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.
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.
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.
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.”