Leslie Marmon Silko Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3000

While she is well read in the canonical tradition of Anglo-American writing, having delighted particularly, at an early age, in Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and, later in college, William Shakespeare and John Milton, Leslie Marmon Silko brings to her own work the sensibility and many...

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While she is well read in the canonical tradition of Anglo-American writing, having delighted particularly, at an early age, in Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and, later in college, William Shakespeare and John Milton, Leslie Marmon Silko brings to her own work the sensibility and many of the structures inherent in the Laguna oral tradition, creating, for example, a subtext of revisioned Laguna mythology to the more conventional aspects of her novel Ceremony. Although, in a manner similar to that of other American writers drawing upon an ethnic heritage, Silko chooses to place her work in the context of Laguna culture, her work appeals to diverse readers for its insights not only into the marginal status of many nonwhite Americans but also into the universal celebration of the reciprocity between land and culture.

Silko’s short fiction is “told” in the context of her personal experience in Laguna Pueblo and serves as a written extension, continuation, and revitalization of Laguna oral tradition. Blurring the genre of the short story with historical anecdotes, family history, letters, cultural legacies, photographs, and lyric and narrative poems, Storyteller includes most of Silko’s published short stories and poems. While the stories certainly stand on their own, and, indeed, many of them are included in various anthologies, Silko’s matrix of thick description, conveying the mood of events as well as describing them, testifies to the essential role of storytelling in Pueblo identity, giving the people access to the mythic and historic past and relating a continuing wisdom—about the land, its animals, its plants, and the human condition—as an integral part of the natural process. About her collection, Silko has said,I see Storyteller as a statement about storytelling and the relationship of the people, my family and my background to the storytelling—a personal statement done in the style of the storytelling tradition, i.e., using stories themselves to explain the dimensions of the process.

“Lullaby”

In unifying the past and the present to illuminate the kinship of land and people, Silko’s story “Lullaby,” a pastoral elegy, evokes both beauty and loss. Set north of the Laguna Reservation, the story traces the life of an old Navajo couple, Chato and Ayah, from whose point of view the story is told by an omniscient narrator. While Ayah sits in the snow, presiding over her husband’s death, she recalls various episodes in her own life just as if she were sharing in Chato’s last memories. She is wrapped in an old army blanket that was sent to her by her son Jimmie, who was killed while serving in the army. She recalls, however, her own mother’s beautifully woven rugs, themselves symbolic of stories, on the hand loom outside her childhood hogan. Again contrasting the past with the present, Ayah gazes at her black rubber overshoes and remembers the high buckskin leggings of her childhood as they hung, drying, from the ceiling beams of the family hogan.

What Ayah remembers seems better than what she has at present—and it was—but she does not escape into nostalgia for the old ways. Ayah remembers events and things as they were, for they have brought her to the present moment of her husband’s death. She remembers Jimmie’s birth and the day the army officials came to tell Chato of his death. She remembers how doctors from the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to take her children Danny and Ella to Colorado for the treatment of tuberculosis, which had killed her other children. Despite their good intentions, the white doctors frightened Ayah and her children into the hills after she had unknowingly signed over her custody of the children to them. When the doctors returned with reservation policemen, Chato let them take the children, leaving Ayah powerless in her protest that she wanted first to try the medicine men. Chato had taught her to sign her name, but he had not taught her English. She remembers the months of refuge in her hatred of Chato for teaching her to sign her name (and thus to sign away her children) and how she fled to the same hill where she had earlier fled with her children. She remembers, too, Chato’s pride during his years as a cattle hand and how, after he broke his leg in a fall from a horse, the white rancher fired him and evicted them from the gray boxcar shack that he had provided for the couple.

As Ayah recalls these losses, she also recalls the peacefulness of her own mother, as if she were rejoining her mother, in contrast to the alienation of her own children from her after they had been away from home and learned to speak English, forgetting their native Navajo and regarding their mother as strangely backward in her ways. Now, with Chato reduced to alcoholism, senility, and incontinence, the old couple lives in the hogan of Ayah’s childhood, and her routine is interrupted only by her treks to Azzie’s bar to retrieve her husband. Ayah now sleeps with Chato, as she had not since the loss of Danny and Ella, because only her body will keep him warm. Fused with the heat of her body is the heat of her memory, as Ayah recalls how the elders warned against learning English: It would endanger them.

