Leslie Marmon Silko Silko, Leslie Marmon (Vol. 114)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 47,046 words.)