"The Web of Meaning: Naming the Absent Mother, in Storyteller,"

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Author: Patricia Jones
Date: 1993
From: "Yellow Woman": Leslie Marmon Silko
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 37. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,109 words

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[(essay date 1993) In the following essay, Jones analyzes Silko's use of the traditional Yellow Woman myth as a means of presenting the stories of the Laguna woman, her mother, and herself--merging myth and autobiography.]

They think
I am stronger than I am.
I would tell this like a story
but where a story should begin
I am left standing in the beat
of my silences.
There has to be someone to name you.
--Wendy Rose, "Naming Power"

Storyteller by Leslie Silko begins with the image of "a tall Hopi basket ... inside the basket are hundreds of photographs." The form and structure of the text reflect this image; it is a collage of stories, poems, myths, folktales, autobiographical notes, letters and pictures. And, like the photographs in the basket, the subjects are frequently the same--only the details change. Silko tells us that the photographs, many of which were taken by Grandpa Hank, "have always had special significance with the people of my family ... [They] have a special relationship to the stories/ ... because many of the stories can be traced in the photographs." The book itself is shaped like a picture album or a scrapbook, creating a certain intimacy and familiarity between text and reader. Silko seems to invite the reader to share with her a personal as well as a mythological, historical and fictional set of memories.

The book is, in fact, autobiographical in the sense that it places the emphasis on the shaping of the author's developing self through the influence of her family and friends, the myths and stories she was told, and the place where she was raised. In an interview with Per Seyersted, Leslie Silko says that she sees Storyteller "as a statement about storytelling and the relationship of the people, my family and my background to the storytelling--a personal statement done in the style of the storytelling tradition, i.e., using stories themselves to explain the dimensions of the process." By "naming" the people, places and stories that were important to her, she defines herself through her relationship to the family, the community and the land. Storytelling for Silko is more than "just ... sitting down and telling a once-upon-a-time kind of story" (Barnes 86). It is rather "a whole way of seeing yourself, the people around you, your life, the place of your life in the bigger context, not just in terms of nature and location but in terms of what has gone on before, what has happened to other people ... a whole way of being" (Barnes 86). This is a characteristic Native American point of view according to Simon Ortiz, who regards storytelling as "a way of life ... a trail which I follow in order to be aware as much as possible of what is around me and what part I am in that life" (quoted in Lincoln 223). The reader, as he or she turns the pages of this "album," is privileged to participate in the journey.

We are introduced to Silko's family through the pictures and the stories. We see and hear about her father, her sister, Aunt Susie, Grandpa Hank, Uncle Walter, Great Grandmother Anaya, Great Grandfather Marmon, Grandma A'mooh, Aunt Bessie, Great Grandpa Stagner and his brother Bill, Grandma Helen and even old Juana, who raised Grandma Helen. Each photograph tells a story and the story is "written" in the images present, the juxtaposition between photographs and text, and in the pictures omitted. We "read" the pictures as we read the myths and stories, looking for broader connections between them and Silko's life as she presents it in the text. Terry Eagleton, in Literary Theory: An Introduction, suggests that "the process of reading ... is always a dynamic one, a complex movement ... unfolding through time" (77). The oral storytelling tradition which forms the basic structure of Silko's text involves the reader in such a dynamic process. The reader, in effect, becomes participant in the text, connecting stories, finishing them, rewriting them, and constructing his or her own stories in the "gaps." These gaps exist in every text according to Wolfgang Iser in "The Reading Process" because

no tale can ever be told in its entirety. ... [It] is only through inevitable omissions that a story gains its dynamism ... [T]hus whenever the flow is interrupted ... the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for establishing connections--for filling in the gaps left by the text itself.(55)

The gaps in Silko's Storyteller, however, form a greater and more significant part of the story than those found in traditional texts. Like many Native American and modern texts, it is so fragmentary in form that "one's attention is almost exclusively occupied with the search for connections between fragments" (Iser 55). As we are seduced into the storytelling session, distinctions blur between the teller and the told, and where one story ends, a new one begins.

