with a MacArthur Foundation grant awarded in 1983. This sprawling, complicated work is a combination of revisionist history and fiction. Unlike Ceremony, with its limited setting, Almanac of the Dead takes place throughout the New World; the many characters roam over four hundred years and thousands of miles. As does all of her work, however, this one explores connectedness in the midst of fragmentation, both among people and with the earth.

Gardens in the Dunes takes place at the turn of the twentieth century and contrasts the lives and cultures of Native Americans and Europeans. It also, however, illustrates the planting of the seeds that produce the culture of late twentieth century Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, especially of feminism. Her main character, Indigo, a Sand Lizard Indian, begins at her birthplace on the California-Arizona border and travels throughout Europe as the companion to an upper-class Victorian family.

After the poet James Wright wrote a letter to Silko in August, 1978, praising Ceremony as “one of the four or five best books” he had read about America, a correspondence ensued between them that lasted until Wright’s death in March, 1980, and which was published in 1986 as The Delicacy and Strength of Lace. These letters reveal Silko’s spontaneity and talent; perhaps more important, they chronicle a literary friendship between a white, male, mainstream poet and a Native American female writer. Dialogues such as theirs prepare the way for the long overdue acceptance of the Native American contributions to American literature.

BibliographyAllen, Paula Gunn. “The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.” In Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Design. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983. Interprets Silko’s novel from a feminist perspective and sees it as divided into two kinds of characters: earth spirits in harmony with the earth and spirit destroyers. Allen says that this is a novel of feminine life forces and the mechanistic death force of witchery. The women are equatable with the land, the life force, a thesis that is central to Native American culture. Analyzes the main characters and the causes for Tayo’s illness from a Jungian perspective. Gives a brief and helpful bibliography of Silko’s work and of criticism about her fiction. Also discusses her poetry and the storyteller tradition that underpins her fiction.Barnett, Louise K., and James L. Thorson, eds. Leslie Marmon Silko. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999. A collection of critical essays on the entire range of Silko’s work through Almanac of the Dead, this text offers biographical information on Silko as well as an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources complete with a helpful bibliographical essay.Brumble, H. David. American Indian Autobiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Gives brief biographical sketch. Compares Silko’s work to N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) and The Names (1976). Silko uses the traditional as well as the personal in her stories. Her fiction reflects the Native American oral culture and the traditional sense of a lifetime of stories. Says that Silko wants to convey a sense of herself as a storyteller, just as Momaday does in his fiction, and that she adopts his form and methods, which give Silko a sense of tribal identity.Chavkin, Allan, ed. Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Fourteen essays offer readings of Silko’s novel from a variety of theoretical perspectives and provide background information on Native American culture.Coltelli, Laura. Winged Words. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. A collection of interviews with Native American authors. The interview with Silko gives insight into her experiences and influences in writing Almanac of the Dead in addition to reviewing her earlier work.Fitz, Brewster E. Silko: Writing Storyteller and Medicine Woman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. An interesting discussion of Silko as a traditional storyteller in a writing, rather than oral, mode.Graulich, Melody, ed. “Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. An important addition to Silko scholarship, this collection of critical essays contains a great deal of useful background information on the Yellow Woman myth so central to Silko’s Storyteller collection. In addition, it gathers some of the most influential Silko scholarship.Jaskoski, Helen. “From the Time Immemorial: Native American Traditions in Contemporary Short Fiction.” In Since Flannery O’Connor: Essays on the Contemporary American Short Story, edited by Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1987. Suggests that the narrator of “Yellow Woman” experiences the wish fulfillment of Romantic novels, playing out in a dreamlike state the fantasy of an encounter with a masterful stranger with no sense of guilt or consequence.Jaskoski, Helen. Leslie Marmon Silko: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998. A thorough critical study of Silko’s short fiction, touching upon the roles of women, Native Americans, and the Southwest as they figure in her work. Includes a bibliography and an index.Krumholz, Linda J. “‘To Understand This World Differently’: Reading and Subversion in Leslie Marmon Silko’s ‘Storyteller.’” Ariel 25 (January, 1994): 89-113. Discusses the role of the reader in Silko’s Storyteller; argues that one of the central ways in which Silko challenges the representation of Native Americans is to contest their relegation to the past and to break down the oral/written distinction used to support the past/present (them/us) dichotomy.Krupat, Arnold. “The Dialogic of Silko’s Storyteller.” Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literature, edited by Gerald Vizenor. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. Discusses Storyteller from the point of view of Mikhail Bakhtin and Native American autobiography.Larson, Charles R. American Indian Fiction. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978. Views Silko as an author who is very aware of her cultural and ethnic identity and as a writer of “authentic” Native American novels. Provides an in-depth analysis of Ceremony, summarizes the plot, and discusses the experimental structure of the novel. Relates the story in Ceremony to the Grandmother Spider motif and myth. Discusses the poems included in Ceremony, asserting that they act as a second persona in the novel, as a medicine man. Relates Silko to N. Scott Momaday, Hyemeyohsts Storm, and James Welch.McAllister, Mick. “Homeward Bound: Wilderness and Frontier in American Indian Literature.” In The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature, edited by David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989. Considers the nature of the frontier in Silko’s works. Compares Silko’s treatment of the frontier to that of Frank Waters’s The Man Who Killed the Deer (1942). Says that Ceremony and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968) are two important American novels. All three of these books treat individuals as being spiritually dissociated from their homes. Says that Ceremony is more positive in affirming the survival of Native American values than Momaday’s novel.Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. 167-191. In the chapter entitled “The Very Essence of Our Lives: Leslie Silko’s Webs of Identity,” Owens analyzes Ceremony as a search for identity through memory and returning home.Palmer, Linda. “Healing Ceremonies: Native American Stories of Cultural Survival.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julie Brown. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997. Shows how the structure, image, and theme of Silko’s story “Lullaby,” from Storyteller, exemplifies the recurring Native American theme of ceremony, song, story, and memory as a means of cultural survival against the dominant society.Ramirez, Susan Berry Brill de. “Storytellers and Their Listener-Readers in Silko’s ‘Storytelling’ and ‘Storyteller.’” The American Indian Quarterly 21 (Summer, 1997): 333-335. Discusses the role of the listener-reader in American Indian literature; discusses the “transformational” relationship between a storyteller and listener-readers in Silko’s stories “Storyteller” and “Storytelling.”Ronnow, Gretchen. “Tayo, Death, and Desire: A Lacanian Reading of Ceremony.” In Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse in Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. Provides a detailed reading of Ceremony, applying the perspectives of Lacanian psychology and poststructuralist literary criticism.Salyer, Gregory. Leslie Marmon Silko. New York: Twayne, 1997. A critical study; subjects include women and the Laguna Indians in Silko’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and an index.Seyersted, Per. Leslie Marmon Silko. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1980. A good critical study of Silko’s work; includes a bibliography.Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Interview.” Short Story, n.s. 2 (Fall, 1994): 91-95. Discusses the process by which her fiction is written, its sources in the storytelling traditions of her ethnic background, how she began writing and why.Studies in American Indian Literatures (SAIL) 2, no. 10 (Fall, 1998). Special issue on Almanac of the Dead. Includes excellent essays as well as Ellen Arnold’s interview, in which Silko discusses Gardens in the Dunes.Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Offers an overview analysis of Ceremony and compares the novel to N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968). Says the book explores the death of, or threats to, traditional Native American values and ways. Ceremony sets the human struggle against mythic Native American legends. Examines Storyteller. Says that Silko successfully uses the possibilities afforded her by Native American myths and the persona of the storyteller figure to do more than provide local color: Instead Silko uses these references to develop her characters and plot. Provides a useful but brief bibliography.
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