An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko

by Thomas Irmer (Alt-X Berlin/Leipzig correspondent)


Born 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, of mixed ancestry - by her own description Laguna, Pueblo, Mexican, and white - Leslie Marmon Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation, where members of her family had lived for generations, and where she learned traditional stories and legends from female relatives. Silko's first published book is the collection of poems Laguna Woman (1974) which draws richly upon her tribal ancestry. Silko has lived and taught in New Mexico and Alaska as well as in Arizona, where she currently resides in Tucson. Her much-acclaimed novel Ceremony, the story of a Native American of mixed ancestry who returns as a veteran of World War II to his Laguna reservation, was published in 1977; her miscellany Storyteller, drawing upon Native American myths, and combining poetry, family history, fiction, and photographs, was published in 1981. Silko's correspondence with the poet James Wright was edited after Wright's death by his widow Anne Wright under the title The Delicacy and Strength of Lace (1986). Her novel Almanac of the Death (1991), whose German translation by Bettina Munch was published by Rogner & Bernhard last year, is the principal subject of the following interview, which was conducted by Thomas Irmer and Matthias Schmidt on the occasion of Leslie Silko's recent visit to Leipzig.

(Standard hotel lobby, muted colors on the carpet, CNN on the tube, the sound turned off. This place could be anywhere... and we want to come down on Planet Germany to welcome Leslie Marmon Silko with our first question.)


Is this your first trip to Germany?

Yes, it is. And I am very excited to come to Leipzig because I am very interested in the transition that is going on here.

This interest is related to the themes of your most recent novel, Almanac...

Yes, you know when I began writing Almanac the wall had not come down yet. But this is very complex. First of all, back then, the people in the Philippines stopped the tanks when Marcos had to leave, and I have my character in Almanac who watches satellite television and thinks "Oh, people all over the world will see this". This is the idea of Marshal McLuhan, the global village. And then, when all these other things occurred it seemed to me that, perhaps, that's how my character could imagine all these events. And when the big change came here I had been working and writing on that part. It was pretty amazing.

Most critics call you the first Native American woman novelist with your first novel Ceremony.

I guess that's true. The reason I hesitate in my answer is that we in the United States have so much ignorance about our own history. There might have been some Native American woman long ago that we don't know about. But I suppose no, I am the first. It seems hard to believe that it would take so long.

No one else was in print before Ceremony? If this is true, it means that you established a new line in American literature.

I guess so. (Laughs) You know I just do things and later on people tell me "Oh, this and this!" but it was not what I had in mind.

But this is a great achievement for a writer. You started writing poetry, drawing from old Indian legends handed down by your ancestors.

Yes, when one grows up in the Pueblo community, in the Pueblo tribe the people are communal people, it is an egalitarian communal society. The education of the children is done within the community, this is in the old times before the coming of the Europeans. Each adult works with every child, children belong to everybody and the way of teaching is to tell stories. All information, scientific, technological, historical, religious, is put into narrative form. It is easier to remember that way. So when I began writing when I was at the University of New Mexico, the professor would say now you write your poetry or write a story, write what you know they always tell us. All I knew was my growing up at Laguna, recallings of some other stories that I had been told as a child.

So this type of education was exclusively based upon oral traditions and not on a written culture, as in McLuhan's terms.

Yes, it is a culture in which each person has a contribution to make. The older you are the more valued you are but each person is valued. The oral tradition stays in the human brain and then it is a collective effort in the recollection. So when he is telling a story and she is telling a story and you are telling a story and one of us is listening and there is a slightly different version or a detail, then it is participatory when somebody politely says I remember it this way. It is a collective memory and depends upon the whole community. There is no single entity that controls information or dictates but this oral tradition is a constantly self-correcting process.

What is the significance of the content of these old stories and legends today? In Ceremony and Storyteller old legends literally appear in your stories which are set in the modern world reservations of today and which clearly show the impact of degeneration and even self-destruction alcoholism, unemployment, disillusionment, uprootedness and alienation. What is the power of these old stories today in the Laguna Pueblo reservation?