The most notable gaps and silences in Storyteller revolve around the absence of Silko's mother. In a book that appears to be substantially autobiographical and largely about the significance of female myths and forebearers, Silko's mother is mentioned only once in the entire text and then only in connection with Grandma A'mooh:

It was a long time before
I learned that my Grandma A'mooh's
real name was Marie Anaya Marmon.
I thought her name really was "A'mooh."
I realize now it had happened when I was a baby
and she cared for me while my mother worked.
(33)

Stories about fictional, mythological and surrogate mothers, however, abound in the text. Not only does the book begin with Aunt Susie who functioned as surrogate mother to Silko, listening to her, answering her questions, and passing "down an entire culture / by word of mouth / an entire history / an entire vision of the world" (5-6), but it is dominated by the myths and stories of Yellow Woman. The Yellow Woman myths originate in traditional Cochiti and Laguna Pueblo stories. There are many versions of the story of Yellow Woman, but in each telling of the story Yellow Woman is abducted or seduced by the sexually exciting, potentially dangerous ka'tsina spirit. When she is drawn to him, her "physical sensations and desire ... blot out thoughts of home, family and responsibility" (Ruoff 12). She leaves her husband and children to follow him. Sometimes she returns to the family; other times she does not. This union, however, almost always results in positive benefits for the tribe. According to Paula Gunn Allen in Spider Woman's Granddaughters, Yellow Woman may be "a Spirit, a Mother, a blessed ear of corn, an archetype, a person, a daughter ... an agent of change and of obscure events, a wanton, an outcast, a girl who runs off with Navajos, or Zunis, or even Mexicans" (211). Whichever role she assumes, Yellow Woman functions as a powerful image of freedom, sexuality, power and creativity. She is simultaneously the "good" mother who fulfills the traditional role of wife and nurturer and the "bad" mother whose sexuality is a powerful force, capable of both creation and destruction. As a daughter and as a woman, Silko must come to terms with the female power and sexuality she recognizes in her mother and in herself; she must negotiate the dangerous territory between mother and daughter, self and other, freedom and responsibility, saint and wanton. To name her mother is to name herself; to acknowledge her mother is to acknowledge her own divided self. Silko must, therefore, silence the literal mother whose power, whose potential for wildness and wantonness, frighten her. Only by putting her into a story, weaving both the mother's and daughter's stories into myths and stories of Yellow Woman, can Silko find her own voice, unite the dual aspects of her own psyche, and take her rightful place in the line of strong women who preceded her.

Like Wendy Rose in "Naming Power," Silko "tells this like a story" but where we expect her own personal story to begin, with her own birth, with her own mother, we are "left standing in the beat / of [her] silences." The mother becomes simultaneously and paradoxically both absent from the text, and through her palpable absence, the very center of the text. This is a crucial "gap" in the text and one which leads the reader to struggle for connections. The mother is traditionally the central figure in a child's life and perhaps even more significantly so in a female child's life. It is generally through the mother that a daughter defines herself, her sexuality and her place in the world. As Susan Gubar suggests in "The Blank Page and Female Creativity," the gaps and silences in the text, the blank pages "contain all stories in no story, just as silence contains all potential sound and white contains all colors" (305). The absence of the mother implies her importance to Silko's sense of self. Furthermore, Silko's repeated retelling of stories of other mothers and wives, particularly in the form of the Yellow Woman stories, seems to reinforce this significance.

