As a person and as an artist, Leslie Marmon Silko defies easy classification. Some might consider her a regional author in that most of her writing emphasizes place and has as its setting the towns, villages, rivers, mesas, and mountains of north central and northwestern New Mexico—in and around Albuquerque, where she was born, and the Laguna Pueblo Reservation (near Grants and Gallup) where she grew up. Alaska, too, in a lesser way figures as a setting in her work since she spent 1974 writing in Ketchikan. At present she lives in Tucson, where she is on the faculty of the University of Arizona—and that locale also finds its way into her work.
She might also be regarded as an ethnic author who, because of her own mixed ancestry (Laguna Pueblo, Mexican, and white), has as a major concern the culture of native Americans confronting that of Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Moreover, insofar as Silko developed as a writer against the larger background of the Vietnam War, of the Civil Rights and the Women’s movements, others might view her in political or feminist terms. She might also be identified as a poet, a writer of short stories, a novelist, and a teacher. While all such classifying is to some degree useful—primarily in underscoring her versatility—it is best to consider Silko first as an artist who just happens to be a woman with Indian ancestry, someone who grew up in the West and is a member of the postwar generation. All of these biographical and aesthetic factors are in one way or another present in Storyteller.
After the watershed publication of N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn in 1969, the one book which is most credited with beginning a renaissance in contemporary native American literature, Silko’s fiction and poetry began to gain attention in numerous journals and in widely read anthologies. These works include, The Man to Send Rain Clouds (1974), Voices of the Rainbow (1975), and The Remembered Earth (1979). It was the appearance of Silko’s novel Ceremony in 1977, however, which positioned her alongside Momaday’s achievement. (Others, such as Silko’s Acoma Pueblo friend and colleague, Simon Ortiz, and the Montana Blackfeet/Gros Ventre writer, James Welch, have achieved similar high critical acclaim for their part in the recent surge of native American literature.)
In some ways Storyteller is a regrouping of Silko’s past works—taking many stories which shared the limelight with other native American authors in The Man to Send Rain Clouds and positioning them among numerous other previously published works—including excerpts from Ceremony. There are new works in Storyteller as well, however, and the entire book takes on a fresh and coherent identity of its own in the very rearrangement of materials—and in the beautiful, personally revealing photographs which appear at intervals throughout the book. Some of the photographs are professionally taken by Silko’s father and some are more amateurish in nature. Both kinds complement the text.
Thus, Storyteller is far from a hodgepodge of random narratives and images. Rather, it affords striking proof that the storyteller’s art resides not only in the tale but in the manner of telling, in rhythms, tonalities, and inflections; in emphasis and proportion; in the teller’s voice.
Silko dedicates her book “to the storytellers as far back as memory goes” and suggests that it is with the help of the affirmations which stories provide, in all their forms, that life is lived at its keenest. This power of storytelling, of words, is also a major theme in Ceremony wherein the novel’s protagonist, Tayo, is led back to spiritual and psychological wholeness through words and their ritualized enactment. Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-Woman, who spider-like weaves out the story of Tayo’s regeneration as her thoughts become words, is equally busy in Storyteller as the patterns of the book are woven together.
In its outermost pattern, serving as a border of sorts, Storyteller is a photo album of recent generations of Silko’s family. There is Aunt Susie, who, as a member of the Reyes family of Paguate, New Mexico, married Walter K. Marmon, the brother of Silko’s paternal grandfather; as a woman enamored with books and words, she went far in imprinting on her niece the magic of writing and of telling stories—the magic of memory and the oral tradition whereby generations achieve continuity. What Silko remembers of Aunt Susie is her own remembering of the telling of old Laguna stories, several of which Silko, as a kind of replica of her aunt, retells. Silko goes beyond these stories, however, to her own inventions. These are offered in the loving voice of a mother speaking to her daughter, filled...