Something in writing Ceremony that I had to discover for myself was indeed that the old stories still have in their deepest level a content that can give the individual a possibility to understand. What frightens human beings is to not be able to understand or to see what is happening. So in Ceremony I worked with some of the old stories, for example the Ck'o'yo gambler, Pa'caya'nyi, he was a magician and in the old story he came and he tricked the people into neglecting their care of the corn fields, of their devotion to the corn mother. This magician told them they didn't have to work hard, by magic he could do things. Listen to him, come to him. So, in the story, the people leave their corn fields and neglect the corn mother's altar and they are amazed by this magician. But that is all that it was, all magic. And while the people were enamored by this magician, the corn mother became angered and sad and then she left. And all the animals left and all the plants went away, a great drought came. The people found themselves in a terrible disaster, they had been lured away by this flashy, interesting, fast-talking conman. So in Ceremony we have in this old story the idea that we human beings are not dependable creatures, we are easily lured from one way or another, we get out of balance and out of harmony with our natural surroundings and also we can get out of harmony with one another. And then it is quite difficult and painful but necessary to make a kind of ceremony to find our way back. I began to realize that hasn't changed. Human beings can have lessons of things that happened in the past, in history, and say Look, this is what happens. But somehow people sometimes won't pay attention, won't listen and we have to suffer through and have to learn again, remember all over again why it is that we have to have a certain respect or care for hard work and for working with one another. There is no magic that is going to hand things over. When I wrote Ceremony I realized that this old story is still very relevant, even now, even though these old stories take place in the past they have meaning now. Oral literatures of the indigenous populations worldwide contain these kinds of valuable insights. When Sigmund Freud wrote his Interpretation of Dreams, he began to respect folklore. You can look at the old stories that were told among the tribal people here in a north country and see that within them is the same kind of valuable lessons about human behavior and that we need them still.

Could one say this is a reinterpretation of the old legends?

Well, no, it's not reinterpretation. I think their spirit is unbroken because of the oral tradition. If you think, 500 years, that is how long Europeans are in the Americas, is not a very long time. Because for 18, 000 years there is evidence, and perhaps longer, of the Pueblo people being in that land. So for 500 years of Christianity and the conflict with it, how many generations are this? Not that many. The interpretation of the old stories remains the same because of the oral tradition. It goes back through time so that the immediacy is now. It is very important how time is seen. The Pueblo people and the indigenous people of the Americas see time as round, not as a long linear string. If time is round, if time is an ocean, then something that happened 500 years ago may be quite immediate and real, whereas something inconsequential that happened an hour ago could be far away. Think of time as an ocean always moving. What is interesting to me about Einstein and post-Einsteinian physics and some of the discoveries in particle physics is what they have discovered about the nature of time. The curvature of time in space. So I grew up among people whose experience of time is a bit different. In their sense of time 500 years is not a far distance and that's why there is no need for the reinterpretation. That passage of time doesn't mean the same thing to us as it might mean in a culture where the people stretch the string out and say Oh, this was a long time ago. That is not the way my people experience time.

So the wisdom of story-telling doesn't need reinterpretation, doesn't need the making up of new things?

No, not at all. I was waiting to come over here because I am very interested in the pre-Christian traditions in Germany and the British Isles, very interested in what the people were like before the Christians came up here. Because, in a sense, there are many similarities. I am not trying to say it is the same but, perhaps, there are some similarities of what happened with the tribal people that were once here, the people that were so close to the earth and the trees. And then Christianity comes in the same way it came to us. There is an old story from the British Isles about a white cow, the magic cow, and she would give enough milk to take care of the people. They must never take too much. So then when a witch comes with a bucket with holes in it and keeps milking the cow and takes too much, and then the cow goes away. This is an old folk story from England. What is it telling us? Not to be greedy, if the cow is symbolic of the natural forces. There is a wisdom in these old stories and it is no accident that film-makers and novelists have used archetypes out of these old stories because that is the wisdom. So even now, in film and literature deep down underneath, these old stories still stay with the people. Christianity has tried continuously to make fun of them, to devalue them, to laugh at them. Also, one of the reasons I was interested in coming to Germany is because so many Germans have been interested in Native American culture. I wonder why, why? Because I think there is an old longing and not so much has been lost either. You cannot stop it, the land speaks to you. This is maybe the reason for the emergence of the Green Party from here, you must not be so quick to think that some of the old things are not here anymore.

