Critical Overview

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Silko is widely recognized as one of the most important Native American writers of her generation. With her first novel, Ceremony (1977), she was the first Native American woman ever to publish a novel. Paula Gunn Allen followed in her footsteps, with the publication of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows in 1983, as did Louise Erdrich with her novel Love Medicine in 1984. Silko is associated with a generation of Native American writers which emerged in the 1970s, in what has been called the Native American Renaissance in literature. Silko has been associated with other writers of this renaissance such as Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Gerald Vizenor.

Silko's first significant publication, while she was still in college, was the short story β€˜β€˜The Man to Send Rainclouds,’’ which has since been anthologized several times. Her first book of poetry, Laguna Woman, referring to her heritage as part Laguna Pueblo Indian, was published in 1974. But Silko's first significant critical attention came after the publication of Kenneth Rosen's anthology of Native American literature, The Man to Send Rain Clouds, which took its title from Silko's story. In addition to the title story, several other of her works were included in the anthology.

The publication of her first novel, Ceremony, in 1977 brought her widespread critical attention and acclaim. Ceremony follows the central character Tayo, who, returning from combat in World War II, must reconcile his personal experiences in the war with his traditional Native American heritage. Silko's collection Storyteller, published in 1981, includes some of her earlier poems from Laguna Woman, as well as autobiographical reminiscences, short stories, songs, and newer poems, as well as photographs of her family and ancestors taken by her father, who is a professional photographer. In this interweaving of various literary forms, Silko attempted to capture the storytelling forms of the oral tradition in Native American culture. The short story "Lullaby" is one of the most noted of the Storyteller collection, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of 1985, as well as the Norton Anthology of Women's Literature. Also in 1985, Silko's personal correspondences with the poet James A. Wright, whom she met only twice before he died, were published in a book entitled With the Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

In 1983, Silko received the distinguished MacArthur Foundation award of $176,000. This allowed her to devote herself full time to her next novel, Almanac of the Dead, which took almost ten years to write and was published in 1991. It is of epic proportions, and includes a wide range of characters. It covers five centuries of conflict between Native American and European cultures, focusing on a mixed-race family. Almanac of the Dead has received a mixed response from critics. While some have rated the novel highly for its mythical elements, others have criticized it for its sprawling structure and underdeveloped characterization. In 1996, Silko published a collection of her own essays entitled Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today, which includes discussion of Native American tradition, philosophy, and politics. Her novel Gardens in the Dunes was published in 1999. It focuses on the character of Indigo, a Native American woman who runs away from a white government school and ends up traveling throughout Europe, England and Brazil.

Silko's body of work has been noted for the ways in which her characters incorporate Native American tradition and ritual into a context of experiences in contemporary Native American life. She has been particularly interested in...

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the role of the storyteller in Native American culture, and the transformative power of the act of storytelling itself. Her writing style has attempted to represent the Native American literary tradition in a written English form by interweaving memoirs, songs, poems, and photography into nonlinear narrative. Of mixed Anglo and Native American heritage herself, Silko's characters are often of mixed race, and must struggle to reconcile their dual cultural heritage. Having learned much about her Laguna Pueblo cultural heritage from her grandmother and other female relatives, Silko often focuses on themes of the ways in which native culture is passed on through the matrilinear generations. She has explained that Pueblo Indian culture is in many ways matriarchal, and that women and men do not suffer the kinds of gender inequalities present in Anglo culture.


Essays and Criticism