The centrality of the mother figure in Laguna life is discussed by Paula Gunn Allen in "Who is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism." She writes that "at Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, 'Who is your mother?' is an important question ... [Y]our mother's identity is the key to your own identity" (209). Clearly Silko, who is of mixed Laguna, Hispanic and Anglo ancestry and who spent much of her childhood in and around the Laguna Pueblo, is aware of the importance of the mother figure on a mythical and metaphorical as well as literal level. The exclusion of the mother, then, from a text that focuses so strongly on the mythological aspects of motherhood, acquires increased significance. Certainly, as readers, we cannot overlook the silence; we must assume that this omission is both intentional and telling. Arnold Krupat suggests in "Post-Structuralism and Oral Tradition" that in reading Native American texts, we must "acknowledge that any meanings which appear to be present are never fully present" and conversely, "meaning (according to Terry Eagleton) ... is a matter of what the sign is not as well as of what the sign seems to be" (128, italics added). The literal absence of the mother, therefore, invites us, as readers, to look for her in Silko's subtexts.

The mother, so conspicuously absent from Silko's personal memories, appears repeatedly in fictional and mythological forms. The opening story is one told by Aunt Susie about "the little girl who ran away" and drowned herself in the lake because her mother "didn't want [her] to have any yashtoah" (13). Yet after the child's death, the mother grieves and is "very sad" (14). In her grief, she scatters "the little clothing-- / the little manta dresses and shawls / the moccasins and the yashtoah-- / they all turned into butterflies-- / all colors of butterflies / And today they say that acoma has more beautiful butterflies--" (15). The mother fails, at least in Western terms, to meet the child's needs and desires; yet, ultimately, good results for the community out of the individual tragedy. Aunt Susie's voice, relating the story, reflects this as she "spoke the words of the mother to her daughter / with great tenderness, with great feeling / as if Aunt Susie herself were the mother / ... But when Aunt Susie came to the place / where the little girl's clothes turned into butterflies / then her voice would change and I could hear the excitement and wonder / and the story wasn't sad any longer" (15). Significantly, it is Aunt Susie, the surrogate mother, who tells this conflicted story of motherhood and establishes the sense of ambivalence and duality that is reflected in the many versions of the Yellow Woman stories that follow in the text.

Motherhood in Silko's stories has a duality that is based in history, tradition and myth and creates conflict for the Native American woman today; motherhood for the Lagunas is greater than a personal and familial state but has implications for the community and for the earth as well. This scope and the conflicts inherent in it are explored in the various tellings of the Yellow Woman stories. In their context Silko opens up the possibility for exploring the many dimensions of motherhood for herself and indirectly for the reader as well. The silences and the gaps in the text allow the reader the freedom to write and rewrite his or her own versions of Silko's stories just as Silko writes and rewrites them herself. The construction of Silko's text integrates the oral tradition into the reader's own experience. Just as Aunt Susie and Aunt Alice told Silko's stories "they had told ... before but with changes in details," the text is open for our own storytelling. Silko remembers that

The story was the important thing and little changes here and there were really part of the story. There were even stories about the different versions of stories and how they imagined these differing versions came to be. ... I've heard tellers begin "The way I heard it was. ... " and then proceed with another story purportedly a version of a story just told but the story they would tell was a wholly separate story, a new story with an integrity of its own, an offspring, a part of the continuing which storytelling must be.(227)

In the spirit of such a storytelling tradition, I will tell the stories "the way I heard it was ... and then proceed with another story," my own version of the story just told and yet a "wholly separate story" as well.

In my first version of the story, I imagine that I am telling the story of Leslie Silko's childhood--the story of a little girl who grew up "around Laguna life without begin immersed in it ... [living] somewhere on the fringes" (Smith, Allen 188). Silko knew that she was not full Laguna and that

the white men who came to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation and married Laguna women were the beginning of the half-breed Laguna people like my family, the Marmon family. ... I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or mixed blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian.(Lincoln 233)

Like Yellow Woman, the women in Silko's family had been seduced into marriages that separated them from their culture, leaving Silko "somewhere on the fringes" of Laguna life. If, as Paula Gunn Allen suggests, two of the roles that Yellow Woman may take are that of an outcast and an agent of change, then the responsibility for the isolation and dissonance that Silko feels as a result of her mixed blood lies with the mother. By merging her mother's story and her own with the myth of Yellow Woman, Silko attempts to bring the disparate pieces together, to identify "what it is to be a half-breed." The process of the telling, revising and retelling of the old stories, the conversion of the traditional into the contemporary, binds Silko to her heritage, allowing her, like Yellow Woman, to return home with a new story to tell.

