Mrs. Hirabayashi welcomed all her customers with a joyous greeting, and her elderly mother working behind the stove smiled shyly and nodded. I always ordered the same thing: green tea and a bowl of pork noodles. Except for me and a few old Tlingit and Haida people, the Hirabayshis’ customers were fishermen in rubber boots and gray wool halibut jackets. Usually it was raining. My first October, in 1973, Ketchikan got 42.5 inches of rain in thirty-one days. So after my noodles and tea, I usually went straight back to my writing and worked until three, when it was time to fetch Caz from day care to be home when Robert returned from school.
If it wasn’t raining too hard, sometimes I wandered around downtown Ketchikan just looking at the fishing boats or giant cruise ships and the vast flotillas of spruce logs towed by tug-boats to the pulp mill. Big ravens cavorted on the docks in search of tidbits from the fishing boats, but most amazing to my eyes were the great bald eagles, a dozen or more, that lounged or played in the tops of tall spruce while they waited to dive into the water for salmon. After a while I realized that Raven and Eagle still owned the town; the old-time tribal people belonged to the clans of Killer Whale, Grizzly Bear, and Wolf. Humans belonged to Halibut and King Salmon and Steel Head Trout clans too; surrounded by ocean, rivers, creeks, and rainwater, the watery clans seemed a safer bet. The totern poles often had small wan faces of “drowned men” carved between the major figures—I couldn’t swim and boats made me seasick—the small wan face might be me.
Once I started writing the novel, the depression lifted, but then came the terrible migraine headaches, worse than any I’d had since the tenth grade. I stayed in a darkened bedroom for eight hours at a time while the vertigo spun the bed. Fortunately, as the main character, Tayo, began to recover from his illness, I too began to feel better, and had fewer headaches. By this time, the novel was my refuge, my magic vehicle back to the Southwest land of sandstone mesas, blue sky, and sun. As I described the sandstone spring, the spiders, water bugs, swallows, and rattlesnakes, I remade the place in words; I was no longer on a dark rainy island thousands of miles away. I was home, from time immemorial, as the old ones liked to say to us children long ago.
I wasn’t just homesick for the sandstone cliffs and the sun; I missed the people and the storytelling, so I incorporated into the novel the old-time story about Hummingbird and Green Fly, who help the people purify their town to bring back the Corn Mother. The title of the novel,
, refers to the healing ceremonies based on the ancient stories of the Diné and Pueblo people. The two years I lived and taught for Diné College were important to my understanding of the healing ceremony’s relationship to storytelling. I was conscious of constructing the novel out of many different kinds of narratives or stories to celebrate storytelling with the spoken as well as the written word. I indulged myself with the old-time stories because they evoked a feeling of comfort I remembered from my childhood at Laguna.
During this time the wet climate did not agree with my younger son, Cazimir, who was twice hospitalized for acute asthma. Grandma Lillie, on a visit to Ketchikan, suffered a heart attack. At crisis times I completely forgot the novel, but afterward the need to return to the work became overwhelming. The novel was my escape, and I remember how I fretted on weekends because I was so anxious to keep working. I wasn’t sure what I was writing qualified as a “novel.”
It was supposed to be a funny story about Harley, the World War II veteran whose family tried but could not keep him away from liquor. But as I wrote about Harley’s desperate thirst for alcohol, it didn’t seem so funny after all, and I realized I wanted to better understand what happened to the war veterans, many of whom were survivors of the Battan Death March, cousins and relatives of mine who returned from the war and stayed drunk the rest of their lives. The war veterans weren’t always drunk, and they were home and available to us children when the other adults were busy at work. These men were kind to us children; they helped me train with my first horse. Even as a child I knew they were not bad people, yet something had happened to them. What was it?
