Leslie Marmon Silko Silko, Leslie Marmon - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–-

American novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist. See also Storyteller Criticism, Leslie Marmon Silko Literary Criticism (Volume 23), and Leslie Marmon Silko Literary Criticism (Volume 114).

Silko is considered among the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s. In her writings she blends such literary forms as the novel, short story, and narrative poem with the oral traditions of her Laguna Pueblo heritage to communicate Native American conceptualizations of time, nature, and spirituality. Silko focuses on characters, often of mixed Laguna Pueblo and Anglo heritage, who occupy the fringes of both Native American and Western cultures. Through their struggles they must draw on the moral strength of their native community and its traditions in order to overcome the often repressive, alienating effects of Anglo-American society.

Biographical Information

Of Laguna Pueblo, Plains Indian, Mexican, and Anglo-American descent, Silko was born in Albuquerque and raised on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in northern New Mexico. Her family were storytellers among the Laguna; in fact, her relatives were among the Native Americans who taught early twentieth-century anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, traditional myths and stories. As a child Silko attended schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs until she was able to commute to school off the reservation. She graduated with honors from the University of New Mexico in 1969 and briefly attended law school before deciding to pursue a writing career. By the early 1970s, Silko was garnering attention as a promising Native American author, known primarily for her short stories and poetry that explore the distinct oral tradition of the Laguna people. In 1969, while still an undergraduate, she published the short story “The Man To Send Rain Clouds” in the New Mexico Quarterly. This story served as the title piece for Kenneth Rosen's 1974 anthology in which he published six additional stories by Silko. The critical acclaim she earned from Ceremony (1977) solidified her position in the literary field and earned her numerous prestigious writing awards. Although she has taught at and has been associated with several universities, she now pursues writing full time from her home near Tuscon, Arizona.

Major Works

Silko's first published collection, Laguna Woman (1974), consists of her narrative poetry based on the oral traditions and culture of her heritage. In Ceremony, her first novel, she interweaves free-verse poetry and narrative prose to chronicle the story of Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed white and Laguna Pueblo heritage who returns to the reservation shattered by his war experiences. He finds healing with the help of Bentonie, an elderly man who exists on the cusp of Laguna and white societies, and T'seh Montano, a medicine woman who embodies the feminine, life-giving aspects of the earth. In Ceremony, Silko introduces the unique elements that have characterized her fiction; a protagonist of mixed heritage, a conflict between Native and Anglo cultures; the destructive nature of the dominant white culture; and the restive powers of the traditional Native American life-style. Silko developed these themes in Storyteller (1981) and to a stronger extent in her second novel Almanac of the Dead (1991), a work about Native Americans who retain their native lands after whites, lacking the spiritual and moral force of the Native Americans, succumb to crime, perversion, drug addiction, and environmental degradation. In Storyteller—her volume of poetry, short stories, and recollections—Silko attempts to merge the oral tradition of storytelling with the literary form. She creates an unusual form 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. Silko demonstrates the dynamic nature of Laguna culture as she modernizes traditional myths such as “Yellow Woman.” In stories such as “Storyteller,” “Lullaby,” and “Tony's Story,” Silko's characters reside in a no man's land between cultures, destroyed by the tension between them. “Storyteller,” the account of an Innuit girl who seeks revenge for her parents' death at the hands of whites, is one of Silko's best-known and most highly regarded short stories.

