Reflections

Meeting Leslie Marmon Silko
By Jessica Burstrem, Shyla Joe, and Carol Latour

We first met Leslie Marmon Silko at dinner at El Minuto in Tucson before her reading. She shared her summer plans, when she will travel to Italy and give talks at both the Henry James and the Herman Melville annual scholarly conferences. She will present on the Indian-hater in Melville’s The Confidence Man and on the pleasure of reading Henry James. She also told us about her dogs and her parrots and what she is planning to arrange for their care while she is away. She tried to get life-sized cardboard likenesses made, but they make her dogs nervous, and her parrot doesn’t seem fooled by them, so instead she will be communicating with her parrot over Skype periodically during her time in Italy.

Then she discussed a topic that she repeats often: writers must enjoy what they write so that readers will enjoy it too. She just writes what she wants, she says, and she hopes that her evident interest alone will be enough to engage her readers. She also pointed out that you have to write through some throwaway stuff to get to what you thereby discover that you really want to write. She returned to this subject during her visit to our class the next day: novel-writing is “dead” if too calculated, she declared. She writes, she said, to gain insight into her subconscious and into humanity in general. For instance, humans are always seeking a grand treasure, she said, as she is apparently doing herself in envisioning the turquoise ledge. She also indicated that turquoise stones, the color turquoise, and stones in general function as a spiderweb throughout the book. In her newest book, The Turquoise Ledge (Viking, 2010), she explained, she was manipulating the memoir genre to do something a little different.

On Wednesday night, she read entirely from this new book, which takes the reader through her daily walks in the Sonoran desert and her thoughts about what she encounters there. Throughout the book, she discusses landscape, colors, weather, history, and animals in the context of her Laguna heritage and oral tradition. The details she relates of her surroundings and her interpretations of stories from the oral tradition teach her readers to pay close attention to the world as well. Her careful observations help her realize what actions to take, such as helping a rattlesnake or rescuing a pack rat up in the Tucson Mountains. Yet she writes like a storyteller, so readers do not notice that they are learning.

Silko acquired this skill of close observation in early childhood as she watched and listened to the women in her life: Grandma A’mooh, Aunt Susie, her beloved mother, and even Grandma Whip. Each of these women taught her helpful skills, such as patience and the ability to listen and to notice subtle changes in light or mood, which she would later hone in the Tucson Mountain. Silko writes in The Turquoise Ledge: “I realize now that from the time I was very small, I focused my attention more on non-verbal communication between people, between animals and between other beings” (47). These minute observations connect what she sees to what she hears and bring a scientific level of detail to this book.

Silko also indicates the centrality of the landscape to the oral tradition and the way that she interprets the world around her. She brilliantly incorporates all aspects of the surrounding landscape into her written work, including colors, weather, history, and animals, to paint a picture of the landscape so complete that readers can even feel its peaceful aura. In this place, readers can think about the continuum between the past and the present in the land and recognized what should not be destroyed, but rather preserved.

Silko is not always subtle with these lessons, though. She speaks loudest, through her writing, when she is telling stories of injustice, to the land, to creatures, or to people. Her belief that a few good, strong people can change the world animates her writing as well.

She began her reading with Chapter 6, from Part One, “Ancestors.” Chapter 6 (pp.30-36) consists of some of Silko’s own family history, including some skeletons … and she doesn’t sugarcoat, minimize, or defend it either. She is working to correct history here, particularly by bringing to readers’ attention the reality that many Navajos were captured and enslaved in the nineteenth century, including Juana, who once lived with her family. Along with this reading, she mentioned, with favor, one book called Bad Indians (which is still a work in progress, by a writer Silko knows named Debra M.) and another called Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest, by L.R. Bailey, which, she lamented, has been allowed to go out of print. Such a loss “is typical of this country,” she said.

That is why she often prefers animals, she commented, and why she writes about them so much in this book. She wanted it to be a “respite” from the world’s horrors, she explained. Rattlesnakes, she feels, have integrity (unlike many people, presumably). So next she read part of Chapter 17 (97-98) from Part Two, “Rattlesnakes,” and part of Chapter 38 (212) and two parts of Chapter 42 (229-232), from Part Four, “Turquoise.” The first and third of these passages are about rattlesnakes, but the first two are also about moments, while riding or walking among the rocks, when Silko has thought of her mother, who died in July 2001. The last passage, then, is also about riding and walking along that same trail. The connections that Silko makes by way of the stories that she juxtaposes in the book itself require contemplation, but so do these, as she read them in this order at the event Wednesday night.

She concluded her reading with what must be one of her favorite pieces, for it is not only in The Turquoise Ledge but also in Simon Ortiz’s special issue of Kenyon Review, and she has included it in other public readings she has done from this book since its publication. She went back to part of Chapter 34, from Part Three, “Star Beings,” and read the reverent but amusing anecdote about her painting of Lord Chapulin, the large “painted” grasshopper who visited her garden (182-185). How characteristic of Silko: a piece that could manage to inspire both reverence and amusement, those two seemingly incongruous emotions! It also relates, she indicated, to something that has consistently retained its importance to her: visual art, which is a theme of the “Star Beings” part as a whole.

After the reading, she sat to autograph the books that the audience members brought to her. There was a high school teacher in attendance with two of her students; they were all excited and asked her to sign a book for the whole class. Another woman talked about how she too had recognized the awareness in grasshoppers and was pleased to find that she was in good company.

The next morning, in class, Silko showed that she had clearly been thinking more about some of the questions raised the night before, as she began by talking about censorship. It works mostly through self-censorship, she said, as she is selective about what she writes and what she reads because of such awareness, as publishing companies are more careful of what they publish too. Of course, her copy-editor also performed some censorship, as apparently the woman felt authorized by the contemporary political environment to “mutilate” the content of The Turquoise Ledge.

She ended her class visit with an excerpt from her first first-person fictional work, Ocean Story, which is currently only available in electronic editions. In just the excerpt we heard, there were humor; interest; and reflections on racism, sexism, tourism, post-9/11 American politics, the power of words, and how people think.

After class, we walked Ms. Silko back to her car and talked some more, particularly about public education. We found that Silko can find in any subject an opportunity to broaden others’ perspectives. Seeing the body of a dead pigeon that was long since impaled on the spikes above the third floor of the Harvill building, she remarked how indicative it was of the education system now. They bring you in, she explained, then put up all these roadblocks and leave you to rot where you fell. She also shared some history of University of Arizona campus politics, telling of when female professors were paid $10,000 a year less than their male counterparts, and then, to add insult to injury, the women had to document how and why they were worth the “extra” $10,000 they sought.

We were honored to have had the opportunity to spend this time with Ms. Silko and to learn more about her politics and poetics in person. We hope that you have enjoyed the anecdotes that we were able to share with you here and that you thereby benefit from this event as we have. Truly, Leslie Silko is a genius, and her works deserve even more attention than they already receive. We encourage you to seek out the other readings listed on this site for more insight into this important author and artist and to use the discussion ideas that we have provided to help spark conversations about her works.

May 11, 2011