Leslie Marmon Silko is a critically acclaimed Native American author. Her mother, Mary Virginia Leslie, was part Cherokee and part Anglo, and her father, Leland Howard Marmon, was a mixed race Laguna Pueblo Indian. The Laguna Pueblo Indians are a tribe located in west central New Mexico. They take their name from the lake located on their reservation (“Laguna” means “lake” in Spanish). Leslie Marmon was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 5, 1948, and grew up near the Laguna Pueblo, northwest of Albuquerque. Because of her mixed heritage, she was not completely accepted into the Laguna tribe. Silko’s biographer Per Seyersted writes that Silko’s family “was included in clan activities but not to the same extent as full bloods." Nevertheless, the Laguna culture left deep impressions on her, and she often describes the beauty of the landscape that surrounded her childhood home on the Laguna Pueblo in her fiction and poetry. As a result of her mixed heritage, the challenges she faced growing up as a “mixed-blood” appear often as autobiographical elements in much of her writing. She explains that “the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or a mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian."
The Marmon family emphasized education and because the Indian school at the Laguna Pueblo was not very strong academically, Leslie attended a private school in Albuquerque. She went on to attend the University of New Mexico where she met her first husband, Richard Chapman. They married in 1966 and later that year, she had her first son, Robert William. Leslie and her husband divorced in 1969, the same year that she graduated summa cum laude in English from the University of New Mexico. She also published her first short story that year, “The Man to Send Rainclouds,” which she began in a creative writing class. After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Leslie was accepted into that institution’s American Indian Law School Fellowship Program. She dropped out of law school after three semesters because, in her words, the legal system “was designed by and for the feudal lords” and only meted out justice “to the rich and powerful.” She remarried an attorney, John Silko, in 1971 and began her career as a full-time writer. Her second son, Cazimir, was born in 1972.
Silko published her first book, a collection of poetry titled Laguna Woman, in 1974. The work was very successful and received critical acclaim for the beauty of the language and the way in which she blended the magnificent landscapes of her childhood into the Laguna myths and folklore. The poems were the first published to reveal a uniquely Pueblo worldview which included sharp criticism of American colonialism that would continue to be her preferred theme in future writings. Silko traveled to Alaska in 1973 where she wrote her first novel, Ceremony. In it, Silko was able to weave together the many stories of Laguna folklore that she had heard since childhood. Silko received excellent reviews for her novel, and many critics and scholars believed her to be the most accomplished Native American author of her generation. Ceremony continues to be one of her most successful works and is taught in colleges and universities nationally and internationally.
In 1980, Silko experienced two tragedies. She and her husband went through a bitter divorce and her longtime correspondent and mentor, the poet James Wright, suddenly died. Although well-established as a writer, it took Silko ten years to complete her second novel, Almanac of the Dead. As with Ceremony, Silko claimed that the stories came to her through the spirits and she could not be done with it until the spirits were done with her. She rented space in Tucson, Arizona, to write the novel and listen to the spirits who she says “rode her” until the novel was completed:
I was forced to listen...I was visited by so many ancestors...it was very hard. It changed me as a human being.
Almanac of the Dead was published in 1991, but it was not well received by critics. Those that praised the novel, however, compared it to such epics as Paradise Lost, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. Interestingly, the imaginary uprising that originated in the Chiapas region of Mexico in Almanac of the Dead coincided with an actual uprising that took place in that same region of Mexico. Named after Emiliano Zapata, an agrarian reformer and commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista revolt began slowly in 1991, the same year Almanac of the Dead was published, and became a full-blown revolt in 1994 when the revolutionaries declared war against the Mexican government. The movement’s main spokesperson is a mysterious man referred to as "Subcomandante Marcos," a character eerily similar to the female revolutionary commander Angelita La Escapía in Silko’s novel. Silko explained in an interview that she started having transmissions from the spirits for Almanac of the Dead the same year that Subcomandante Marcos “went to the mountains.”
Silko is a former professor of English and fiction writing at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She also has been associated with the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and the Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona. She is the author of novels, short stories, essays, poetry, articles, and film scripts. She has won prizes, fellowships, and grants from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts and The Boston Globe. She is the youngest writer to be included in The Norton Anthology of Women's Literature, for her short story "Lullaby."