Critical Reception

Silko earned critical praise with the publication of her first short stories in the early 1970s. Reviewers noted their strong voice and coherent, tightly written structure. The publication of Ceremony cemented her reputation as one of the best contemporary Native American writers. Most scholars place her second only to N. Scott Momaday in terms of national influence and frequently compare Ceremony to Momaday's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The House Made of Dawn. Some reviewers noted that in Ceremony Silko does not maintain the same level of intensity and precision that characterizes her shorter works. However, critics are intrigued by Silko's efforts to replicate the oral tradition of Native American storytelling. Her subsequent work, Storyteller, earned Silko even greater national recognition. Kenneth Lincoln maintains that “Storyteller” “unfolds with an economy so lucid that nothing is lost.” And N. Scott Momaday praises her sense of humor and her “sharp sense of the way in which the profound and the mundane often run together in our daily lives.” Reviews were not uniformly favorable for her second novel Almanac of the Dead. While some critics praised her subject matter and her skill at handling such an extensive and controversial topic, other reviewers complained that Silko's tone is too dark, she portrays whites stereotypically, and that her plot is too complex and unwieldy. Despite mixed reviews of her other works, William M. Clements asserts that “it remains obvious that [Silko's] poetry and prose—both fiction and nonfiction—represent some of the most stimulating writing produced by a Native American in the late twentieth century.”

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Storyteller (poems and short stories) 1981

Laguna Woman (poems) 1974

Ceremony (novel) 1977

Almanac of the Dead (novel) 1991

Sacred Water (nonfiction) 1993

Yellow Woman (nonfiction) 1993

Arnold Krupat (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Dialogic of Silko's Storyteller,” in Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, edited by Gerald Vizenor, University of New Mexico Press, 1989, pp. 55–68.

[In the essay below, Krupat applies Mikhail Bakhtin's literary theories to Silko's Storyteller as he discusses the roles of authority and voice.]

Autobiography as commonly understood in western European and Euro-American culture did not exist as a traditional type of literary expression among the aboriginal peoples of North America. Indeed, none of the conditions of production for autobiography—here I would isolate post-Napoleonic historicism,...

(The entire section is 5251 words.)

Helen Jaskoski (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Words Like Bones,” in CEA Critic, Vol. 55, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 70-84.

[In the following essay, Jaskoski maintains that by contextualizing stories between cultures, Silko transforms the Laguna tales in Storyteller into universal stories.]

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.

(The entire section is 6331 words.)

Patricia Jones (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Web of Meaning: Naming the Absent Mother, in Storyteller,” in “Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko, edited by Melody Graulich, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 213-32.

[In the following essay, Jones analyzes Silko's use of the traditional Yellow Woman myth as a means of presenting the stories of the Laguna woman, her mother, and herself—merging myth and autobiography.]

They think
I am stronger than I am.
I would tell this like a story
but where a story should begin
I am left standing in the beat
of my silences.
There has to be someone to name you.

—Wendy Rose, “Naming Power”

Storyteller by...

(The entire section is 6778 words.)

Linda J. Krumholz (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘To Understand This World Differently’: Reading and Subversion in Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller,” in Ariel, Vol. 25, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 89-113.

[In the essay below, Krumholz describes Silko's attempts to engage non-Native American readers in Storyteller in order to inform their understanding of Laguna culture.]

Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller is a book of stories and a book about stories: it contains traditional Pueblo Indian stories, Silko's family stories, poems, conventional European style short stories, gossip stories, and photographs, all woven together to create a self-reflexive text that examines the cyclical...

(The entire section is 9421 words.)

Leslie Marmon Silko with Florence Boos (interview date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with Leslie Marmon Silko, in Speaking of the Short Story, edited by Farhat Iftekharuddin, Mary Rohrberger, and Maurice Lee, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 237-47.

[In the following interview, Silko discusses her perceptions of herself as a writer, the role of oral tradition, women and men's roles in Laguna Society, and the nature of Native American political reform.]

Leslie Marmon Silko is noted for her haunting stories based on Laguna folktales, Storyteller (1981), and for the compassion and epic vision of her novels, Ceremony (1977) and Almanac of the Dead (1991). A MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Leslie Silko has...

(The entire section is 4627 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Barker, Adele Marie. “Crossings.” In Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, pp. 340-53. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

Compares Silko's “Storyteller” and Anna Nerkagi's novel Amiko.Barker considers structure, narrative, language, and other literary devices through which the authors explore the boundaries of culture.

Barnes, Kim. “A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview.” The Journal of Ethnic Studies 13, No. 4 (Winter 1986): 83-105.

Interview in which Silko discusses her purpose for writing Storyteller.


(The entire section is 357 words.)