Leslie Marmon Silko Silko, Leslie Marmon (Vol. 23)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Marmon Silko 1948–

American Indian novelist, poet, and short story writer.

Silko draws from the oral traditions and folklore of her Pueblo heritage to enrich her fiction and poetry and to convey Native American values and experience.

The portrait of the embittered, downtrodden American Indian, painted in much of the literature about Indian culture, is absent from Silko's writing. Although she recounts the abuse of Native Americans by white society, her work maintains an optimistic tone. Pride and awareness of their past provide her characters with confidence and strength.

Ceremony, her first novel and also the first novel published by a Native American woman, relates the circumstances leading to the breakdown of an Indian World War II veteran and traces his subsequent healing through ancient tribal rituals.

Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The world that Silko creates in Ceremony is essentially a masculine one. Her story centers upon an Indian veteran named Tayo immediately after World War II. Crippled by more than his involvement in the war, his story (and Silko's novel) becomes an elaborate exorcism of the past, a purification rite of all the emotional tensions inflicted upon him since his childhood. As the narrative weaves in and out of the past and the present—juxtaposing scenes from Tayo's childhood and adolescence with the war and its aftermath—a pattern slowly begins to emerge. Tayo's angst, his feelings of emptiness and aloneness, are less the result of his war experience than they are of earlier events in his life …

The war becomes an incredibly enlightening experience for Tayo—as it did for so many American Indians. For a time, he represses the implications of what he has seen. One episode becomes central to his confusion: the Japanese soldiers, whom Tayo was ordered to kill by his sergeant, look like his own people—especially his uncle, Josiah, who died while Tayo was away fighting. Back home on the reservation, after he is released from the veterans' hospital, whenever the darkness of his past intrudes he confuses his own people with the Japanese. What difference is there between killing the Japanese and white Americans slaughtering his own people down through the ages?

The ending of this powerfully conceived and often violent novel involves a purgation and an epiphany …

Tayo's experiences may suggest that Ceremony falls nicely within the realm of American fiction about World War II. Yet Silko's novel is also strongly rooted within the author's own tribal background and that is what I find especially valuable here: the numerous poems she incorporates into the text of her story, the rich use of traditional ritual, folklore and myth, the evocation of life on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation (where she grew up and now lives with her husband and children.) Ceremony is an exceptional novel—a cause for celebration.

Charles R. Larson, "The Jungles of the Mind," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1977, The Washington Post), April 24, 1977, p. E4

Hayden Carruth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Did Leslie Marmon Silko have in mind the word tao when she named the protagonist of her first novel? It's a striking resemblance, tao and Tayo. And clearly Tayo, who is a half-breed of the Laguna pueblo in New Mexico, where he is scorned by many for his mixed blood (and where his name, for all I know, may be common), and who is moreover a war veteran critically deranged by his experience of jungle combat, is much in need of finding the "way." He does find it, after prolonged illness and misdirection. He finds it in the traditional but modified beliefs of his Indian ancestors. Hence the title of the novel, Ceremony. (p. 80)

[Tayo] seeks purification in the ceremonies of tribal medicine men, to no avail. Only after a long search does he find an old Indian, a maverick and outcast, a man of mixed blood like himself, who seems to possess the real wisdom of the ancient beliefs that is parodied in the rites of contemporary traditionalists.

Ceremony, the old man says in effect, is not ritual, not form. It is the conduct of life;...

(The entire section is 6,849 words.)