Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

You don't write off all the white people, just like you don't trust all the Indians. 

I was chatting with a colleague about the lack of contemporary novels by minority authors in the American Lit curriculum, and he strongly strongly strongly recommended Ceremony for its beauty, accessibility, and - let's be honest - shortness. Silko began this project as a series of short stories about one character, then became more and more interested in a minor character, Tayo, and then it evolved into this book about Tayo. 

[Sidenote: One of the interesting conversations my freshmen and I have been having is what makes a member of a genre a member of that genre? We read "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid which is considered a short story by most but a poem by many. Randy just read Building Stories, a novel of 14 pieces that comes in a box like a game board. We  listened to/watched To This Day - is it a slam poem, a poem, a story? So we have been talking about what makes a story a story and a poem a poem and a novel a novel and the point is: Silko is genre-bending in this novel, and I love it.]

The novel is comprised of short vignettes that are intermixed with free verse poems - the poems are usually someone speaking which reinforces the idea of the oral tradition of the Laguna Pueblo people. The vignettes go back and forth in time without any indication of where the reader is located in chronological order - a trick that I always enjoy because it forces me to really try to find where the main character, Tayo, and I are located in his time line. Tayo is half Laguna half white - a topic that is made much of by his family, friends, and other tribe members. 
You drink like an Indian, and you're crazy like one too - but you aren't shit, white trash. You love Japs the way your mother loved to screw white men. 
The same character who says the above will later brag in detail all the white women he was finally 'able' to screw when he was in military uniform, often hiding his race and pretending to be Italian or something else.

Tayo signed up to serve in WWII with his cousin Rocky. They are both captured and put on the Bataan Death March (which I didn't know anything about until I fell into a wikipedia hole after reading). Tayo returns home suffering from PTSD, survivor's guilt, and depression, which all contribute to his alcoholism and inability to live or do anything. He is constantly crying, drinking, vomiting, fighting, and never doing anything productive. His family finally forces him to sees medicine men who try to help him. 

Silko skillfully creates a novel that is full of incredible beauty: 
That was the responsibility that went with being human, old Ku'oosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love. 
while at the same time being so full of anger and bitterness: 
All of it seemed suddenly so pitiful and small compared to the world he know the white people had - a world of comfort in the sprawling houses he'd seen in California, a world of plenty in the food h head carried from the offers' mess to dump into garbage cans. The old man's clothes were dirty and old...the leftover things the whites didn't want..This was where the white people and their promises had left the Indians. All the promises they made to you, Rocky, they weren't any different than the other promises they made. 
For anyone who is looking where to start with American Indian literature, I don't think that you can find a better novel to start with than here. For anyone who has read other American Indian lit but hasn't read this, I think that this is a vital part of the canon that needs to be read. It covers so many topics in such a small space and is so well done.

1 comment:

Randy said...

What about someone who is into American lit after 1945? Should that person read this book? Because, I heard that it's skippable..