Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–
American novelist, poet, essayist, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Silko's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 23 and 74.
Silko is considered among the foremost authors to emerge from the Native American literary renaissance of the 1970s. In her works she blends such western literary forms as the novel and the short story 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 Anglo heritage, must draw upon the moral strength of their native community and its traditions in order to overcome the often repressive, alienating effects of white society.
Of Laguna Pueblo, Plains Indian, Mexican, and Anglo-American descent, Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 5, 1948, and raised on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in northern New Mexico. As a child she attended schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and learned about Laguna legends and traditions from her great-grandmother and other members of her extended family. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Mexico in 1969 and briefly attended law school before deciding to pursue a writing career. Silko taught at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona, for two years, and then spent two years in Ketchikan, Alaska, where she wrote her first novel, Ceremony (1977). Silko taught at the University of New Mexico and then at the University of Arizona before receiving a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant in 1981 which enabled her to work on Almanac of the Dead (1991). She has also received a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant to make films based on Laguna oral traditions.
Silko's work is concerned with the common representation of Native Americans in literature and her attempt to overcome what she sees as misrepresentation. Ceremony is a novel about healing and discovering one's identity. The main character, Tayo, is a mixed-blood Native American strug-gling to come to terms with his ancestry, his wartime experiences, and the changing culture of the Laguna. It is through traditional rituals and his relationships with Betonie, an old man who is also a mixed breed, and T'seh, a medicine woman who represents the feminine principal, that Tayo will achieve healing, regain his identity, and grow into manhood. Storyteller (1981) is a collection of traditional Pueblo stories, Silko's own family stories, poems, and conventional short stories. The collection expresses the importance of storytelling to cultures and individuals alike. By making Native American stories relevant to contemporary society and by celebrating oral tradition, Silko overcomes the common misperception of Native Americans as a dying and primitive people. Almanac of the Dead is an apocalyptic tale which lacks the harmonizing effects of Ceremony. The novel tells the story of the Americas since the conquest by the Spanish, who arrived in the Yucatan and burned the entire written record of the Mayan people. The premise of the book is that one of the Mayan almanacs was smuggled to safety and is now passed down from generation to generation in a family charged with its protection. Citing a world filled with violence, cruelty, and crime, the book argues that 500 years of European civilization has failed in the Americas, and that all land should be returned to Indians, who have always been its true caretakers. Rampant individualism has torn people from the community and spirituality on which survival depends. Despite the repressive brutality of the novel, Silko leaves the room to hope that in throwing off Euroamerican individualism and embracing community, the Americas will survive. Sacred Water (1993) contains forty-one short tales with water as their guiding principal. The stories tell of Silko's own experience, her family's experience, Laguna society's experience, and Native Americans' experience with water in the arid region of the Southwest. Water is a life-giving force, and the book focuses on the integral nature of water to the spiritual life of the Pueblos.
Critics consistently note Silko's use of subtle, Native American humor, and assert that white audiences may miss the many instances in her work. Reviewers note the positive nature of Silko's Ceremony and her attempt to show the value of both Anglo and Native American traditions. In her discussion of Silko's Ceremony, Elizabeth N. Evasdaughter states, "Ultimately, she demonstrates that combining our cultures, as her narrative does, has the power to civilize both." Reviewers had a mixed response to Almanac of the Dead and were often put off by the harsh judgement made against Anglo society. Some reviewers, however, found Silko's conclusions warranted. Linda Neimann states that "she does succeed in creating a world, eerily like the world we read about in the newspapers, that one would be only too glad to help overthrow." Another common complaint about Almanac of the Dead was that its sprawling nature and huge cast of characters were out of control and lacked focus. Silko's ability to render the feeling of oral tradition in a written form has been noted by many critics. In her discussion of Storyteller, Linda J. Krumholz states that "by eliding distinctions between genres and between old and new stories, Silko creates a dynamic juxtaposition that duplicates the way in which meaning is created in the oral tradition through a constant interaction between the stories and the material circumstances of the community, between the old stories and the on-going creation of meaning." Critics praise the fluidity of Silko's writing and assert that she does not see books as finished, unchanging products. Many reviewers discuss the importance of myth and ritual in Silko's fiction, and her ability to draw those outside of the Native American community into her narratives. Ceremony is Silko's most recognized and praised book, but Silko's entire body of work expresses a consistency and continuity that makes her an important figure in the continuing tradition of Native American literature.