Storyteller Essay - Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko

Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko

Introduction

Storyteller Leslie Marmon Silko

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of Silko's short story collection Storyteller (1981) through 2001. See also Leslie Marmon Silko Short Story Criticism (Volume 37).

Silko's reputation as a short fiction writer rests primarily on Storyteller (1981), a compilation of short stories, poems, autobiographical passages, and photographs. The main thematic concerns of Storyteller include the alienation of Native Americans in society and the importance of Native American traditions and community in modern times. Her stories are influenced by traditional oral tales that she heard growing up on a Laguna Pueblo Indian reservation in northern New Mexico.

Plot and Major Characters

Storyteller features some of Silko's short stories that were previously published in magazines and includes poetry from her earlier collection Laguna Woman: Poems (1974). One of her best-known stories in the collection, “Yellow Woman,” derives from traditional abduction tales in which a kachina, or mountain spirit, kidnaps and seduces a young woman on her way to draw water. In Silko's tale, a contemporary Pueblo woman suspects that her liaison with a cattle rustler is a reenactment of the “yellow woman” legend. The boundary between her experience and the myth slowly dissolves as she becomes aware of her active role in the traditions of her community. “Lullaby” presents an old woman recalling the time when her children were taken away for educational opportunities but later returned to a culture that no longer seemed familiar or comfortable to them. “Tony's Story” concerns an Indian who kills a vicious policeman. Considered her signature story, “Storyteller” chronicles the tragic story of an orphaned, exploited young Inuit girl as she lures the man responsible for the death of her parents to his death. Arrested for the man's murder, the young woman contemplates the landscape from her small jail window. “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” explores the conflict of native and Catholic traditions after the death of a Native American man. In the final story of the volume, “Coyote Holds a Full Hand,” Silko utilizes the figure of Coyote, a traditional trickster figure in Laguna and other Native American myths. The smooth-talking protagonist of the story convinces several women that he can cure dizziness by rubbing their thighs with juniper ashes.

Major Themes

Critics assert that in Storyteller Silko attempts to merge the oral tradition of storytelling with the literary form. They contend that she creates an unusual type of autobiography through which she describes her personal experiences and her family history by locating them within the larger Laguna society. Thus, she reflects the Pueblo belief that the individual is only significant in relation to their position within the whole. Memory, familial and community ties, power, and identity are viewed as dominant thematic concerns of the stories in Storyteller. Reviewers maintain that her stories blend Western literary genres with the oral traditions of her Laguna Pueblo heritage to communicate Native American concepts concerning time, nature, and spirituality and their relevance in the contemporary world. Her protagonists, often of mixed Laguna and European heritage, draw upon the moral strength of their native community and its traditions in order to overcome the repressive, alienating effects of the dominant society.

Critical Reception

Commentators have often discussed the autobiographical nature and interrelated themes of the stories, photographs, and poems in Storyteller. The appearance of the books itself—its elongated page-width, shorter pages, and photographs—has led several reviewers to assert that the book is similar to a family album and a challenge to aesthetic and literary conventions. In addition, they note the fluidity of Silko's writing and praise her use of subtle humor. Many reviewers discuss the importance of myth, oral tradition, and ritual in Silko's fiction, and they commend her ability to draw those outside of the Native American community into her narratives. Storyteller is regarded as a unique and powerful work written by one of the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s.

Principal Works

Storyteller (poems and short stories) 1981

Laguna Woman: Poems (poetry) 1974

Ceremony (novel) 1977

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright [with James A. Wright] (letters) 1985

Almanac of the Dead: A Novel (novel) 1991

Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (nonfiction) 1993

Yellow Woman (nonfiction) 1993

Voices under One Sky (poetry) 1994

Rooster and the Power of Love (correspondence) 1995

Rain (poetry) 1996

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today (essays) 1996

Gardens in the Dunes: A Novel (novel) 1999

Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko [edited by Ellen L. Arnold] (interviews) 2000

Criticism

Kate Shanley Vangen (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Vangen, Kate Shanley. “The Devil's Domain: Leslie Silko's ‘Storyteller’.” In Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization, edited by Bo Schöler, pp. 116-23. Aarhus, Denmark: Sedkos, 1984.

[In the following essay, Vangen contends that in “Storyteller” Silko utilizes a new discursive system, which implicitly illustrates how the old colonialist culture's discursive system “closes off the people's stories.”]

In his article entitled ‘The Translation Dilemma’, Jeffrey F. Huntsman raises a crucial question regarding the translation and study of Native American literatures: what do we stand to gain and/or lose by making ‘pretty judgments’?