But in your novel Almanac you have a character say that the German Green Party could also stand for reactionary politics that is driving at the process of natural selection, a kind of ecological biologism against the people.

(Laughs.) Yes.

I have one more general question, please. Could you tell us about your career? It seems remarkable that your beginnings as a writer coincide with the revitalization of Native American culture in the U.S. in the 1970s, with the breakthrough of N. Scott Momaday in the late 1960s, with the politics of self-determination, when Indians got a lot more attention or, for example, Indian art, like on the book-jackets of Ceremony, went into the museums. Could you please contextualize your own biography?

It was a kind of renaissance, I suppose, actually, in the 1930s there was a novelist, a Flathead Indian named D'Arcy McNickle, who published some novels then. It was a brief moment of hopeful liberalism but it quickly disappeared because of the war and everything. It is difficult to pinpoint why but, perhaps, in the 1960s, around the time when Momaday's books got published, there was this new interest, maybe it was not new, but people became more aware of indigenous cultures. It was an opening up worldwide, there was this interest in Asian religions and so forth. It wasn't just in the United States. That the Germans are interested in Native Americans is good for us in the U.S. Anyway, this came about and it is odd, it is just a coincidence that I would be starting to write in this moment and Momaday's House Made of Dawn would be published as a success. It is hard to account for the coincidence of time, and it becomes even more spooky and strange with the Almanac and its timing. I think it has to do with that shift worldwide but this was for outsiders. The Pueblo people, for example, whenever forgot that we were an independent nation. The King of Spain gave land grants to us long before there was a United States, long before the Pilgrims ever settled on the east coast. We Pueblo people were dealing with the Spanish government and the King of Spain, we were conquered nations but we were still sovereign nations and they applied international law to us. We did not forget, even though the Anglo-Americans came from the east coast of the United States and stole that land from Mexico and took over. Our peoples, we still always have the feeling that we were sovereign nations, and even though these ignorant Anglo-Americans came and tried to treat us as some kind of lesser human beings. We knew the truth and we already had these relations in international law earlier. So we had our pride innocence of nationhood or community, and when this interest suddenly came up in the 1960s it came from the outsiders, the ignorant Anglo-Americans that suddenly let us publish our books. But we had always these other feelings, from generation to generation the people had been telling stories, and Scott Momaday could not have written that book if it not had been for the careful nurturing, for the care of the stories and his old grandmother he talks about. It is the same with me. We were just waiting for this and then the time was coming. And now the door is open, is open wide. But to open the door I have to thank the Germans, the Japanese, I have to thank all the rest of the world. Because we just depended upon Anglo-Americans and their attitude towards us. Who knows what would have happened to us. In other words, we feel that we get cultural, intellectual, spiritual support from all the people outside the United States. So this renaissance, in a sense, was helped, everyone participated including the Germans who have been so interested in things Native American. There are no isolated people, there is truly now a global village and it matters.

Almost every German child grows up with stories about Indians and novels about the frontier. Of course, there is always this double image of the American Indian, the noble savage and the mysterious evil. This phenomenon certainly needs some psychological interpretation as you say yourself, why so many people feel attracted to indigenous cultures. Have you read Karl May?

No, I have not, but I heard a lot about him.

So many Germans are familiar, one way or another, with American Indians and some of their traditions but not with the term you use for them. What is your definition of indigenous people?