Ayah’s recollection is presumably in Navajo (though Silko writes in English): The language is the story of her life and her relationship with the land on which she lived it. Place dominates her values; an arroyo and a cow path evoke precise memories, yet the evocation of her life culminates in her decision to allow Chato to freeze to death rather than see him suffer through the last days of his degradation. She wraps him in Jimmie’s blanket and sings a lullaby to him which her grandmother and her mother had sung before her:

The earth is your mother,she holds you.The sky is your father,he protects you.Sleep We are together alwaysThere never was a timewhen thiswas not so.

Ayah’s closing song in the story joins birth with death, land with life, and past with present. Through her story, Ayah creates an event that supersedes the oppression of the white rancher, the stares of patrons at the Mexican bar, the rejection of her acculturated children, and the apparent diminution of traditional ways: The story continues the timeless necessity of the people to join their land with the sacredness of their language.

“Storyteller”

In the title story of her collection Storyteller, an arctic allegory set in Alaska, Silko focuses even more emphatically on the power of the story to create and to sustain the life of a people. By shifting from Laguna characters to Navajo characters and, finally, by using an Eskimo context, Silko stresses the universality of storytelling among peoples who codify the world through an oral tradition. “Storyteller” seeks to explore the ramifications of divergent ways of seeing the world (or hearing it), and, at the same time, the story models the process of the oral tradition: It is not a Yupik story so much as it is one that is written as if it were a Yupik story.

“Storyteller,” like “Lullaby,” begins in medias res, as do many stories in any oral tradition. It, too, is told from the point of view of a woman, but the Eskimo protagonist is a young girl, anonymous though universal as the storyteller. She is in jail for killing a “Gussuck” (a derogatory term for a white person) storekeeper. According to Anglo law and logic, however, the girl is innocent. Through juxtaposed flashbacks, Silko’s omniscient narrator reconstructs the events that have led to the girl’s imprisonment. Moving away from the familiarity of a Pueblo context, Silko sets the story in Inuit country on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel, where she spent two months while she was in Alaska; she brings, then, her own attentiveness to the land to her fashioning of the story about attentiveness to storytelling. The imprisoned girl grew up with an old couple who lived in a shack outside the village, and she was nurtured by the stories of her grandmother. Although the girl had attended a Gussuck school, she was sent home for refusing to assimilate, having been whipped for her resistance to speaking English. Sexually abused by the old man, the girl takes the place of her grandmother in the old man’s bed after her death. Before the grandmother’s death, however, the girl had learned about the death of her parents, who had been poisoned with bad liquor by a trader who was never taken to court for the crime. Her grandmother had not told her the complete story, leaving much of it ambiguous and unfinished. While the girl witnesses the destruction of village life by oil drillers and listens to her “grandfather” ramble on and on, telling a story of a polar bear stalking a hunter, she recalls her grandmother’s last words: “It will take a long time, but the story must be told. There must not be any lies.” The girl believes that the “story” refers to the old man’s bear story, but, in fact, it is the story which the girl herself will act out after the grandmother’s death.

Bored by sex with the old man, the girl begins sleeping with oil drillers, discovering that they are as bestial as the old man, who sleeps in a urine-soaked bed with dried fish while he adds to his story throughout the winter. When she is about to have sex with a red-haired oil driller, he tapes a pornographic picture of a woman mounted by a dog to the wall above the bed, and then in turn mounts the girl. When she tells the old man about it, he expresses no surprise, claiming that the Gussucks have “behaved like desperate people” in their efforts to develop the frozen tundra. Using her sexuality to comprehend the strange ways of the Gussucks, the girl stalks her parents’ killer as the old man’s bear stalks the hunter. The Gussucks, seemingly incapable of grasping the old man’s story, fail in their attention to the frozen landscape; they do not see or hear the place, the people, or the cold, blue bear of the story.

That failure to grasp the analogy of the bear story to the impending freeze of winter is what finally permits the girl to avenge the death of her parents. She lures the “storeman” from his store, which doubles as a bar, to the partially frozen river. Knowing how to breathe through her mitten in order to protect her lungs and wrapped in her grandmother’s wolf-hide parka, the girl testifies mutely to the wisdom of her grandmother’s stories. She knows where it is safe to tread on the ice and where it is not—she hears the river beneath her and can interpret the creaking of the ice. The storekeeper, taunted by her body, which is symbolic itself of her repository of knowledge for survival, chases her out onto the ice, trying to catch her by taking a single line to where she stands on the ice in the middle of the river. Without mittens and parka and oblivious to the warning sounds from below the ice, the storeman ignores the girl’s tracks that mark a path of safety and crashes through the thin ice, drowning in the freezing river. He has had many possessions, but he lacked a story, a narrative thread, that would have saved him.