Since Laguna heritage is strongly matrilineal, the mother's story is particularly crucial in identifying the daughter and establishing her place in Laguna society. Women control the houses, the property, the lineage of the children, and many of the decisions about marriages (Fisher 23). The women in Silko's family provided strong role models for her. With her mother away at work, she was raised by "her grandmother Lillie, who had been a Model A mechanic, and her great-grandmother Marie or 'A'mooh,' a full blood from Paguate who ... had gone to Indian School at Carlisle as soon as her many children were grown" (Seyersted 13). Aunt Susie attended Dickinson College and "when she returned to Laguna / she continued her studies / ... even as she raised her family / and helped Uncle Walter run their small cattle ranch" (Storyteller 3). These women were not only remarkable in their accomplishments but in their ability to mesh the modern, westernized world of formal education and jobs with their traditional values and heritage. Grandma A'mooh "washed her hair in yucca roots and told the child about the old days" (Seyersted 13). Aunt Susie kept the oral tradition of storytelling alive and passed it down to Silko. Silko thinks of these women with affection and pride, saying "I grew up with women who were really strong, women with a good deal of power," but she adds a line which shows how difficult it is for her to reconcile this power with her mother's power, which she sees as negative: "And I think about that, and I try to think about my mother: is there something about the way she and I have gotten along, or how we related to each other? ... If someone was going to thwart you or frighten you, it would tend to be a woman; you see it coming from your mother, sent by your mother" (Barnes 96-97). She can only "try" to think about her mother.

Silko's mother was a "mixed blood Plains Indian" and she kept Silko on the "customary cradle board until she was a year old" (Seyersted 13). Yet she also went out to work when Silko was a young child leaving Grandma A'mooh and her aunts to mother her. Thus, the mother is both present and absent in Silko's life; she weds the traditional Native American customs of mothering with the Western need to leave the home to work. Since much of Leslie Silko's sense of her place in the community is vested the identity of her mother and her mother's family, this dissonance sets up an inevitable conflict.

Among the Keres, every individual has a place within the universe--and that place is defined by clan membership. In turn, clan membership is dependent on matrilineal descent. ... [N]aming your own mother ... enables people to place you precisely within the universal web of your life, in each of its dimensions: cultural, spiritual, personal, and historical.(Allen, "Who Is Your Mother?" 209)

Because of her mixed blood, Silko's position in the community was on the periphery. Her house was "situated below the village, close to the river ... on the fringe of things" (Silko, "A Conversation," 29). She was included in clan activities, but not to the same extent as the full bloods; she helped out at ceremonial dances but did not dance herself (Seyersted 13). Silko seemed to belong nowhere and everywhere. Her place in the community is largely determined by her mother and, if her relationship with her mother is distanced or problematic, the consequences, according to Paula Gunn Allen, are the "same as being lost, isolated, abandoned, self-estranged, and alienated from your own life ... Failure to know your mother, that is, your position and its attendant traditions, history, and place in the scheme of things, is failure to remember your significance, your reality, your right relationship to earth and society" ("Who is Your Mother?" 209-210). The issues of motherhood in the literal, the figurative, and the metaphorical sense become central, therefore, to Silko's sense of self--her identity both as an individual and as a part of the whole.

Silko, then, must write about her mother in order to understand herself and her place in the community. Yet as Adrienne Rich points out in Of Woman Born, "the cathexis between mother and daughter--essential, distorted, misused--is the great unwritten story" (225). The daughter must both identify with and separate from the mother. It is difficult to see our own mothers in any way other than through their relationship to us, and if that relationship is conflicted, as it often is, we must look for our mother's stories and our own story in the stories of other women. It is both difficult and threatening to imagine our mothers with sexual and emotional needs similar to, yet separate from, our own. It is hard, in fact, to acknowledge those same feelings in ourselves. We, too, are daughters, and perhaps mothers, and in these roles, we bury the stories of our own sexuality as deeply as we do those of our mothers. Our sexuality makes us vulnerable and leaves us open to seduction. We are seduced by men, by words, by stories, by the experiences of others, and by our own needs and desires. The repeated storytelling of the Yellow Woman stories in Storyteller is an attempt on Silko's part to place her life in a larger context--to grapple with the sexuality and seduction of her mother, her grandmothers, herself and her people, to create a new story, a new myth, out of the old stories and the fabric of her life.