[O]utsiders can make too much of a given phrasing because they fail to understand fully the force—or lack of force—the phrase may have for its ordinary users. To cite a set of trivial but effective examples: If we compare French j'ai faim (lit. ‘I have hunger’) with Irish Ta ocras orm (lit. ‘It is hunger on me’) with English I am hungry, should we dwell on the imagistic effectiveness of the Irish phrase, the intimate identification of person and plight of the English, or the subtle and philosophical detachment of the French? And what then are we to make of the Navajo, which translates literally ‘Hunger is trying to kill me’? Such pretty judgments would be utterly foolish, of course, because each phrase is the most commonplace formulation available and invokes not the tiniest frisson of poetic delight in a native speaker.

(Swann, 1983)

That there is, then, a somewhat ‘illegitimate’ delight to be found in the practice of ‘pretty judgments’ is not a surprising, new idea; and, I suppose, the pursuit of novelty solely for the delight it can bring is harmless enough. But, isn't poetic delight in a native speaker beside the point anyway? Or, is it? Once we determine to read for reasons other than delight, once we ‘own up’ to the politics at work in reading (deriving meaning) as we do, we must recognize, as Foucault states it, that ‘the exotic charm of another system of thought is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that’ (Foucault, 1972). Put another way, the stark impossibility of ‘thinking’ in cultural terms other than our own results either from our limited experience or from our recognition (however subconscious) that the limitation preserves our own position of power and privilege—even if it is only our privilege to enjoy ourselves with immunity from responsibility toward those people who are the objects of our pleasure. Foucault further states that delight and humor are only possible because we have somehow done away with ‘the site, the mute ground upon which it is possible’ to understand the cultural terms that would see the situation as common.

Leslie Silko, in her story entitled ‘Storyteller,’ restores the mute ground of the Alaskan native. She tells us: ‘The stories must be told’ by native people themselves and the ‘time has come’ for the telling (Silko, 1981). At the same time as Silko creates a protagonist who can and does find a way to tell her story, she implicitly shows how the colonialist culture's discursive system closes off the people's stories. At a time in literary history when Indian texts, both traditional and contemporary, are entering the academic fashion scene, ‘Storyteller’ teaches a new way of listening (reading)—a reading that refuses the ease of ‘pretty judgments’. Because every Indian writer, by definition, faces what Elaine Jahner terms ‘a tyranny of expectations’—that is, Indian and non-Indian communities alike expect to find ‘representative’ Indian voices, knowing the mind of one's reader becomes crucial to the Indian writer (Jahner, 1981). Yet, that reader's mind must not be allowed to dictate the writer's own creative shapings of language and experience to the extent that meaning is no longer possible in his or her own terms; therefore, it is important to the writer from the so-called Third World that the whole world be seen as the First World, the world we all inhabit. The gap between what ‘they’ think and what ‘we’ think, when approached thus—as their lack or our loss—betrays the limited thinking on the part of many Western intellectuals when they speak of so-called Third and Fourth World peoples and their literatures. Silko's way of writing reveals a sophisticated understanding of the dynamics at work in reading non-Western writings, how discursive systems of language and thought dictate the grounds upon which meaning is built as well as the meanings themselves. The discursive grounds on which Silko chooses to do battle are the Church and the State—‘confession’ to sin and to crime.

Leslie Silko writes out of her experience as a woman of Laguna Pueblo and ‘white’ heritage raised in the southwestern United States. As a young woman she taught in Alaska; ‘Storyteller’ resulted from that experience. Neither a speaker of Laguna nor a speaker of Yupik, Silko nonetheless imbues the English language with the langue of a tribal world view. The protagonist of the story, a tribal native of the Arctic northlands, represents political possibility in a way that challenges a system of acculturation that refuses to privilege authentic Indian voices, all the while ostensibly demanding them—a system, in other words, that seeks to rob a people of the power of words. Although she has probably never seen a skyscraper or ridden an escalator or been to a beauty parlor, the girl is able to discern what discourses are available to her and able to ‘legitimize’ her own story through those discourses without compromising her own content and form appreciably.

The girl in the story watches the sky from her jail cell, looking for a ‘sign’ and feeling affirmed by what she ‘reads’. Her history unfolds as she is reminded of the many lessons she has had in the reading of ‘signs’ and the telling of stories. The first time she leaves her village, she leaves to attend the mission school. Through an incident with the matron at the school the gender aspect of Christianization is manifested and speaking English is the ‘sign’ that Christianization is complete:

The dormitory matron pulled down her underpants and whipped her with a leather belt because she refused to speak English.

‘Those backwards village people,’ the matron said, because she was an Eskimo who had worked for the B.I.A. a long time, ‘they kept this one until she was too big to learn.’ The other girls whispered in English. They knew how to work the showers, and they washed and curled their hair at night.

