Published on June 6, 2012 by Amy
Leslie Marmon Silko (born Leslie Marmon on March 5, 1948) is a Native American writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, and one of the key figures in the second wave of what Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance. She was one of the original recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Grant later known as the “Genius Grant” in 1981 and the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.
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She was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to photographer Leland Howard Marmon and Mary Virginia Leslie. Silko is 1/4 Laguna Pueblo Native American (a Keres speaking tribe), the rest of her ancestry being Anglo American and Mexican American. Her father is Lee Marmon, a noted photographer. As such, she grew up on the edge of pueblo society both literally – her family’s house was at the edge of the reservation – and figuratively, not being allowed to participate in various rituals or joi and aunts in the traditional stories of the Laguna people, and as a result always identified most strongly with the native part of her ancestry, saying in an interview with Alan Velie that “I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna”.
She was educated at a Catholic school in Albuquerque, and went on to receive a BA from the University of New Mexico in 1969. She briefly attended law school before leaving to pursue her literary career.
In 1965, she married Richard C. Chapman, and together, they had a son, Robert Chapman, before divorcing in 1969. A subsequent marriage to John Silko in 1971 also ended in divorce.
A short story written by Silko while still at school, “The Man To Send Rain Clouds”, was published and quickly garnered a great deal of praise, winning its author a National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant. The story is still frequently anthologised today. During the period 1968-1974, Silko wrote and published more short stories and many poems, most of which were later collected in her book Laguna Woman.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony was first published in 1977 to rave reviews. It remains the Native American novel which most often appears on college and university syllabi, and one of the few individual works by any Native author to have received book-length critical assessments.
The novel tells the story of Tayo, a veteran of mixed ancestry returning from fighting against Japan in World War II. Returning to the poverty-stricken reservation at Laguna after a stint at the Los Angeles VA hospital, Tayo is recovering from “battle fatigue” (shell-shock), and is haunted by memories of his cousin, who died in the conflict when the two soldiers were forced to take part in the Bataan Death March of 1942. Seeking an escape from his pain, Tayo initially takes refuge in alcoholism. Gradually, helped by the mixed-blood shaman Betonie, he comes to a greater understanding of the world and his own place within it.
Ceremony has been called a Grail fiction, in that the hero overcomes a series of challenges to reach a specified goal; but this point of view has been criticized as Eurocentric, since it involves a Native American contextualizing backdrop, and not one based on European-American myths. The skill of the writer is evident in the way that it is also a book deeply rooted in traditional stories (for instance, there are several retellings of old stories). Fellow Pueblo poet Paula Gunn Allen criticized the book on this account, saying that Silko was divulging tribal secrets that she did not have the right to reveal.
In an America full of damaged Vietnam veterans, the book’s message of healing and reconciliation between races and people made it both an immediate and a long-term success. It was largely on the strength of this work that critic Alan Velie named Silko one of his Four Native American Literary Masters, along with N. Scott Momaday, Gerald Vizenor and James Welch.
Silko was not to publish another full-length novel for over a decade. In 1981, she brought out Storyteller, an interlinked collection of poems and short stories, and in 1986 she published Delicacy and Strength of Lace, a collected volume of her correspondence with her friend James Wright.
In the spring of 1981 she won John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant for $33,600 for each of five years. She quit her job teaching to write a sweeping 1,200-page novel about the American Indian set in the contemporary Southwest. During this period she struggled to complete the work, losing custody of her then 12-year old son to her ex-husband, while focusing on making films and writing.
It would take Silko 10 years to produce Almanac of the Dead, a massive volume published in 1991. This ambitious work received mixed reviews. The vision of the book stretched over both American continents and included Chiapas revolutionaries the Zapatista Army of National Liberation as just a small part of a mammoth cast of characters. Again taking the theme of conflict between white and Native as her theme, Silko substitutes what comes close to advocacy of violent revolution for her earlier works’ stories of healing and forgiveness. Critiqued for its attitude towards homosexuality (several of the major villains are gay), and for a clumsy rendering of the Popol Vuh, Almanac of the Dead has not achieved the same mainstream success as its predecessor.
A subsequent novel, Gardens in the Dunes (1999), weaves themes of women’s history, slavery, conquest and gardening.
Long a commentator on Native American affairs, Silko has published many non-fictional articles on Native American affairs and literature.
Her two most famous essays are outspoken attacks on fellow writers. In “An Old-Fashioned Indian Attack in Two Parts”, first published in Geary Hobson’s collection The Remembered Earth (1978), Silko accused Gary Snyder of profiting from Indian culture, particularly in his collection Turtle Island, the name and theme of which was taken from Pueblo mythology. In 1986, in a review of Anishinaabe writer Louise Erdrich’s novel The Beet Queen entitled “Here’s an Odd Artifact for the Fairy-Tale Shelf”, Silko claimed that the novelist had abandoned writing about the Native struggle for sovereignty in exchange for writing “self-referential”, postmodern fiction.
In 2010, Silko released The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir. Written using distinctive prose and overall structure influenced by Native American storytelling traditions, the book is a broad-ranging exploration not only of her Laguna Pueblo, Cherokee, Mexican and European family history but also of the natural world, suffering, insight, environmentalism and the sacred. The desert southwest setting is prominent. Although non-fiction, the stylized presentation is reminiscent of creative fiction.
In 2012, the textbook, Rethinking Columbus, which includes an essay by her, was banned by the Tucson Unified School District.