In Storyteller, the story of Yellow Woman is told at least six different times and each telling is both the same and different from the preceding telling. The effect of this succession of stories, merged with the content of each story, suggests that, like Silko, we all are caught in a web of storytelling in which the mythical stories that we have known since "time immemorial" inform the patterns that our lives take, the stories that we will live. Kenneth Lincoln in Native American Renaissance says that

Words are believed to carry the power to make things happen, ritualized in song, sacred story, and prayer. This natural force is at once common as daily speech and people's names. The empowering primacy of language weds people with their native environment: an experience or object or person exists interpenetrant with all other creation, inseparable from its name. And names allow people to see themselves and the things around them, as words image the spirits in the world.(143)

The act of telling and of naming is an act of creation. Naming makes it so. In the Yellow Woman stories, Silko tries out a variety of stories and myths, telling each from a different stance. She tells traditional stories, mythological stories, modern versions, versions in which Yellow Woman goes home to her family and versions in which Yellow Woman is killed. Some stories are funny and others are sad; some stories are cynical and brittle, others are lyrical and touching. It is as though Silko tries on a new persona for each story, envisioning both herself and her mother as the Yellow Woman of the story, exploring the choices available to women and the compelling needs and desires that drive women to make those choices.

In "Yellow Woman," it is the act of telling and naming that transverses the distance between myth and reality, between story and life, and merges the two into one. The stranger by the river calls the woman "Yellow Woman," and she is seduced into the story, drawn inextricably into its pattern. She follows Silva: she "did not decide to go ... [She] just went. Moonflowers blossom in the sand hills before dawn, just as ... [she] followed him." Like the pattern in a spider web, the replication is inevitable. She wonders if

Yellow Woman had known who she was--if she knew that she would become part of the stories. Maybe she'd had another name that her husband and relatives called her so that only the ka'tsina from the north and the storytellers would know her as Yellow Woman.

The story becomes her story. When Silko tells the story, it becomes her story as well; both Silko and Yellow Woman are "drawn inextricably into [the] ... pattern" of the stories they create. Yellow Woman thinks that she "will see someone ... and then I will be certain that he is only a man ... and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I've been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw." But all she can know is the moment. All she can feel is "the way he felt, warm, damp, his body beside me. This is the way it happens in the stories, I was thinking, with no thought beyond the moment." Perhaps we all live only in the moment and the moment is beyond our control, our stories written and determined by the stories that have gone before, that have already been told; we live out the stories unaware that we are recreating new versions of old stories and it is only in the telling that the patterns become real. In an interview in Sun Tracks, Silko suggests that "you know you belong if the stories incorporate you into them. There have to be stories ... People tell ... stories about you and your family ... and they begin to create your identity. In a sense you are told who you are or you know who you are by the stories that are told about you" (29-30). Our very lives are an act of creation--making new versions of old stories for future storytellers.

Silva tells Yellow Woman that "someday they will talk about us and they will say, 'Those two lived long ago when things like that happened.'" And Yellow Woman knows that "if old Grandpa weren't dead he would tell them what happened--he would laugh and say 'Stolen by a ka'tsina, a mountain spirit. She'll come home--they usually do.'" In the end Yellow Woman decides to tell them "that some Navajo had kidnapped me, but I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn't alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best." In the telling, the story will become a new legend, a new myth, reinforcing the pattern that will inform the next story. As Elaine Jahner suggests, "transmission of the knowledge of 'stories,' ... involves not only the sharing of knowledge but the sharing of how knowledge has been shaped through one's living with it" (41-42). It is through such stories that Silko is able to integrate past and present, to resolve the conflicts and to restore balance in her life.