When I say indigenous people I mean people that are connected to the land for, let's say, a thousand or two thousand years. But of course human populations were always moving, moving, moving, and if it is true what scientists say that the mother of all of us is from Africa. We all spread from Africa. I use that term because I like to think about people all over the world. If I just say American Indian or Native American that is precise and that pinpoints what I am talking about for the moment. But my interest is in people that were connected to the land, indigenous all over the world including in Europe. The idea is if you were born - sure you have a place in this world. So everybody is indigenous. More specifically, I mean it to apply to populations who have been connected to a land for at least some thousands of years. You can see similarities in some of the struggles of indigenous peoples in Africa, in the Americas, in Asia. But then, if you go back in time, think about ancient people here and how the outsiders came in and brought in this other religion and began to destroy the tribal organization that the people here had. That's why I think, maybe, the young Germans have this interest. Maybe it is not about us. Sometimes things appear to be about another culture, but maybe this phenomenon is really about this culture, that there is some need that human beings had. I believe that human beings are a force of nature. Huge mass migrations like what happened in Rwanda, the boatloads of people from Albania to Italy, then you think Wow! people are like water, like waves. So we are natural, we are part of the natural world, we are not separate. There is some yearning, some longing, we know that we are part of the trees, and the earth, and the water. Although Christianity and other sorts of things have tried to come in and to separate us. That old, old longing is there. So, perhaps these young German boys and girls, if people want to pretend to be American Indians, maybe it is really about something long taken away from the people here and it is about that.

It doesn't have to do, in the first place, with the nomadic tribal culture? Because there are also American Indians that built their own cities, the Maya built great cities, an urban culture we would say today. What is the character of indigenous people here, is city life in opposition to nature?

These cities were not considered to be in opposition to nature or the countryside. There were tribes who moved around but there were also tribes who established their own place. But there is no contradiction in the cities. For example, the way these cities were made and laid out, not only the Maya but also in Peru the Inka cities, the positioning of the buildings was in harmony with astronomy so that the city itself worked as an observatory. It was all dictated by the positions of the stars. So that the cities had this organic connection to the natural world. And the worship centers in the old Mayan cities would always have a connection with the underwater springs. So the way that people perceived themselves in their cities was not in opposition to nature but it was a part of it. In the European world this opposition between the urban and the rural plays a great role, but those people didn't see it that way.

Our cities are organized by banking, insurance companies and the stock market.

Exactly. I see all these cranes and equipments for the reconstruction of Leipzig's downtown from the window of my hotel. What's going on here is a kind of colonization. There is such a contrast between the old and the new. Yes, it is all about bankers and investments and capital. I wonder how long we can use these artificial constructs of currency exchange and investment theories, I wonder how long we can use those rules to dictate to flesh and blood, to the earth, to water, to trees. Remember that human beings are a natural force. It is very disturbing, I was just reading in the financial section about the difficulties for agriculturists in the European common market. Because of currency exchanges it makes it so difficult to move the produce. In the old days in Mexico city they had a huge market, trading was very important, and exchange, it was so easy to trade some corn for some bananas. But now because of these currencies and finances a simple transaction - I trade you this, you bring me that - they have made it into something really not connected with any reality at all. It has actually been this way for a while. In the U.S. they dump milk, they pour it out on the ground, and they burn food because they want to brace the prices. This is some kind of madness and no human beings in the whole wide world in other times had less respect for food. But we are told they must do this. Why? Because of these strange rules of international banking, investment and currency exchange. This is what all people worldwide have to face, this is what we have to think about.

Again, we are at the heart of your novel Almanac of the Dead. I like to call it a novel about the collapse of the Christian-capitalist society in the near future...

Thank you. (Laughs.)

....and I have rarely come across a book as complex and immense as your novel. Peopled with many characters, it is a novel full of action, but actually a book about the idea that the order of things will change soon, that the tribal people will take over the Americas as well as African tribal people may take over Europe, a millennial book about five centuries of injustice. Could you tell us how this novel emerged? Was there a center in the beginning before you went to work on it for more than ten years? How was the actual process of creation?

