Leslie Marmon Silko Analysis

Discussion Topics

Leslie Marmon Silko’s ancient Laguna Pueblo traditions involve oral narrative storytelling, but she writes in English and in multiple genre forms—novel, nonfiction prose, poetry, photography. Reflect on the genre choices that she has made in particular texts and how effective those choices may have been in conveying her putative meaning.

A number of Laguna Pueblo myths are interpolated within the narrative structure of Ceremony, most notably in “Hummingbird and Fly” and “[The Witchery Convention].” How do the traditional stories provide insight into the events of the novel, especially in an understanding of Tayo, the protagonist?

Comment on the importance of Mt. Taylor in Ceremony. In Laguna Pueblo, the mountain is referred to as Tse-pi-na, the Woman Who Walks in the Clouds. Does the female character who identifies herself as “Ts’eh” to Tayo bear comparison to Ts’its’tsi’nako (Thought-Woman) or to Tse-pi-na (Mt. Taylor/Woman Who Walks in the Clouds) or to both?

Should Hattie be understood as a caring and altruistic figure who seeks the betterment of Indigo in Gardens in the Dunes, or is she attempting to indoctrinate culturally a bereft young woman who has been separated from her family and tribe?

Discuss how each of the following characters has an initial understanding of a personal relationship with the land and how that understanding is altered in the course of the work: Tayo in Ceremony, Sterling in Almanac of the Dead, Edward in Gardens in the Dunes, and Leon in “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” from Storyteller.

How do the articles in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit (1996) and even the letters in The Delicacy and Strength of Lace (1986) provide insight into some of the critical and thematic concerns that Silko describes in her imaginative fiction?

Other Literary Forms

Leslie Marmon Silko is known most widely for her novels, including Ceremony (1977), Almanac of the Dead (1991), and Gardens in the Dunes (1999). An early collection of poetry, Laguna Woman (1974), established her as an important young Native American writer, and most of the lyric and narrative poems in that book are integrated with the autobiographical writings and short stories that make up Storyteller. Silko has also adapted, with Frank Chin, one of her short stories into a one-act play of the same title, Lullaby, which was first performed in 1976. Silko has also written screenplays; in one, she adapted a Laguna Pueblo myth, “Estoyehmuut and the Kunideeyah” (arrowboy and the destroyers), for television production in 1978. Earlier, she wrote a screenplay for Jack Beck and Marlon Brando that depicted, from a Native American viewpoint, the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540 (the script was sent to Hollywood in 1977 but was not produced).

Several of Silko’s critical essays and interviews provide useful insights into her short fiction, as does her correspondence with the poet James Wright, which is collected in The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James A. Wright (1986). Two particularly useful essays are “An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts,” published in The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature (1979), and “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective,” published in English Literature: Opening Up the Canon (1981). Silko’s interviews often supply autobiographical and cultural contexts that enhance the understanding of her work; among the most insightful is the videotape Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems (1978), which offers Silko reading from her work and is interspersed with her commentary on Laguna culture. Her nonfiction works include Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993) and Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today (1996). A collection of Silko’s work and related material is housed at the University of Arizona library in Tucson.


Leslie Marmon Silko, along with Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, James Welch, and Sherman Alexie, is regarded by critics as among the best of the more than fifty Native American writers with significant publications to have emerged since the mid-1960’s. Formal recognition of Silko’s fiction came quite early in her career. Her story “Lullaby” was included in The Best American Short Stories 1975, and “Yellow Woman” was included in Two Hundred Years of Great American Short Stories (1975), published to commemorate the American bicentennial. In 1974, she won the Chicago Review Poetry Award, and in 1977 she won the Pushcart Prize for poetry. She has also been awarded major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts for her work in film and in fiction. In 1981, Silko received a five-year fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, permitting her the freedom to pursue whatever interests she wished to develop. She received the Boston Globe prize for nonfiction in 1986, the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities “Living Cultural Treasure” award in 1988, and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund writers award in 1991.

Other literary forms

Leslie Marmon Silko’s first published book is a collection of poems called Laguna Woman: Poems (1974). Her earliest published works were short stories, published in magazines, most of which were later included in Storyteller (1981). This book defies genre classification by including short fiction, poetry, retellings of traditional stories, and family photographs, all linked by passages of commentary and memoir. Her interest in images interacting with words led Silko to produce a film in 1980 with Dennis Carr titled Estoyehmuut and the Gunnadeyah (Arrowboy and the Destroyers). In shooting the film in Laguna, New Mexico, using pueblo residents and elders instead of professional actors, Silko documented a time and place that no longer exist.

Silko’s nonfiction works include The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright (1986; edited by Ann Wright), and Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today (1996), a collection of essays. In Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993), she self-published her essay on water interwoven with her Polaroid photographs. The first edition was hand sewn and glued by Silko; a subsequent edition was conventionally bound.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The publication of Leslie Marmon Silko’s first novel, Ceremony, along with N. Scott Momaday’s winning of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn, marked the beginning of a surge in publishing by Native American authors—the Native American renaissance of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Yet just as her works defy genre classification, Silko transcends the category of Native American writer. Her earlier works draw heavily on her own experiences and the traditional stories of Laguna Pueblo; later works move beyond the pueblo while maintaining a strong connection with the Southwest and with traditional and autobiographical materials. Her first two novels, Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead, are experimental in form, testing the limits of the novel as a genre and format. Indeed, Silko once said that she loves working in the novel form because its flexibility imposes so few limitations on the writer. Her third novel, Gardens in the Dunes, adheres more closely to conventional novel form, but like the previous two, it is highly political, reflecting Silko’s activism.

Silko’s books, particularly Ceremony and Storyteller, are widely taught in colleges and universities; her short fiction and poetry are widely anthologized. Her works have been translated into Italian and German and are popular internationally, both in translation and in the original English.

Silko’s works in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry earned her a National Endowment for the Arts Discover Grant (1971), The Chicago Review Poetry Award (1974), the Pushcart Prize for Poetry (1977), a MacArthur Prize Fellowship (1981), the Boston Globe prize for nonfiction (1986), a New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities “Living Cultural Treasure” Award (1988), and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writers Award (1991). Her story “Lullaby” was selected as one of twenty best short stories of 1975.

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Leslie Marmon Silko (SIHL-koh) published her first and most critically acclaimed novel, Ceremony, in 1977. Later novels include Almanac of the Dead (1991) and Gardens in the Dunes (1999). She has also published many short stories, most notably “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” (1969), “Yellow Woman” (1974), and “Lullaby” (1974).

Nonfiction works include Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993) and a collection of her essays, Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today (1996). The letters between Silko and the poet James Wright were published in 1986 as The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Leslie Marmon Silko is generally considered the first important Native American woman writer. She is best known for her fiction, especially her first novel, Ceremony, which earned the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1980. However, her first collection of poetry, Laguna Woman, was also very well received, and in 1977, she won a Pushcart Prize for Poetry. Her short story “Lullaby” was selected as one of the best short stories of 1975. She earned a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981 and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award in 1991. In 1988, New Mexico named her a “Living Cultural Treasure.” In 1994, she won the Native Writers Circle of the Americas lifetime...

(The entire section is 137 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Paula Gunn. “The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.” In Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Design. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983. Interprets Silko’s novel from a feminist perspective and sees it as divided into two kinds of characters: earth spirits in harmony with the earth and spirit destroyers. Allen says that this is a novel of feminine life forces and the mechanistic death force of witchery. The women are equatable with the land, the life force, a thesis that is central to Native American culture. Analyzes the main characters and the causes for Tayo’s illness...

(The entire section is 1320 words.)