In each telling of the Yellow Woman story, Yellow Woman abandons her family and goes off with the ka'tsina spirit, drawn to "his skin slippery against [hers]." Each time her actions are understandable, forgivable, inevitable. This story leads me back to the gaps, the silences, in the text about Silko's own mother. I imagine that this contemporary version of the myth is Silko rewriting her mother's story, justifying her mother's actions. In the story we are told that the "mother and grandmother will raise the baby like they raised me. Al will find someone else, and they will go on like before, except that there will be a story about the way I disappeared while I was walking along the river." Whether Silko actually felt abandoned by her mother physically, emotionally or spiritually is not relevant for, as Silko reminds the reader, "sometimes what we call 'memory' and what we call 'imagination' are not so easily distinguished." The telling of the story makes it real, turns pain into celebration.

Yet, in writing the Yellow Woman story, I imagine that Silko not only rewrites her mother's story, but writes her own story as well. This is a story conceived in both memory and imagination and its genesis is in both the myth and the modern world. In the Sun Tracks interview, Silko tells us that girls meet boyfriends and lovers at the river and that she used to

wander around down there herself and try to imagine walking around the bend and just happening to stumble upon some beautiful man. Later on I realized that these kinds of things that I was doing when I was fifteen are exactly the kinds of things out of which stories like the Yellow Woman story [came]. I finally put the two together: the adolescent longings and the old stories, that plus the stories around Laguna at that time about people who did, in fact, just in recent times, use the river as a meeting place.(29)

Silko weaves together both her own stories and her mother's stories and in the process explores the power and dimensions of female sexuality. In the Yellow Woman stories, women are overcome time and again by their own overpowering passion. They are almost unhesitatingly willing to abandon one life for another. These women must negotiate between two worlds--the world of the family and that of self. The Native American version of this conflict, however, differs significantly from the Western version. In the Western tradition the mother who leaves her family is punished; in the Native American tradition she is celebrated. The Yellow Woman stories validate female sexuality, viewing the wildness and passion that leads to such improper, non-conformist behavior as an ultimately creative act. This sense of self as a sensual and sexual being may at certain times even work for the greater good of the community. Simon Ortiz suggests that "pueblo societies see the survival of the group as more important than the existence of the individual ... [and] man as a minute part of an immense natural cycle" (Seyersted 17). The perpetuation of that cycle serves to "bring new blood into the pueblo [and] Yellow Woman becomes a symbol of renewal through liaisons with outside forces" (Ruoff 10). The sexual act, then, "channels the awesome power and energy of our human sexuality--the preserve of wilderness in human beings--into socially useful channels" (Smith, Allen 178). Accordingly, women who step outside the bonds of propriety often bring not disgrace but great good to the tribe. This pattern is reflected repeatedly in the various versions of the Yellow Woman stories.

In "Cottonwood Part One: Story of Sun House," Yellow Woman leaves "precise stone rooms / that hold the heart silently" and "her home / her clan / and the people / (three small children / the youngest just weaned / her husband away cutting firewood)" (Storyteller 64). She is seduced by the "colors of the sun," in the form of a spirit who is the sun himself. She is inextricably drawn to him despite the fact that "the people may not understand." She does it "for the world / to continue / Out of love for this earth / cottonwood / sandstone / and sky." Because of her actions the sun comes again and again "out of the Sun House," and the earth will not freeze over and die.

