Allen, Paula Gunn (Vol. 202)
Paula Gunn Allen 1939-
American poet, critic, essayist, novelist, short story writer, educator, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism of Allen's works through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 84.
A renowned literary figure, an eminent scholar, and dedicated feminist, Allen attempts to educate mainstream audiences about Native American themes, issues, and concerns by promoting Native American literature as a viable and rich source of study. In such works as her poetry collection Shadow Country (1982), and her novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983), Allen examines her identity as a mixed blood and emphasize the status of Amerindian women in various Native cultures. Her critical essays, such as those collected in The Sacred Hoop (1986), and her numerous anthologies probe similar themes and ideas.
A registered member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Allen was born in Cubero, New Mexico, a rural land grant situated next to the Laguna Pueblo reservation, the Acoma reservation, and Cibola National Forest. Allen's mother was of Laguna Pueblo, Sioux, and Scottish descent, and her father, who grew up on a Mexican land grant in the American Southwest and once served as lieutenant governor of New Mexico, was of Lebanese ancestry. Allen has credited these mixed origins as a major influence on her writing as well as a source of hope and inspiration. Spending her early years in Cubero, Allen was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Albuquerque at age six, and her Christian upbringing is often reflected in her writings. An avid reader, Allen encountered the works of Gertrude Stein in high school, and she has noted that her early attempts at writing were highly influenced by the American novelist and poet. Allen has also cited American poet Robert Creeley, under whose direction she once studied writing, and Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday as individuals who have had a strong impact on her work. Initially intending to become an actress, Allen attended various schools before earning a B.A. in English in 1966 and an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1968 from the University of Oregon. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies and American Indian Studies from the University of New Mexico in 1975. She has taught at the University of New Mexico, the University of California-Berkeley (where she was Professor of Native American/Ethnic Studies), the University of California-Los Angeles, and San Francisco State University (as director of the Native American Studies Program), among other academic institutions. Allen has been the recipient of numerous prizes: she was awarded the 1990 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Spider Woman's Granddaughters (1989), and in 1990, won the Popular and American Culture Association's Susan Koppelman Award and the Native American Prize for Literature. In addition to receiving numerous awards, Allen has held multiple academic fellowships, including a postdoctoral fellowship for the study of Native American traditions and literature from the Ford Foundation and the National Research Council. She received a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978, and was selected as a postdoctoral fellow in American Indian Studies from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1981. In 1999, Allen retired from her position as professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Much of Allen's work is preoccupied with her identity as a woman, mixed blood, and lesbian within Laguna and white society. Focusing on the themes of assimilation, self-identity, and remembrance, she frequently examines the quest for spiritual wholeness. For example, her poetry collections, which include The Blind Lion (1974), Shadow Country, and Skins and Bones (1988), often emphasize the female journey to transcendence. Specifically, Shadow Country is concerned with the world of the contemporary, career-oriented American Indian female, who is also immersed in the oral history, religion, and consciousness of her racial heritage. The search for self-actualization and an integrated self is central to The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, in which the protagonist, a lesbian half blood, eventually learns to accept her sexual orientation and cultural identity rather than conform to social stereotypes. This work, which is dedicated to the Native American deity Thought Woman, additionally emphasizes the importance of storytelling in Native American culture, incorporating such diverse narrative modes as folktales, letters, legends, dreams, and Pueblo “thought singing.” Allen's scholarly works, including her popular essay collection The Sacred Hoop, deal with women's issues, the oral tradition, lesbianism, and female deities. In Spider Woman's Granddaughters, an anthology including tales by Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Anna Lee Waters, Pretty Shield, and other Native American women, Allen attempts to introduce “tribal women's literature” to non-Native readers. She similarly collects creation myths concerning Native American goddesses in Grandmothers of the Light (1991), projecting historical fact and her own insights onto these tales. In her two-volume collection, Voice of the Turtle (1994) and Song of the Turtle (1996), Allen assembles a broad range of Native American short fiction from 1900 to 1994. In 1996, Allen and fellow Native American author Patricia Clark Smith published As Long as the Rivers Flow, a selection of nine sketches on prominent individuals of Native American ancestry—including Geronimo, Will Rogers, and Louise Erdrich—aimed at the children's/young adult market. Allen's recent biography, Pocahontas (2003), counters the romantic version of Pocahontas's life as portrayed in contemporary stories and film. Instead, Allen describes Pocahontas as a visionary and spiritually and intellectually gifted young Native American woman placed in extraordinary circumstances.
