Passion for Storytelling
By Roy Ivey
Communications and Marketing
Storytelling plays an important role in the Laguna Pueblo Native American tribe’s culture, a culture that author Leslie Marmon Silko honors through her writing.
As the keynote speaker for Angelo State’s 16th annual Writers Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton, Silko said she taps her Laguna heritage to both educate and entertain her readers.
“I think it’s only through the arts and storytelling that true changes of consciousness can occur among human beings,” Silko said. “We need to open the doors more, and we need to have the arts and literature of marginalized races open to all communities for possible answers to problems.”
A former professor of English and fiction writing at the University of Arizona-Tucson, Silko also encouraged the writers in the audience to follow their own paths as they create their stories.
“I would tell writers, artists, musicians and dancers to be true to your heart,” she said. “When you write a poem or short story, it’s all you. It’s your greatest freedom. You can’t think about money, jobs or what other people say. Just push all that away, give free rein to it and let it flow.”
In her most recent book, Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir published in 2010, the 64-year-old Silko wanted to write about her own life, but she also wanted to illustrate a historical place and time to let readers know what life was like in the more serene days of her youth.
“When you write a poem or short story, it’s all you. It’s your greatest freedom.”
To get back in touch with that less frenetic existence, she walked the old trails in the hills around her home near the Laguna Pueblo reservation outside of Albuquerque, where she rode horses 30 years before.
“I also wanted the book to be a respite because so much that surrounds us these days is so awful,” she said. “I wanted to focus on something that makes me happy, and I wanted the readers to walk in the wildflowers in the beautiful desert air after a rain and watch the sunrise.”
Silko’s breakthrough as a writer came with the highly acclaimed Ceremony, a 1977 novel about “Tayo,” a half-Laguna veteran of World War II who struggled with post traumatic stress disorder related to being in the Bataan Death March and became an alcoholic, but eventually defeated those demons.
“I was happy that Ceremony was well accepted,” Silko said, “and I was happy that it turned out because when I was working on it, I wasn’t sure if it was even going to make it as a novel. We all do what we do to be accepted, but at the same time, if you read Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky or Kafka, you know that the calling to writing isn’t about being popular or being loved.”
In 1981, a little love did come Silko’s way, though, when she received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. The five-year stipend allowed her concentrate on writing Almanac of the Dead, a 1,200-page novel that took 10 years to finish.
“The most important thing about the MacArthur Grant was that it gave me five years of money so that I could take a leave of absence from teaching and go back to writing my long novel,” Silko said. “I had been struggling and didn’t know how I would do it. When the five years was up, I still wasn’t finished.”
When the book was finally completed in 1991, it covered 500 years of history of the Americas in a fusion of poetry and fiction.
“When I was working on Almanac of the Dead,” Silko said, “all my poetic impulses were still there, and I was working with the words in such a way that I wanted it to have a resonance and a depth. I wanted the structure of Almanac to read like a poem because in long poems, we don’t expect them to go step A, step B and so on.”
“It was in 1986 when I wrote the part in Almanac about rebellious Indians rising up like the Zapatistas did in Mexico in 1994,” she continued. “On the internet, they talked about how I predicted that, but the Zapatistas uprising was more like a civil war, was very complicated and involved drug lords and politicians.”
Among her other works are Storyteller, a collection of poems and short stories; Laguna Women: Poems; Western Stories; and Gardens in the Dunes, a novel about an orphaned Indian child struggling with her identity after being adopted by an Anglo family.
Using her writing career as an example, Silko also had some additional tips for budding writers at the ASU conference. She recommends that all writers tap into their own passions and utilize tools available to them to further their writing careers.
She said paying attention to the internet and using it to get noticed can pay off with publishers trolling websites to find new writers. She also suggested that writers put ideas they like on paper as soon as they have them.
“Keep track of them,” she said, “and don’t choose the story that people expect you to write, but the one that really grabs you. It is hard to get up every day and write, so choose the one you are passionate about.”