This pattern is repeated in "Cottonwood Part Two: Buffalo Story," in which Yellow Woman's actions result in bringing food to her people in a time of drought and starvation. Yellow Woman, who goes out searching for "water to carry back to her family," is seduced by "water ... churning ... [where] something very large had muddied the water." Frightened by her own sexuality, she turns "to hurry away / because she didn't want to find out," but it is too late. She is seduced by a spirit who is "very good to look at / ... she had never seen anyone like him / It was Buffalo Man who was very beautiful," and when he says "Come with me," she follows. She is killed by her husband when he discovers she is unwilling to leave the Buffalo people whom she "loves." Yet, her death results in plentiful meat for her tribe. The community benefits from her actions:

It was all because
one time long ago
our daughter, our sister Kochininako
went away with them.
(76)

Seduction stories follow one after the other and whether "Yellow Woman" (or her contemporary counterpart) is abducted by "that Mexican / at Seama feast," or "three Navajo men / headed north along / the Rio Puerco river / in a red '56 Ford" or is seduced "Outside the dance hall door / late Friday night / in the summertime," the result is always the same. When she is asked "Have you seen the way stars shine / up there in the sand hills?" she usually says "No. Will you show me?" The result of this acknowledgement and acting out of human sexuality generally climaxes in a positive outcome for the community or tribe in the form of the birth of magical children, the acquisition of food or water in time of need, or the gift of a new ceremony. Female sexuality is seen as a positive and creative force in the world, even outside the bonds of marriage.

I imagine that there is another story embedded in this story, however, and it is the story of the land. In "Lullaby," Silko writes "The earth is your mother / she holds you / ... There never was a time / when this / was not so" (51). The earth, as mother, is connected to the human, animal and spiritual world as mother/woman is to a lover. In an interview with Kim Barnes, Silko suggests that

What's operating in those stories of Kochininako is this attraction, this passion, this connection between the human world and the animal and spirit worlds. Buffalo Man is a buffalo, and he can be in the form of a buffalo, but there is this link, and the link is sealed with sexual intimacy, which is emblematic of that joining of two worlds. ... there's a real overpowering sexual attraction that's felt. The attraction is symbolized by or typified by the kind of sexual power that draws her to the buffalo man, but the power which draws her to Buffalo Man is actually the human, the link, the animal and human world, those two being drawn together. It's that power that's really operating, and the sexual nature of it is just a metaphor for that power.(95-96)

So Silko weaves a new story out of the old one--a story about power, sex, love and the earth. Intercourse occurs between mother earth and the spirit and animal world. And, like the other seductions in the Yellow Woman stories, this union results in good for the earth and the community. The mother, as sexual and sensual being as well as mother figure, is of central importance. For Silko to acknowledge and understand her own sexuality as well as her mother's, she must see it in the greater context of mother as earth as well as mother as individual. She must see sexuality as ultimately creative and productive; she must once again tell the story so that the mother's choice between self and child is not only an acceptable but a necessary act. Smith and Allen write:

In such comings-together of persons and spirits, the land and the people engage in a ritual dialogue. ... The ultimate purpose of such ritual abductions and seductions is to transfer knowledge from the spirit world to the human sphere. ... the human woman makes little attempt either to resist or to tame the spirit-man who abducts her. Nor do men ... attempt to control or dominate [the women]. ... the human protagonists usually engage willingly in literal sexual intercourse with the spirits. ... This act brings the land's power, spirit, and fecundity in touch with their own, and so ultimately yields benefit for their people.(178)

The mother who acknowledges her own sexuality and who acts on that acknowledgment offers men and women a paradigm for healthy and whole relationships with each other; a woman's role as wife, mother, earth is no longer viewed as constricting but as liberating.

This connection to the land must be particularly important to Silko. Today the Jackpile Mine is located in Laguna land, near Pagute. It is the largest open pit uranium mine in existence. The deepest uranium mine shaft is sunk into Mt. Taylor, the sacred Laguna mountain, which is the traditional home of the ka'tsina spirit. These mines have brought economic prosperity to Laguna but at the same time cancer is spreading at an alarming rate; the number of children born with birth defects at Laguna is growing significantly; the ecosystem is contaminated and drinking water has radiation levels two hundred times greater than those considered safe (Seyersted 12). If the mother is to survive, if the earth is to survive, Silko suggests that the relationship between the spiritual, the physical and the human must be one of passion, intercourse and love: We must sleep "with the river" and find "he is warmer than any man." We must listen to voices and stories that inform us:

Aging with the rock
of this ancient land
I give myself to the earth,
merge
my red feet on the mesa like rust, root
in this place with my mothers before me,
balance end by end like a rainbow
between the two points of my birth, dance
into shapes that search the sky for clouds
filled with fertile water.
Across asphalt canyons, bridging river
after river, a thirty year old woman
is waiting for her name.