In the beginning it was supposed to be a short simple novel, my second novel. Everyone tells you, if you are a novelist, that after your first novel, if it is very successful as mine was, for the second one you better take it easy. So I thought okay. I had moved from New Mexico to Arizona, to Tucson. It was all a very new landscape for me, there is a big difference between the landscapes. I noticed in Tucson that there was a lot of drug trafficking. In the early 1980s there was all these activities and rumors in Tucson. So I decided I would make a very short, simple, commercial novel, something that anyone could read, not political, something that I would call a cops-and-robbers novel about the cocaine smuggling.

A political thriller?

Not even a political thriller. Part of me said, you will be okay to sell out, make something commercial, something they will eat up. And then, I started looking into the police in Tucson, and they were so corrupt, and then, as I started writing I found out that the U.S. government was bringing the cocaine in because they wanted to finance the Contras to fight the Sandinistas. That is common knowledge and yet a big scandal, and the U.S. covered it up. The CIA glutted the cocaine market in the U.S. and brought the price down. They would bring it in with military aircraft. So this was common knowledge in Tucson and when I started writing I began to realize this is not simple what is going on. I began to lose control of the novel and to feel that all of the old stories came in and I felt the presence of spirits. It was taken over. I meant for it to take only two years to write, and pretty soon the years went by and it just went on and on. And I began to remember reading about Zora Neale Hurston, who has a wonderful book Tell My Horse, and this title is a reference to voodoo religion, a new religion that was born in the Americas. African slaves ran away in the Caribbean and met the Caribbean Indians. Together they made a new, indigenous American religion. Zora Neale Hurston's book talks about when the spirits come they ride you, you become their horse, they use you. And so I began to realize that from the time I was a little girl and the old folks at home had told me little stories about the loss, and the hurt, and the anger of 500 years that I had been always groomed - I had not realized it - but for generations they have been waiting for somebody. And now it seemed it came down upon me, but not just for me, or for the Native American people but to think about all people. So the novel had to be bigger. That's why I had to bring in Germans and to talk about Japanese. A burden that had come down to me over hundreds of years, I believe. I was the one that had to serve these spirits. So the first part of the book was very, very difficult. I was horrified when I wrote about the killer of the little boys, this serial killer, I was horrified - where did this come from. In 1986 I stopped for a while because in Arizona we had an election and a terrible, racist man was elected governor. I was outraged and he had been elected with only 35 per cent of the vote, one of the peculiarities of our political system. So I went down to my writing office and I was having trouble with getting control of what was happening, so I went outside and sprayed graffiti on the side of this building against this terrible man who had been elected. Voters decided that we had to get rid of him, and the only way was with signatures which was almost impossible. So I put the graffiti on the wall and I was very much involved with that and I left the book for a while. One morning I went there and thought what is going to happen with my novel and I looked at the wall and saw a giant snake. I would paint a giant snake on the side of the wall. So I went inside to get paints - I am a frustrated visual artist - and painted a giant snake on the wall. This wall is very prominent in downtown Tucson. Would I make a fool of myself because everyone can see this crazy lady painting? I kept painting and painting and I decided if I could make it work and look right I could finish the novel. I worked for about six months and the snake came and a message came and it was in Spanish: The people are cold, the people are hungry, the rich have stolen the land, the rich have stolen freedom. The people cry out for justice, otherwise revolution. I put it on the wall in Spanish because at that time in Arizona they outlawed Spanish, they made English the legal language. That's bullshit in the American Southwest where Spanish has been there longer than the English language. In rebellion to that I put my language in Spanish. So there is a giant snake and he has skulls in his stomach and that's his message. In the part of town where I was working the homeless, especially women and children on the streets, were an increasing number due to the U.S. policy of the 1980s. My painting was very close to the place where people were camping out and living in cars. When I finished that drawing I was told at home that the snake was a messenger - it is a messenger to the Pueblo people, you see - and that he came to help me finish the novel. And the other two thirds of the novel went just like that - because of the snake. That's how Mexico came in, the revolution, the uprising in Chiapas, that's how I knew.



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