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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna)
(b. 1948)


Leslie Marmon Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in the house where her father, Lee H. Marmon, was born. Her mother, Virginia, worked outside the home, and Silko spent most of her preschool years with her great-grandmother, who lived next door.

She attended Bureau of Indian Affairs schools at Laguna until high school in Albuquerque. Then she attended the University of New Mexico, graduating magna cum laude in 1969. She then attended three semesters of law school before deciding to devote herself to writing and to enter graduate school in English.

Silko has taught at Navajo Community College, Many Farms, Arizona, at the University of New Mexico, and at the University of Arizona. She was formerly married to attorney John Silko. She has two sons, Robert, born in 1966, and Cazimir, born in 1972. The family lived in Alaska during the mid-seventies when Silko was writing Ceremony. Although Alaska is the setting for the title story of her book Storyteller, most of her early fiction and poetry is set in the Laguna area.

Many cultures have influenced the history of Laguna. Hopi, Jemez, and Zuni people had married into the pueblo by the time it was established at its present site in the early 1500s. Later Navajos, Spanish settlers, and others of European ancestry intermarried with the Lagunas. The incorporation of rituals and stories from other tribes and cultures into their oral tradition occurred early in Laguna society and became an ongoing practice. Silko’s own ancestry is mixed. Her father’s people were Laguna and white. Her mother, born in Montana, was from a Plains tribe. Silko also has Mexican ancestry.

Her first book, Laguna Woman (1974), a collection of her poetry, shows an awareness of the interrelationships between the people and the river, mesas, hills, and mountains surrounding Laguna. But this awareness of place is not narrowly regional. For example, “Prayer to the Pacific” affirms the dependence of the Lagunas on the rain which west winds blow from as far as China.

The nearly 500-year existence of present-day Laguna makes it possible for Silko to write out of a culture intricately knowledgeable about the natural environment. This landscape and culture suffered severe trauma during the past half-century. During World War II, the atomic bomb was developing at nearby Los Alamos; and the first atomic explosion, at the Trinity site, occurred only 150 miles from Laguna. In the early 1950s the Anaconda company opened a large open-pit uranium mine on Laguna land, and uranium mining became a major source of income for Laguna and neighboring Pueblos and Navajo peoples. Nuclear destruction is a central concern in Ceremony (1977), Silko’s first novel. An important theme in all of Silko’s work is the recurrence of everything that happens. As “old Grandma” in Ceremony simply states, “‘It seems like I already heard these stories before . . . only thing is, the names sound different.’”

Silko’s second novel, Almanac of the Dead (1991), sounds an alarm in the face of escalating interpersonal violence and greed threatening to destroy humanity at the end of the twentieth century. A wide-ranging analysis and critique of contemporary American culture, the novel ends with the prophetic vision of a revolution in which the buffalo, the indigenous people, and the poor regain their land. Silko’s third novel, Gardens in the Dunes (1999), juxtaposes the world of the indigenous peoples of the desert Southwest with that of the European and American upper class during the period between the Ghost Dance era at the end of the nineteenth century and World War I.

The most useful guide to understanding the cultural and social contexts of Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead is Silko’s Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today(1996). Silko models her fiction on the Laguna storytelling tradition, which she describes as patterned like the web of a spider.

Norma C. Wilson
University of South Dakota


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Lullaby (1981)

Other Works
Laguna Woman (1974)
Ceremony (1977)
Storyteller (1981)
The Delicacy and Strength of Lace (correspondence with James Wright) (1986)
Almanac of the Dead (1991)



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Links

An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko
(http://www.altx.com/interviews/silko.html)
Conducted by Thomas Irmer for Alt-X Berlin/Leipzig.

Leslie Marmon Silko's "Ceremony" and the Effects of While Contact on Pueblo Myth and Ritual
(http://history.hanover.edu/hhr/hhr93_2.htm)
An essay on Ceremony and Pueblo myth and ritual.

Native American Authors: Leslie Marmon Silko
(http://www.ipl.org/cgi/ref/native/browse.pl/A75)
A comprehensive list of online texts by or about Silko.

The Border Patrol State
(http://www.desert.net/tw/09-26-96/cover.htm)
Silko's 1994 essay was the cover story for the online Tucson Weekly, September 26, 1996.

Voices from the Gaps: Leslie Marmon Silko
(http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/LeslieMarmonSilko.html)
Part of a University of Minnesota project on women writers of color; contains biographical information and a selected bibliography.


Secondary Sources

Paula Gunn Allen, "The Feminine Landscape of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony" in Studies in American Indian Literature, 1983

William M. Clements and Kenneth M Roemer, "Leslie Marmon Silko," in Native American Writers of the United States, Dictionary of Literary Biography, 175 (1997)

Laura Coltelli, "Leslie Marmon Silko" in Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak, 1990

Melanie Graulich, ed., "Yellow Woman," 1993

Per Seyerstad, Leslie Marmon Silko, 1980

Norma C. Wilson, "Ceremony: From Alienation to Reciprocity" in Teaching American Ethnic Literatures (1996)





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