When the state police question her, the girl confesses: “He lied to them. He told them it was safe to drink. But I will not lie. I killed him, but I don’t lie.” When her court-appointed attorney urges her to recant, saying, “It was an accident. He was running after you and he fell through the ice. That’s all you have to say in court,” the girl, disregarding the testimony of children who witnessed the man’s death, insists: “I will not change the story, not even to escape this place and go home. I intended that he die. The story must be told as it is.” Later, at home under a female trooper’s guard, the girl watches as the old man dies, still telling his story even as it evokes the death of the hunter; his spirit passes into the girl, who will now continue the story of the bear’s conquest of the man.

Now the storyteller herself, the girl, has fused or merged with her story: The story has taken revenge on both the storeman and the old man, her first seducer, through her actions, namely the telling of the stories. The story, then, does not end, but returns to itself, the bear turning to face the hunter on the ice just as the myth of natural revenge turns the story against the storeman and the seductive power of the story turns against the storyteller, the old man. Even, however, as a new storyteller, the girl/the story has no beginning and no end: It continues as long as the people and the land continue. Indeed, the story’s survival is the survival of the people; ironically, the girl’s story will provide the lawyer with a plea of insanity, ensuring the survival of the story and the storyteller despite the degradation involved in charging her with madness.

Yellow Woman

Silko’s most celebrated story, the frequently anthologized “Yellow Woman,” uses a classic Laguna legend as a structural frame for an account of a contemporary woman, whose narration recognizes parallels with a mythic figure while maintaining a wary distance from full participation in a powerful myth. From a mundane modern community where her life is drab and undistinguished, the unnamed narrator recounts a temporary excursion into the hills beyond the Pueblo village with a charismatic, confident man, a stranger whose origins and actions—while mysterious and compelling—are also dangerous and destabilizing, a crucial part of his appeal.

The beginning of the story, located in an immediate present, emphasizes the physical reality of the experience in order to establish the tangibility of the woman’s adventure. “My thigh clung to his with dampness,” the woman reports, before describing the impressive mountain landscape which implies a linkage between the power of the man and a supportive energy flow in the natural world surrounding the pueblo. Struck by the strangeness of the man, and by his address to her as “Yellow Woman,” the familiar figure from the Laguna folk tradition, she asks “Who are you?”—a query that is never completely answered and which informs the narrative as a thematic expression of the woman’s awakening desire to explore a destiny that transcends the limits of her life.

The man, whose name, Silva, is an echo of the author’s and the Spanish word for “collection” or “anthology,” is both a representation of the ka’tsina or Mountain Spirit which functions as a guiding deity for the Laguna nation and a man of an exciting moment in the woman’s life. The story recalls various abduction tales across cultures but both characters are exercising choices that respect and respond to the other person’s preferences. As the narration continues, the woman’s thoughts move between the life she has left and to which she will inevitably return and vivid, unfolding action of passion and fulfillment. Just as she continually questions her relation to the myth, asserting “I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman,” her willingness to respond to what she calls “the same tricks” underscores her pleasure and excitement in seeing herself involved in an incident so that “ someday they will talk about us, and they will say ‘Those two lived long ago when things like that happened.’”

In the conclusion of the narrative, Silva is challenged by a white man with a “young fat face,” the intrusive authority of the dominant world dramatized by his dismissal of Silva as a thief and cattle rustler. In accordance with the heroic dimension of the myth, Silva, his eyes “ancient and dark,” sends the woman toward safety, where, from a distance she hears “four hollow explosions that remind me of deer hunting,” another connection to ancient tribal practice. Realizing that she does not have “very far to walk” to return home, the power of the adventure retreating into memory as she thinks of the mountains already “too far away now,” she re-enters her ordinary life, where “my mother was telling my grandmother how to fix Jell-O and my husband, Al, was playing with the baby.” The significance of the story which she has lived and which she will eventually tell is epitomized by her concluding remark that she wishes her “old Grandpa” was still alive “to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best,” an acknowledgment of her participation in a living tradition and an indication of her awareness of the importance of storytelling as a vital means of preserving and shaping cultural identity.

While Silko’s stories are about the characterization of individuals, of a culture, of the land’s significance to a people and their values, and of discrimination against a people, they are most fundamentally about the oral tradition that constitutes the peoples’ means of achieving identity. Storytelling for Silko is not merely an entertaining activity reminiscent of past glories but an essential activity that informs and sustains the vitality of present cultures, shaping them toward survival and bestowing meaning for the future. The people, simply put, are their stories: If the stories are lost, the people are lost.

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