Allen's oeuvre has received a broad range of critical responses. Her poetry has been recognized for its musical qualities and The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, though faulted at times for its broad focus, has been praised for its examination of racism and sexism. While occasionally criticized for their lack of documentation, Allen's nonfiction works have been lauded as attempts to preserve Native American culture for all individuals regardless of their ethnic heritage. Some commentators have derided her tendency toward broad generalizations and presenting a biased version of the “truth”—specifically, she frequently offers her view as representative of an intrinsically pure Native perspective, which several critics have disputed. Other reviewers have accused Allen of manipulating facts in order to bolster her own tribal feminist political agenda. Critics have underscored the significance of the themes of self-identity and memory to her work, and feminist commentators have analyzed the significant role of females in her rendering of Native American mythology and the impact her lesbian identity has on her worldview. Allen's work as an editor has garnered praise, as reviewers have commended her attempts to introduce readers to Native American fiction. In that vein, she has been recognized for her contribution to Native American literature and is considered a noteworthy figure within the tradition of contemporary Native American writing.
A Blind Lion (poetry) 1974
Coyote's Daylight Trip (poetry) 1978
A Cannon between My Knees (poetry) 1981
Star Child (poetry) 1981
Shadow Country (poetry) 1982
Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs [editor] (essays and nonfiction) 1983
The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (novel) 1983
The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (essays) 1986
Wyrds (poetry) 1987
Skins and Bones: Poems 1979-1987 (poetry) 1988
Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women [editor] (short stories) 1989
Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook (essays) 1991
Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970 [editor] (short stories) 1994
As Long as the Rivers Flow: The Stories of Nine Native Americans [with Patricia Clark Smith] (biography) 1996
Life Is a Fatal Disease: Selected Poems 1964-1994 (poetry) 1996
Song of the Turtle: American Indian Fiction, 1974-1994 [editor] (short stories) 1996
Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting...
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SOURCE: Jaskoski, Helen. “Allen's ‘Grandmother’.” Explicator 50, no. 4 (summer 1992): 247-50.
[In the following essay, Jaskoski locates Allen's poem “Grandmother” within traditional Pueblo traditions and mythology.]
Out of her own body she pushed silver thread, light, air and carried it carefully on the dark, flying where nothing moved.
Out of her body she extruded shining wire, life, and wove the light on the void.
From beyond time, beyond oak trees and bright clear water flow, she was given the work of weaving the strands of her body, her pain, her vision into creation, and the gift of having created, to disappear.
After her the women and the men weave blankets into tales of life, memories of light and ladders, infinity-eyes, and rain. After her I sit on my laddered rain-bearing rug and mend the tear with string.
—Paula Gunn Allen
The editors of W. W. Norton's New Worlds of Literature reprint Paula Gunn Allen's poem “Grandmother” with a reading of the poem as referring to the speaker's grandmother: “[T]he speaker is mending the rug that, apparently, the grandmother created?” (265). The plain sense of the text, however, tells us that Grandmother (the Spider) weaves “the strands / of her body … into creation” (not rugs) and that it is “the women...
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SOURCE: Bredin, Renae. “‘Becoming Minor’: Reading The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 6, no. 4 (winter 1994): 36-50.
[In the following essay, Bredin argues that The Woman Who Owned the Shadows provides an examination of the respective positions of reader, writer, and text.]
I know you can't make peace being Indian and white. They cancel each other out. Leaving no one in the place.
—Paula Gunn Allen, “Dear World”
Chela Sandoval, in “U.S. Third World Feminism,” posits the possibility of using the outsider position, or the borderlands, as a position of “tactical subjectivity” out of which existing modes of oppression can be confronted (14). Critical debates at this point have an ongoing history of inquiry that centers around the politics of identity, the constitution of cultural inclusion/exclusion, and the problem of the speaking subject, when the speaking subject is speaking outside of the dominant order. The question to be asked addresses the position of the other within the dominant framing of ideology. Is the other complicit and resistant in ways that affect the construction of a “white self”? In what ways can the subaltern alter the discourse of racial formation? No longer is the question who may speak, but rather: speaking or not speaking, does the constructed other operate as...
