Leslie Marmon Silko Celebrates at SUNY Albany
On Tuesday, January 30, 2007, at 8:00 p.m. Leslie Marmon Silko performed an enjoyable reading at the New York State Writers Institute to celebrate Penguin Classics’ 30th Anniversary Edition of Ceremony. This bestselling novel was Silko’s first, written in 1977. According to the New York State Writers Institute, it is “the tale of a ‘half-breed’ World War II veteran and his battle against personal demons. Ceremony received the American Book Award, sold three quarters of a million copies, sparked a revolution in Native American literature, and has remained a major influence on younger generations of writers” (NYSWI). Silko has also written Laguna Woman: Poems (1974), the story collection Storyteller (1981), the novel Almanac of the Dead (1991), the essay collection, Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays (1996), and the novel Gardens in the Dunes (1999). She received the Pushcart Prize for poetry in 1977, a MacArthur Foundation award in 1983, and was the youngest writer included in The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature for her short story “Lullaby.”
In stark contrast with the scholarly suit who stiffly introduced her credentials as listed above, Silko tripped up the stage steps sporting faded blue jeans, sneakers and a dark tee shirt, waves of thick, black hair bouncing behind her. Her entrance was met with enthusiastic applause, filling the moderately attended Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center with a generous welcome. Under yellow lights on a stage bare but for the podium, Silko introduced herself on a more intimate level as a woman coming from an oral tradition of storytelling which inspired her to write since elementary school. She was going to read the portion of her book where Tayo, suffering from PTSD after WWII, is being taken to Betonie, a medicine man, because he doesn’t respond well to hospital treatment. The story is set within the Navaho Reservation in Gallup, NM. Rocking on her ankles as she spoke, Silko’s saddened voice explained that she knows from personal experience that this reservation has not improved in the 30 years since the book was first written. Promising to take questions after reading because, as she noted, she reads “a lot” and has “an opinion on everything,” Silko started on page 94.
With a powerful, biting voice and confident posture, occasionally reaching up with both hands to tame her wild hair, Silko echoed the harsh reality of reservation life, In one instance, Tayo sees a dying cottonwood tree where he used to play. In a moment of mental escape, he remembers the comfort of the shade it once provided, that these trees were more than “just shade,” and the way the boys would throw the berry pods at each other, feeling the rush of the seeds exploding on impact. In this moment, “in a world of crickets and wind and cottonwood trees, he was almost alive again; almost visible. The green waves of dead faces and the screams of the dying that had echoed in his head were buried” (96). Silko has a gift for contrasts like these, contrasts that jerk her audience from a lovely, safe place and hurl them face first into the horror of surviving the war. Visions of the joyous youth are polluted with death of the undead. It may seem that Tayo is feeling at ease in this childhood reverie, yet even in burial, the faces of war haunt him. He claims they are buried, that he is nearly alive, yet the screams scream on even in his memory of them.
Told he must leave, that the old men are talking about the trouble he has caused, we are led down a bleak memory lane as Tayo recalls his childhood along his journey to Betonie. It is here we learn that Tayo has few nostalgic memories to cling to. His mother, from what he remembers, is a prostitute who left him in the care of bar patrons, giving them a dollar to feed him. Living under bar tables by day, he was always hungry. “When he found chewing gum stuck beneath the tables, he put it in his mouth and tried to keep it. He could not remember when he first knew that cigarettes would make him vomit if he ate them” (101). When temporarily taken from his mother and kept in a room full of white walls and cribs, Tayo “cried for a long time, standing up in the bed with his chin resting on the top rail. He chewed the paint from the top rail, still crying, but gradually becoming interested in the way the paint peeled off the metal and clung to his front teeth” (101). With her strong economy of words, Silko illustrates with fine brush strokes, Tayo’s vulnerability at not more than the age of three, the denial of his mother’s love, his desperate need of food, and his childlike resiliency to somehow survive the pain of it all. Used gum and cigarette butts are not sustenance for a developing human being, and yet the young Tayo of memory knows nothing else.
Silko peppers her story with background characters which are inherently part of the landscape. At the podium, she read with compassion about the plight of Navajos, Hopis, Zunis, and Lagunas under a bridge. These were once entire nations of people who were now scattered and searching for work among the tourist trap of the Gallup Ceremonial Grounds. “They walked like survivors, with dull vacant eyes, their fists clutching the coins [Tayo had] thrown to them. … They were educated only enough to know that they wanted to leave the reservation; when they got to Gallup there weren’t many jobs that they could get” (106). The Gallup landscape people are but one example of those who occupy this territory. Tayo and his mother lived like that when he was small, until a fight broke out between some unruly men and the prostitutes. “The police came. … He watched them tear down the last of the shelters, and they piled the rags and coats they found and sprinkled them with kerosene” (103). The police did their best to destroy these communities of impoverished people, breaking apart families in the process. Escaping to the stink of the tamarack, Tayo never saw his mother again after she was hauled away that day. Many years later, people still live under bridges. Hauling them away is not the cure.
Taking questions after the reading, most querries were structured around Silko’s personal political views. By writing about wine, poverty, prostitution, shelters, rags, comfortless smells, sounds and sights, Silko lifts the veil from the multiple horrors of racism and oppression on a very personal level. She spoke of the rape of Indian lands through Uranium mining and of the people with the introduction of alcohol and gambling. Having experienced these atrocities and their after effects first hand, it is no wonder Silko could create such an articulate and passionately crafted narrative. As Robert M. Nelson of Richmond University notes:
The disease that has infected the people, including Silko’s protagonist Tayo, is the old bane known at Laguna as Ck’o’yo medicine, which takes several new, but precedented, forms in the novel: World War II and its dreadful fallout, including such new art forms as nuclear fission and the atomic weapons capable of destroying all life (Nelson).
To each and every scarification, of both her land and her people, Silko speaks with conviction, … Despite the appearance of war, corruption and chaos, don’t lose hope. Spiritual healing persists on parallel but different plains.” She believes this emphatically and spoke so assuredly, she convinced me to believe the same even after hearing about the atrocities in such vivid detail.
What I’ve learned about writing through Leslie Morman Silko is that it is most rewarding to write about what you are most passionate about. Experimentation with form is one thing, but the way to truly reach people and raise awareness where little light is shed is to simply write from the heart. The world of settings and images, populated with characters ripe for contemplation, is already at an author’s fingertips. That passion, as Silko has made evident, reaches through the words and strums the chords of compassion within the depths of the soul. The dank detail we fear to face in our lives must be confronted and recorded. A lifetime of detail, snippets of conversations, people we love, hate, and love to hate are already stewing under the surface. They simply need to be wrestled out of hiding and brought into the light.
Nelson, Robert M. “Leslie Marmon Silko: storyteller” Joy Porter and Kenneth Roemer, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 245-56. University of Richmond, Virginia. 1 May 2007 .
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. New York State Writers Institute, State University of New York. 1 May 2007 .