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Weekly Alibi Water from the Well

An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 28, 1999:  Leslie Marmon Silko grew up in Laguna Pueblo, attended the University of New Mexico and in three acclaimed novels -- Ceremony (1977), Almanac of the Dead (1991) and Gardens in the Dunes (1999) -- unlocked her ribcage, and in the process of liberation, revealed herself to be one of the most talented storytellers in America. As contributing writer Gregory Wright recently noted in his Weekly Alibi review of Gardens in the Dunes, Silko is a writer who transcends all categories. Weekly Alibi caught up with her after she'd just finished a grueling tour to promote her latest novel. Exhausted, but as eloquent as ever, Silko spoke at length about growing up in Laguna, Indian history, American life and politics, and -- the closest of all to her heart -- the fine art of telling stories.

You grew up in Laguna Pueblo. What was that like, and how did it affect your evolution as a storyteller?

That experience was everything because that's where I learned just by listening. The whole life of the community is conducted in the form of narrative -- storytelling is the form that all experience takes at Laguna. My sense of stories just became innate. When I started school, I was motivated to learn to read, because I understood that in that way one could have the joy of a story without depending on adults or somebody else to take time out to tell you the story.

Have things changed a lot at Laguna since you were a kid?

They have -- like everything's changed. But, interestingly, one of the changes I noticed is that the renaissance or resurgence of ritual practice and ceremonial dances has actually increased. I think that would have to do with earlier repression of Pueblo Indian practices. In the 1920s and 1930s, they used to imprison the Pueblo men for participating in the dances. They sent spies, and if the Pueblo clowns -- who are sacred, humor is sacred -- did anything that the spies deemed risqué or obscene then the authorities would come down on them. This led indirectly to famines and starvation and much suffering. They would arrest the men and leave the women and children to try to keep things going.

So that part has changed?

Yes, but when I was a child they were still recovering. So actually one of the positive changes is that recovery from oppression has now allowed a kind of flowering.

You live in Tucson now. Would you consider moving back to Laguna?

I certainly would consider it. It really felt good to be back with my old school chums. And of course, the earth, the land itself. One of the things about the Pueblo people, they leave things alone unless they absolutely have [no alternative]. A lot of my favorite places are just like they always were as a kid. There have been a few things here and there -- the pressure of the outside culture. The U.S. government gives so much funding for law enforcement, police and jails. I'm proud to say that they usually just sort of leave all the cell doors open if you get sent to jail at Laguna. Outsiders who get marooned, if they seem like nice people, the tribal police will let them spend the night there like a hotel. But when I was growing up we didn't have any police. I was privileged to grow up in a community where we did not need jails. People behaved themselves because that was the way the whole thing worked. It wasn't out of fear of or aggression from police.

Your first published book was a volume of poetry. Do you still write poetry?

For me, I understood narrative, like I said, intuitively, so when I was at the University of New Mexico, I could write short stories. But I would be sitting there thinking, I would make a little prose note or something, and suddenly the poem would sort of descend on me, and I had no conscious control. I don't sit down and say, "Now I'm going to write a poem about this or that."

Narrative is more your thing?

Yeah, narrative is my thing. Even my poetry has a real narrative structure to it.

In your novels you apply oral storytelling techniques to the written form of the novel. Do you think there's some inherent tension between the oral tradition you grew up with and written storytelling? Do you find it hard to reconcile the two?

Not at all. I always felt that I was sort of a mediocre oral storyteller compared to people at home who are really brilliant, wonderful tellers, so what I've tried to do is work with the written word to invoke some of the structures that the storyteller uses. For me, one enriches the other.

Your first novel, Ceremony, was, at least in part, about how European culture erodes indigenous storytelling traditions and ceremonies. Do you think this is a process that's still continuing?

I think the struggle for the Americas has never really ended. Even as we speak, the Indian wars go on in Guatemala and El Salvador. Even our U.S. government policy about our border with Mexico is really a continuation of this war to make sure that the non-Indian possession of America stays that way. I think that this process goes on but in much more subtle ways.

After Ceremony was published to broad acclaim, you were heralded as the first Native American woman author. Does it irk you in any way that you're labeled as a Native American woman author?