(p. 20)

At the same time that the Eskimo girls are taught, not only how to, but that they must, speak English, they are taught how to make themselves into sexual ‘signs’ in the discursive system of the Church. The girls at the mission school are genderized to see themselves as objects, rather than to see themselves as sexual persons who interact with men within their tribal communities according to traditions evolved over many hundreds of years. Although the reader is only given a glimpse of the mission school experience in the story, it is enough to evoke a striking contrast between the Eskimo woman and the image of the ideal woman in capitalistic society—the woman who is schooled to buy and sell herself as a sexual ‘sign’ on the commodity market.

How women are expected to behave, the ‘sins’ they must avoid, the protagonist knows well: ‘Village women did not even look through the door to the back room [of the store]. The priest had warned them’ (p. 23). Further, the English language is inextricably bound in the girl's mind to the Church's concept of sin, for as the story progresses the narrator tells us, ‘But English was of no concern to her any more, and neither was anything the Christians in the village might say about her or the old man’ (p. 23). As far as the villagers are concerned, the girl and/or the old man have committed a sexual sin by living together in a relationship other than that which is sanctioned by the Church; not speaking English apparently falls into a similar category—it is a sin of langue. Thus, the religious mores of the colonizer have been internalized by the colonized people through the concept of sin and in the medium of the English language. And, since absolution from sin requires confession—the public acknowledgement of wrongdoing, the stage is set for the girl's usurpation of the Church's discourse in order that the whole story be told. Although she does not accept the concept of sin as the Church and the church-influenced community would have her do (that is, in terms of a virgin/whore dichotomy), she does confess to a ‘sin’ or crime that the community instead terms ‘accident’. She also does what the priest cannot bring himself to do: she bears witness to the systematic injustice under which her people suffer, particularly those of her people who refuse to accept acculturation into the colonizer's socio-linguistic system.

Neither innocent of sexual experience nor free of desire, the girl in the story can hardly be seen as virginal in the discursive terms of Judeo-Christian religion. (In fact, in another Native American tribal tradition, the girl's conduct and attitude might be quite unacceptable; however, the virgin/whore dichotomy would not be the operating paradigm, I dare say, in any Native American tribe.) The denial of sexual knowledge, a denial that is an essential component at work in seeing woman as virgin, would be unheard of among a people who view themselves as connected to nature, rather than above nature. In other words being sexual would not be considered ‘animalistic’ behavior in a pejorative sense. Taken to the extreme, the kind of thinking that insists upon controlling and containing woman's sexuality thus leads to an equal and oppositely directed movement, a kind of ‘pornography’. Susan Griffin, in her book, Pornography and Silence, describes the mind-set well:

[I]n the pornographic...

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Toby C. S. Langen (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Langen, Toby C. S. “Storyteller as Hopi Basket.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 5, no. 1 (spring 1993): 7-24.

[In the following essay, Langen explores the organization and the interconnectedness of the pieces in Storyteller.]

In creating Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko has employed a silent, tangible object used by one person at a time—a book—to effect that person's participation in an audible, intangible, communal art—storytelling.1 Since part of her aim in this undertaking is to honor an oral tradition, she cannot allow her audience of solitaries simply to read, nor can she herself just write.

...

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Robert M. Nelson (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Nelson, Robert M. “He Said/She Said: Writing Oral Tradition in John Gunn's ‘Ko-pot Ka-nat’ and Leslie Silko's Storyteller.SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 5, no. 1 (spring 1993): 31-50.

[In the following essay, Nelson contrasts the use of the Laguna oral tradition in Storyteller, Ceremony, and John Gunn's Schat-chen.]

The preceding story text is the second of twenty-two “Traditions and Narratives of the Queres” collected by John Gunn and printed originally in his book Schat-chen, published in 1917 and reprinted by AMS in 1980. Interesting in its own right as a more or less “typical” example of...

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Catherine Lappas (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Lappas, Catherine. “‘The Way I Heard It Was …”: Myth, Memory, and Autobiography in Storyteller and The Woman Warrior.CEA Critic 57, no. 1 (fall 1994): 57-67.

[In the following essay, Lappas underscores the roles of myth and memory in Storyteller and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.]

Somewhere near the end of her autobiographical narrative Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko muses, “sometimes what we call ‘memory’ and what we call ‘imagination’ are not so easily distinguished” (227). Similarly, commenting on the blurred boundary between fact and fiction in her mother's “talk-stories,” Maxine Hong...

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Ekaterina Stetsenko (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Stetsenko, Ekaterina. “Retelling the Legends.” In Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, edited by Susan Hardy Aiken, Adele Marie Barker, Maya Koreneva, and Ekaterina Stetsenko, pp. 327-39. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Stetsenko finds parallels between “Storyteller” and Anna Nerkagi's Aniko of the Nogo Tribe.]

The evolution of archaic cultures under the foreign influence of so-called civilized societies is slow and complex. Because the literature of Russia's northern peoples was predominantly oral until the Soviets introduced written forms of their languages after...