As I wrote what I thought would be a comical short story about Harley and his drunken exploits, suddenly a friend of Harley’s—a character I never planned to have—Tayo, entered the story. I was perturbed because Tayo’s condition didn’t promise much comedy. Before I began the funny story about Harley, I twice tried to develop a young female protagonist to be the main character of a novel; but I found I was too self-conscious and failed to allow my fictional woman to behave independently of my image of myself. The notes and false starts and the short story beginnings that developed into
are in the collection of the Yale University library.
In February 1974, I interrupted work on the novel to go to Bethel, Alaska, for three weeks to be a visiting writer in the middle school. Eighty miles from the Bering Sea and with temperatures of fifty below zero, I still found Bethel preferable to Ketchikan because at least the frozen tundra had blue sky and miles of visibility in all directions. I remember the day I had lunch with my friend Rose Prince in Bethel and told her and her friend about my idea to have all things European invented by a tribal witch. I made notes then, but didn’t actually write the creation of the witchery section until June 1974 while I was at the Grand State College Writers Conference. I wrote it a few hours before my reading that night. That was the night I first met the poet James A. Wright. I was in a group of ten or twelve young poets that included Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Lawson Inada when we were introduced. Wright’s poetry had a profound effect on the work of all of us at the conference. He wrote to me after
was published, and we engaged in a wonderful correspondence that I cherish with the friendship we shared.
After I returned to Ketchikan from Bethel I stopped work on the novel long enough to write the short story “Storyteller.” Although I was only in Bethel for a month, the stories I heard while I was there, stories about the tundra and the Yupik people, left a powerful impression on me, and the stories I heard there refused to let me get back to work on
until I wrote a short story about the place and people of the Bethel area.
As I neared the end of the novel, I knew what I had to write; all that remained was to do it. I remember typing that last word, “Sunrise,” and feeling great relief and happiness that the novel and “the ceremony” were finished. I fussed around with the ending a bit more, but the manuscript was completed during the first week of July 1975, eight weeks before we left Ketchikan to move back to New Mexico.
I sent off two copies of the manuscript: one to Richard Seaver at Viking Press, and the other to Mei-Mei Berssenbruge, the poet. I still wasn’t quite sure if it was a novel, so I waited anxiously to hear from them. Mei-Mei called right away and was very excited. She said she especially liked the way I did not break the novel into chapters. “Oh no!” I thought while she was talking, “I knew I forgot something!” (I never should have neglected that course titled The Novel.) “Don’t worry,” I told myself, “you can call Seaver and tell him you’ll send a revised copy with the chapters, and you can do it in a day or two, easily.” But later, as I worked to break the novel into chapters, I realized it was not meant to be in chapters, so I left it as it was.
Richard Seaver called a few days later and expressed his satisfaction with the novel. He wanted to make only one editorial change. Instead of the more proper “as if,” I’d used the colloquial “like”—e.g., “He ran
a dog” vs. “He ran
he were a dog.” I checked a dictionary and found that Norman Mailer was allowed to use “like” in his novels, so I initially refused to make the changes. I didn’t have an agent then, so when Dick Seaver hinted that if I didn’t take the editorial advice on this point, he and Jeanette Seaver “could not get behind the book,” I decided to agree to the change, in part because there were only about six instances where I used “like” instead of “as if.”
Jeanette Seaver was my editor during the production phase, and she managed to get the art department to use my father’s photograph of Mt. Taylor and old Acoma pueblo for the cover of the book jacket. Mt. Taylor, or Tśepina, is a sacred mountain central to much of the novel.
was published in March 1977. The Seavers gave me a wonderful cocktail party at their Central Park West home. I was staying downtown on Water Street near Wall Street, and when it was time for me to find a cab to take me uptown, no one had warned me there were hundreds of cabs but none for hire because the Wall Street people had all the cabs under contract. So I had to walk in my party dress and high heel shoes to find a subway, and then I took the wrong line and had to walk a distance to Central Park West. When I arrived I was late and I was sweaty and my hair was messy; fortunately, the others had consumed enough wine by then and didn’t care.