(The entire section is 6020 words.)
SOURCE: Holford, Vanessa. “Re Membering Ephanie: A Woman's Re-Creation of Self in Paula Gunn Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 6, no. 1 (spring 1994): 99-113.
[In the following essay, Holford underscores the role of memory and writing in Ephanie's quest for self-discovery in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.]
Paula Gunn Allen's novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows charts the near-fatal emotional breakdown of Ephanie, a “half-breed” Guadalupe Indian living in New Mexico who, torn between the conflicting demands and beliefs of two cultures; feels incomplete to the point of panic but, initially, lacks the strength to overcome all that oppresses her. Gradually, though, she begins to create connections and build foundations by reflecting on her past, on the forces that have taught her self-hatred, on the relationships that have harmed her, and on the necessary decisions she needs to make to remember her own creative potential. Ephanie's story is at first the retelling of a painful struggle, but, as she begins to re-discover her self, her recovery becomes an affirmation of the power of language for self-definition, the creative power of united women, and the necessity of memory for self- and tribal-preservation. Ephanie must spin her own “web” of identity to re-forge connections with her tribal community, her family, her history,...
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SOURCE: Hafen, P. Jane. Review of Voice of the Turtle, by Paula Gunn Allen. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 20, no. 1 (1996): 256-59.
[In the following mixed review, Hafen notes the narrow literary scope of Allen's literary selections in Voice of the Turtle.]
Paula Gunn Allen's latest contribution to the body of Native American letters is this important anthology, Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature 1900-1970, first of a projected two-volume work. The second volume will contain contemporary writings. This well-organized and thematically selected collection offers both familiar and lesser-known narrative selections placed in a tribal, historical, and literary context.
Allen (Laguna Pueblo/Sioux) is currently a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a scholar in Native American studies, an editor, and an author of her own poetry and fiction. Her other successful editorial contributions are Studies in American Indian Literature (Modern Language Association, 1983), a guide to criticism and course designs, and Spider Woman's Granddaughters (Beacon Press, 1989), an anthology of Native American women's writings.
Allen identifies the 1900-70 time frame of her selections in Voice of the Turtle as the “formative period of Native fiction” that includes both reliance on traditional...
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SOURCE: Ferrell, Tracy J. Prince. “Transformation, Myth, and Ritual in Paula Gunn Allen's Grandmothers of the Light.” NDQ: North Dakota Quarterly 63, no. 1 (winter 1996): 77-88.
[In the following essay, Ferrell contends that Grandmothers of the Light provides insight into a “personal and empowering transformation” and examines the complexities involved with identity formation and cultures in conflict.]
[Spider Grandmother] thought to the power once and knew a rippling, a wrinkling within. … She thought in her power to each of her bundles and continued singing. She sang and sang. She sang the power that was in her heart, the movement that is the multiverse and its dancing. The power that is everywhere and has no name or body, but that is just the power, the mystery. She sang, and the bundles began to move. They began to sing, to echo her song, to join it. They sang their heart's song, that was the same as Spider's heart song, that was the heart song of the great mystery, the power that moves. The song seemed to deepen as she heard other hearts singing … in each bundle the life of the universe rested, waiting until it was sung into life … they were the song and the mystery.
Many died in the transformation, but most survived to wake to that first morning's brilliant light and find...
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SOURCE: Keating, AnaLouise. “Back to the Mother?: Paula Gunn Allen's Origin Myths.” In Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, pp. 93-117. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Keating analyzes Allen's distinctive use of North American origin myths and the metaphoric representations of the woman in her work.]
There is no arcane place for return.
The meanings of the past create the significance of the present.
Paula Gunn Allen
Thus, “the feminine” wouldn't be the myths, etc. made by men; it would be that which “I, woman” invent, enact, and empower in “our” speech, our practice, our collective quest for a redefinition of the status of all women.
The “origin” of the tradition must be acknowledged, but acknowledgment does not sanction simple repetition: each new performer “signifies” upon that origin by transforming it, and by allowing for infinite transmutations.
The title to this [essay] reflects an ongoing debate in U.S. feminist movement: The political...
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SOURCE: Allen, Paula Gunn, and John Purdy. “‘And Then, Twenty Years Later …’: A Conversation with Paula Gunn Allen.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 9, no. 3 (fall 1997): 5-16.