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Alanna Kathleen Brown (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Brown, Alanna Kathleen. “Pulling Silko's Threads through Time: An Exploration of Storytelling.” American Indian Quarterly 19, no. 2 (spring 1995): 171-80.

[In the following essay, Brown elucidates the ways in which Storyteller affected her perception of storytelling and provided insight into her own experiences.]

As a teacher I have always tried to speak from those places in my mind and my heart that are moved by a text. I always have wanted to model to students the ways in which literature guides us to be more understanding of ourselves and others through imaginative comprehension. But I was drawn beyond unseen boundaries when I became a Native...

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Peter G. Beidler et al (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Beidler, Peter G., ed. “Silko's Originality in ‘Yellow Woman’.” SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures 8, no. 2 (summer 1996): 61-84.

[In the following essay, Beidler brings together eight brief essays by various writers that assess the originality of “Yellow Woman” and compares an aspect of Silko's tale to that of the traditional Cochiti story “Evil Kachina Steals Yellow Woman.”]

INTRODUCTION

PETER G. BEIDLER

What is most original in Leslie Marmon Silko's story “Yellow Woman”? In an effort to discover the answer to that question, the eight students in my spring 1992 seminar on American...

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Gregory Salyer (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Salyer, Gregory. “Storyteller: Spider-Woman's Web.” In Leslie Marmon Silko, pp. 58-84. New York: Twayne, 1997.

[In the following essay, Salyer provides a stylistic analysis of Storyteller.]

If Ceremony challenges the genre of the novel, then Storyteller challenges the idea of the book.1 An awkwardly bound compilation of photographs, mythology, gossip, short stories, and poetry, Storyteller enhances the uses of form to convey the dynamics of oral storytelling. The appearance of the book itself, with its elongated page-width, shorter page-length, and photographs, invites the interpretation that one is looking at a...

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Linda Krumholz (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Krumholz, Linda. “Native Designs: Silko's Storyteller and the Reader's Initiation.” In Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louise K. Barnett and James L. Thorson, pp. 63-86. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Krumholz discusses the various narrative techniques Silko utilizes in Storyteller to guide the reader.]

In a Tiffany's ad titled “Native Design,” the famous New York jewelry store advertises 5″-×-7″ frames for $300 apiece as part of their Native American Collection, with styles labeled “Hopi,” “Iroquois,” “Columbia,” “Mississippi,”...

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Helen Jaskoski (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Jaskoski, Helen. “To Tell a Good Story.” In Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louise K. Barnett and James L. Thorson, pp. 87-100. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Jaskoski considers the main thematic concerns of the stories in Storyteller.]

Even silence was alive in his stories.

—Silko, “A Geronimo Story”

The eight short stories that form part of the mixed-genre Storyteller were all previously published, some more than once, before Storyteller appeared in 1981. They are the author's first...

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Elizabeth McHenry (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: McHenry, Elizabeth. “Spinning a Fiction of Culture: Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller.” In Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louise K. Barnett and James L. Thorson, pp. 101-20. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, McHenry asserts that with Storyteller, Silko “creates a text governed not by the standards of the European literary tradition but by a mixture of written genres, written transcriptions of conversations and internal memories, and photographs.”]

Speaking at a meeting of the English Institute in August 1979, Leslie Marmon Silko warned her audience about the...

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Naomi R. Rand (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Rand, Naomi R. “Storyteller; The Bluest Eye; and Goodbye, Columbus: Promontories of Power.” In Silko, Morrison, and Roth: Studies in Survival, pp. 27-64. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Rand finds parallels between the protagonists in Storyteller, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus.]

Christopher Lasch believed that American society in the 1970's was devolving, becoming a place where we were “fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future” (5). Leslie Marmon...

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Laurie Grobman (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Grobman, Laurie. “(Re)Interpreting Storyteller in the Classroom: Teaching at the Crossroads.” College Literature 27, no. 3 (fall 2000): 88–110.

[In the following essay, Grobman argues for a new classroom approach to Storyteller, contending that “the text itself provides a theoretical framework by which to teach it, one that emulates the kind of multicultural democracy implicit in multicultural education.”]

Changes to the literary canon have led to increased scrutiny of pedagogical practices as well as the instructors who utilize them, but we remain at the crossroads of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar territories. We find ourselves...

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Valerie Karno (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Karno, Valerie. “Legal Hunger, Law, Narrative, and Orality in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller and Almanac of the Dead.College Literature 28, no. 1 (winter 2001): 29-45.

[In the following essay, Karno asserts that “Storyteller” and Almanac for the Dead illuminate the “interrelationships between the Native American body, the landscape, and American law.”]

American law is not usually considered through the lens of orality. Contract law, as well as the notions of intent and consent, has in courts' efforts to establish “objective” standards of conduct, evolved away from what were seen as primitive standards of orality and...

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