Gus Blaisdel gave me a publication party at his bookstore, The Living Batch, in Albuquerque, where I was teaching at the University of New Mexico. No book tour for a first novel, but Geraldo Rivera and
Good Morning America
did a short piece on the novel at Marlon Brando’s suggestion. Brando read
, and later when I worked on a film project for him, he sometimes brought up obscure details from
that I hardly remembered; he had a photographic memory for anything he saw or read.
was published, some readers remarked on my male protagonist and many male characters, something of a novelty for female novelists in the English language. My childhood was spent in the Pueblo matriarchy, where women owned property, and children belonged to the mother’s clan. The story of the returning World War II veterans could only be told from a male point of view, so I did it without hesitation. Besides, I thought, male novelists write about female protagonists all the time, so I will write about men.
In this and in all things related to the writing of
, I feel I was blessed, watched over, and protected by my beloved ancestors, and the old ones who told me the stories—Grandma A’mooh, Aunt Susie, and Grandpa Hank. May the readers and listeners of this novel be likewise blessed, watched over, and protected by their beloved ancestors.
—LESLIE MARMON SILKO
When Leslie Marmon Silko began to publish her first stories and poems in the early 1970s, it was immediately clear to discerning judges that a literary star of unusual brilliance had appeared. Among the discerning judges were the selectors for the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, who chose Leslie Marmon Silko as one of their very first group of fellows, to receive what is now known as a “genius” award.
The MacArthur Foundation, in chosing Leslie—an old friend of mine—already had ample evidence of her blazing talent. Between 1974 and 1981 she published a wholly original book of poems (
), a brilliant book of short stories (
), and her early masterpiece, the haunting, heartbreaking,
, which rises near to greatness and can easily stand as one of the two or three best first novels of her generation, a book that has been startling and moving readers in their thousands for more than a quarter of a century.
Far from resting on her already considerable laurels, Leslie plunged into the long swim across time and history that became
Almanac of the Dead
, which the critic Sven Birkerts rightly called one of the most ambitious novels of our time. The
absorbed Leslie Marmon Silko for more than ten years; it was followed by a lovely book of essays (
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit
, after which she returned to a theme which is woven through all her work: the theft, by the invading Europeans, of the native people’s long-accumulated and reverently guarded wisdom about the natural world. This novel was
Gardens in the Dunes
, and the intellectual property that is being looted is chiefly botanical lore.
is a novel whose unsettling story has lost none of its force in the nearly three decades since it was published. It is a book so original and so richly textured that the novelist N. Scott Momaday has wondered whether it ought to be called a novel at all. Perhaps, he suggests, it should just be called a “telling.”
Leslie Marmon Silko grew up on the Laguna Reservation west of Albuquerque. She, like her hero, Tayo, is of mixed blood; most of her work could be said to explore those border-lands of identity experienced by mixed-blood people—individuals who, in a sense, find themselves stuck between cultures, neither wholly in nor wholly out of what may be their native society: too often they are viewed suspiciously by both of the peoples whose blood they carry.
Tayo is a World War II veteran who returns from the Pacific war suffering terribly from what was then called battle fatigue and would now be called—as soldiers continue to experience it—posttraumatic stress disorder. After a stint in a veterans’ hospital in Los Angeles, Tayo journeys—without much hope—back to New Mexico. He finds, as do soldiers in all wars, including the current one, that going home is terribly hard. Neither Tayo nor his home is the same. In Tayo’s homeland a mine has been dug in a sacred area, a violation of nature that disturbs him deeply. Evils have been unleashed, witches have increased in power, and the indigenous people are more vulnerable than ever to spiritual and physical defilement.
Tayo, like the wisest of his people, turns for protection to the tribe’s saving stories. The stories help the people move from imbalance and disorder back to a kind of balance, the balance that comes from the accuracy and depth and beauty of the stories. The importance of faithful storytelling is a strong theme in all of Leslie Marmon Silko’s writing. She knows that the stories won’t save everyone; but, if they are faithfully kept and honored, the people will survive and perhaps in time recover their primal strength.