[In the following interview, Allen discusses her work and the progress of Native American studies.]
The following conversation took place at Chateau de la Bretesche in Brittany on June 25, 1997, immediately following the completion a three-day symposium entitled “Theories of Representation in American Indian Literatures: European and North American Perspectives.” The symposium brought together European and American scholars and Native writers to share research topics and approaches, and the discussions that ensued were enjoyably intense and wide-ranging. Since much of it brought historical contexts to bear on the discussion of Native texts, it seemed only appropriate to discuss the last twenty years with Paula, who was one of the participants in the 1977 Flagstaff conference that resulted in the formation of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures.
The following is an edited transcription of that conversation. The text is as close to the original substance as possible, with interruptions and repetitive exclamations—such as “Well, ah …” and the repeated laughter (unfortunately)—omitted. My appreciation to my editorial assistant, Aaron, for the initial...
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SOURCE: Prince-Hughes, Tara. “Contemporary Two-Spirit Identity in the Fiction of Paula Gunn Allen and Beth Brant.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 10, no. 4 (winter 1998): 9-31.
[In the following essay, Prince-Hughes views the concept of two-spirit identity as a central theme in the work of lesbian writers Allen and Beth Brant.]
A central concern in contemporary Native American fiction is that of identity. According to Louis Owens, in Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, common to many writers is a “consciousness” of the “individual attempting to reimagine an identity, to articulate a self within a Native American context” (22). This struggle for identity has required writers to engage actively and dispute dominant Western fictions of “Indianness” and to express the fragmentation experienced by people of mixed ancestry. Their sense of alienation, Owens claims, differs from that of postmodern European-American thinkers; unlike their European-descent contemporaries, who emphasize the instability of identity, Native American writers seek to recover an underlying sense of stability based on spiritual and cultural continuity and interconnection with the wider natural world (20). Even in the case of the “radically deracinated mixedblood of much Indian fiction,” who “find themselves between realities and wondering which world and which life might be...
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SOURCE: Review of Pocahontas, by Paula Allen Gunn. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 35 (1 September 2003): 76.
[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat.]
In what is presented as the first study of its kind by an American Indian scholar, Allen (The Sacred Hoop) offers a corrective to the romantic story of Pocahontas told initially by Capt. John Smith of the Virginia Company and most recently by Disney Studios. Euro-American historical accounts of Pocahontas's brief life, asserts Allen, typically depict her as lovelorn and tragic character (she died in 1617 in the aptly named river port of Gravesend, England, at the age of 20 or 21). Allen's Pocahontas [in Pocahontas], by contrast, is a real visionary, a prodigiously gifted young woman fervently devoted to the spiritual traditions of her people: a loose-knit group of Algonquin tribes known as the Powhatan Alliance, or Tsenacommacah. When the English colonists who began establishing Jamestown in 1607 invaded the Tsenacommacah, Pocahontas immediately identified it as the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretold the end of their world and the beginning of a new one, argues Allen. It was “world change time,” she writes, and Pocahontas (also called Matoaka, Amonute and finally Lady Rebecca Rolfe) was nothing if not mutable—as implied by the book's subtitle....
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Van Dyke, Annette. “Paula Gunn Allen (1939- ).” In Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, pp. 5-12. Conn., Greenwood Press: edited by Sandra Pollack and Denise D. Knight, 1993.
Provides a brief overview of Allen's life and work.
Bredin, Renae Moore. “Theory in the Mirror.” In Other Sisterhood: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color, pp. 228-43. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Focuses on the work of Leslie Marmon Silko and Paula Gunn Allen.
Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught. “‘Two Distinct Voices’: The Revolutionary Call of Susan Power's The Grass Dancer.” North Dakota Quarterly 67, no. 2 (spring 2000): 109-25.
Views Susan Power's The Grass Dancer as a response to Allen's The Sacred Hoop.
Donovan, Kathleen M. “Storytelling Women: Paula Gunn Allen and Toni Morrison.” In Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Coming to Voice, pp. 123-37. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.
Finds parallels between Allen's The Woman Who Owned the Shadows and Toni Morrison's Sula.
Foss, Karen A. Sonja K. Foss, and Cindy L. Griffin. “Paula Gunn Allen.” In Feminist Rhetorical Theories,...
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