Like this speaker from Wendy Rose's "Naming Power," through accepting and embracing our own passion and sexuality we can "give [ourselves] to the earth," connect with and come to understand "[our] mothers before [us]," and in so doing, achieve a "balance ... like a rainbow."

The stories merge and converge. The absent mother at the center of the text is the figure around which all the other figures revolve. Each story is her story, Silko's story, and, in a sense, our story also. Just as the stories can be traced in the photographs in the Hopi basket, the stories are told through the blank pages, the silences, and the gaps in the text. When we look through Silko's album of pictures, the absence of a picture of her mother tells a story just as loudly as the presence of the pictures of others. Iser says in "The Reading Process" that

although we rarely notice it, we are all the time engaged in constructing hypotheses about the meaning of the text. The reader makes implicit connections, fills in the gaps, draws inferences and tests our hunches. ... [T]he text itself is really no more than a series of "cues" to the reader, invitations to construct a piece of language into meaning.(76)

The series of stories about Yellow Woman, like the pictures, each serve as a different pose, a different landscape, but the subject remains the same--the identity of woman as mother and wife and the tensions between those roles and her sexuality, creativity and productivity. In leafing through the album, telling the stories of the pictures, we see ourselves as well as others. Similarly, in reading the "gaps" in the text, we come to know a series of stories--some of them our own.

In Silko's Storyteller, we must listen to the silence as well as the words, and out of that silence construct our own stories to propel us into the future and connect us to the past. Leslie Silko is the storyteller and

The storyteller keeps the stories
all the escape stories
she says "With these stories of ours
we can escape almost anything
with these stories we will survive."
"The Storyteller's Escape"
(247)

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. "Cochiti and Laguna Pueblo Traditional Yellow Woman Stories." Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women. Edited by Paula Gunn Allen. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989, 210-218.

------. "Who is Your Mother?: Red Roots of White Feminism." The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indians Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, 209-221.

Barnes, Kim. "A Leslie Marmon Silko Interview." The Journal of Ethnic Studies 134 (1986): 83-105.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Fisher, Dexter. "Stories and Their Tellers--A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko." The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Edited by Dexter Fisher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, 18-23.

Gubar, Susan. "The Blank Page and Female Creativity." The New Feminist Criticism. Edited by Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, 292-313.

Iser, Wolfgang. "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach." The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 50-69.

Jahner, Elaine. "An Act of Attention: Event Structure in Ceremony." American Indian Quarterly 5.1 (1979): 34-47.

Krupat, Arnold. "Post-Structuralism and Oral Tradition." Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, 113-128.

Lincoln, Kenneth. "Grandmother Storyteller: Leslie Silko." Native American Renaissance. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983, 222-250.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Rose, Wendy. "Naming Power." That's What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women. Edited by Rayna Green. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 218-220.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne. "Ritual and Renewal: Keres Traditions in the Short Fiction of Leslie Silko." MELUS 5.4 (1978): 2-17.

Seyersted, Per. Leslie Marmon Silko. Western Writers Series 45. Boise: State University, 1980.

Silko, Leslie. "A Conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko." Sun Tracks 3.1 (1977): 29-32.

------. Storyteller. New York: Seaver Books, 1981.

Smith, Patricia Clark and Paula Gunn Allen. "Earthly Relations, Carnal Knowledge: Southwestern American Indian Women Writers and Landscape." The Desert is No Lady. Edited by Vera Norwood and Janice Monk. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 174-196.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420032922