Well, I never want to deny that the most important part of my sense of narrative comes directly from the Laguna Pueblo community, and I never would want to deny the love and care and time that the old folks took with me when they realized that I was a child who was interested in stories. But I was gratified to see that issue raised by the person who reviewed my novel for Weekly Alibi [Gregory Wright] because at some point it is so insulting. I remember in the late '50s you would still hear people say, "Saul Bellow, the best Jewish-American novelist." They gradually stopped doing that with men. But it really is a put-down. I think that the sooner we can get rid of those kinds of denigrating labels the better, but at the same time what I see with publishing is that places like Simon & Schuster, publicity people and marketers, they love that. They want to categorize everybody.

Many people thought Almanac of the Dead was a radical departure for you. It was a lot darker. How do you think it differed from your previous fiction?

I always try to write something different. Writing is lonely. As you know, facing the blank page is very daunting. In order to get yourself to sit down and face that blank page, you have to have lots of enticements. I entice myself with the unknown, with something I haven't done before. So with Almanac I was consciously trying to write a very different book from Ceremony. In the years that had passed I had grown and changed. Through reading and contemplation, I had moved on to a different point. I wanted Almanac to reflect that. But I was as shocked as anybody at what came out of my typewriter. It was as if the angry, ancestral voices became my muses -- whereas I had these ideas that I could do some kind of commercial, Tucson, crooked cop, dope novel. It was like the old spirits said "No, that isn't what you're going to do. This is what you're going to do." I think of Zora Neale Hurston in her book Tell My Horse about voodoo. They say the spirits come and ride you like a horse. I became the horse.

How do you think Gardens fits in with the rest of your work and with the trajectory of your whole career as a storyteller?

It's hard for me to see that real clearly. I guess I'll wait for the academics to give the definitive answer. But what I can see is that in this book I was able to begin to explore my connections with my other kinds of ancestors. My name, Leslie, is a family name on my mother's side from Scotland. I got interested in pre-Christian European cultures. So I guess this book would be a kind of opening up of that kind of exploration. Actually, technique-wise, in some ways Almanac is more obviously daring in structure and form, but I like the way that Gardens came together. I don't use outlines or anything. It's by the grace of the spirits that [my books] come together.

No note cards or fancy graphs or anything? You just start at the beginning and go forward?

Yeah. The way I put Almanac together was like the way you would edit a film or something, so that wasn't from start to finish, but Gardens was and Ceremony was. And it's really scary with any of them, because you never know. You just have to have faith that the characters are taking you in the directions that you need to go. I never know exactly how things are going to end.

Some reviewers have accused you of being didactic. How do you react to that, and what role do you think your politics plays in your fiction?

I think we have to reflect on who makes the rules. Let's go back to the classical definition of Greek tragedy. The hero had to fall from a high place, so you had to be a Prince or a King. Right there you can see that the makers of those aesthetics were from the privileged class. And by the same token, the marginalization that has happened in the arts has been dictated by the power brokers. This is a frequent criticism of Chicano poetry: "Oh, it's too angry" or "It's too political." But people writing from silenced or marginalized communities, one of our most important functions is to cast aside those old classical definitions of good art. For me to excise [my politics] because I don't want to anger the critics and I want to follow the old classic definitions of art and literature would be hypocritical. In Gardens, I purposely chose the subject of gardens and flowers, thinking that I would come up with a novel that wasn't a bit political, but I didn't understand that right behind the soldiers and missionaries during European colonial expansion came the plant collectors. So I already had the book started when it dawned on me that once again there would be politics -- but at least they're hidden under the daisies and the chrysanthemums. [laughs]

Native American fiction has come a long way in the last 30 years. Who do you think are the shining stars at the moment? What do you think of Sherman Alexie?

I think Sherman is one of those shining stars. My favorite book of his fiction is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. There's just so many young up-and-coming writers. It's as if some gate got opened when N. Scott Momaday got the Pulitzer Prize [for House Made of Dawn, 1968]. It's just really wonderful because it's as it should be. There are so many Indian nations, so many Indian communities, and there should be a whole bunch of writers.

So what's in your future? What are you going to do now? Take a little rest from the road?

Exactly, just sort of kick back and start reading. I'm an omnivorous reader. I don't know what it's going to turn into. I want it to be funny. I would like to write an entire novel that is pretty much funny. I'm already starting to make little scribbles and notes, but I'm trying to make myself wait. When I finish a book, I feel like the well is dry and I've said everything I have to say.

You just have to wait until it fills up again.

Right. And sometimes it feels like, well, who knows whether it will or not. I feel like I've tried and done my very best, given it everything, and there's nothing left. So I just have to wait and see whether it comes back.

Oh, I have a feeling it will.

I sure hope so.

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