Leslie Marmon Silko Saw It Coming

When I called the Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko, in January, to arrange an interview, her son answered the phone. His mother was tending to a bird emergency, he explained. The next day, Silko told me, digressively and with relish, what had happened. She has a number of macaws, and she’d been nervous that one of them had suffered a stroke and was going to die. She brought the bird inside and propped him up on her bed, with the aim of giving him a dignified death. But the bird was not dying, and proceeded to drag himself around Silko’s house, while another, an African gray, was flying loose in the home, which is why she couldn’t come to the phone when I called.

I was delighted but almost unsurprised by the tale. Silko is a gifted storyteller, and her writing is filled with intimate and antic accounts of relationships between humans and animals. She appears to have arrived fully formed as a writer: one of her first stories impressed an editor at Viking Press, Richard Seaver, who offered her a book deal; Silko, who had moved to Alaska with her husband, proceeded to write “Ceremony,” her début novel. It was published in 1977 and helped secure Silko a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1981.
The book follows Tayo, a half Pueblo veteran of the Second World War, who has come back from the Pacific with P.T.S.D., tormented by the knowledge that the United States government used him and other Native men for its war, giving those lucky enough to survive nothing in return. The book bends and stretches the novel form, incorporating poetry and oral traditions. It remains one of the most important works of Native American literature.

Silko spent a decade writing her next novel, “Almanac of the Dead,” a sprawling work about the United States-Mexico border, the black-market trade in arms and drugs, and ecological catastrophe. The book portrays reckless overdevelopment and mass migration through Sonora in scenes that feel only more relevant now—one story line, concerning a group of Marxist guerrillas in southern Mexico, seems prophetic in light of the Zapatista uprising that took place in 1994, three years after the novel was published. The book’s interlinking stories extend across time and geography, but it has a concentrated fury, aimed at ongoing efforts by Europeans and their descendants to wipe out the people native to the Americas. Toni Morrison—who, in the mid-eighties, visited China with Silko and Maxine Hong Kingston—wrote, of “Almanac,” “I can’t stress too much how happy I am to have this book in the world.”

Silko has subsequently published a third novel, “Gardens in the Dunes,” collections of essays, and also a memoir, “The Turquoise Ledge.” “Oceanstory,” a novella published as a Kindle Single by Amazon, in 2011, is her most recent publication, but she has continued to write in the dozen years since. She spoke to me twice, by phone, from her home in the Tucson Mountains, after the bird emergency had been resolved. These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s begin with your first novel, “Ceremony.” Are you surprised by the influence and long life that it’s had? Or did you have some sense of its power when you were writing it?

I wasn’t even sure it was a novel, so I didn’t have any ideas like that at all. I was in a crisis. It helped me get through the move from the Southwest to southeastern Alaska, which was extremely difficult. I wrote “Ceremony” sort of to save myself. Every day, when it was raining and dark in Alaska, I was writing about the Laguna-Acoma
area and the sandstone and the sun. For me, writing “Ceremony” was a way to remake or re-create a place and a sense of being where I belonged. And I was very far away from it at that point.

There’s this aspect of storytelling being similar to spell-casting or magic. Could you talk about that?

I think of storytelling as a part of healing. The body of healing stories and storytelling are held communally and are practiced together and always have been.

Do you think there is a strong relationship between writing and reality? Or maybe a better way of putting it is: do you think that what you write about affects the world?

Well, sometimes it really worries me, or it spooks me. I’ve seen some kind of creepy proof—you could call it serendipity, or use Jung’s “synchronicity.” For example, when I was writing “Almanac of the Dead,” I had to choose a location for the uprising of the tribal people in Mexico. I had a big map of Mexico. I saw that, down in Chiapas, there’s a city named Tuxtla Gutiérrez. I saw that the first part, “Tuxtla,” comes from an Indian word, I believe, and “Gutiérrez” was European, and I chose the mountains outside Tuxtla Gutiérrez for the location of my rebels. And that’s exactly where Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas
were located. When the uprising happened, I was approached, and people that had read “Almanac” asked if I had some kind of inside information or if I was connected. Absolutely not.

Sometimes it’s very disturbing. I mean, in one way, of course, it’s gratifying, I guess. But there’s guilt in it, too, even though that’s crazy. I must be some kind of medium or something for some things.

Regarding predictions, in “The Turquoise Ledge”
you say that you think Nahuatl is going to be the language spoken in the Southwest in five hundred years. What brought you to that idea?

I had written a much longer piece about what happens to languages if they become the language of the torturer, or the killer. I was thinking about German in Germany. What will become of English, the language of colonialism? I was thinking along those lines, and then I was thinking about the disregard for books and reading and the written word. The Maya and Nahua people had great collections of manuscripts, which, of course, the Europeans had to burn.
But I was thinking about how much people cared about language in a way that they’re not caring about English.

I love English. ​​I’m sad that it is so despised and hated that it gets Twittered and texted, and real books are disappearing. I decided that English in five hundred years wouldn’t be around. Urdu, Hindi . . . Chinese, of course, will be the financial language. At least in the Americas, something like Nahuatl has a good shot. More than a million people are speaking it right now in Mexico!

Perhaps, as the ecological situation worsens, a language such as Nahuatl has a better vocabulary for the formations of rocks and rivers.

Yes, exactly. In fact, all the different Indigenous languages do. It behooves you to pay attention to sandstorms and gathering clouds over other horizons.

Is climate degradation something you think about a lot?

I think, from the time I was a little child, the old-time people could already see it by the way that logging was carried on in the Mt. Taylor area in the nineteen-twenties. When I say “the old-time people”—they hadn’t been sent to school, they didn’t know what their birthday was, they didn’t really know exactly how old they were. But those kinds of things didn’t matter. It was a world where linear time—clock time and calendar time—didn’t exist. They were always concerned about what was happening to the earth. They very seldom would scold us kids, they were very indulgent with us children, but wasting water, fresh water—we could be playing or splashing, if we even saw an elder coming we would stop. They would come and see the splash of water, and they would talk about how hard it was for the people to go find clean drinking water.

It’s always been a part of my life—that worry, that concern. The old folks believed that, if hunters went out, and they killed deer and just left them . . . you hear about it in New Mexico, that people go hunting and kill the deer and just cut its head off for a trophy and leave, or leave it for my friends the coyotes, I guess. The old folks would say that disrespect, that cruelty, that it all impacted the whole. And when people were mean to one another and unkind—whether it was just within the community or whether it was, say, Jim Crow America—the old-time people said, “Oh, when that’s done, when humans misbehave, the rain clouds or the forces of nature don’t care who, they just know that humans are not right. And it makes everything wrong.”

Do you think that there’s a way for humans to get right if we’ve done wrong at this juncture?

Probably not on our own. It will probably take some kind of intervention. And that’s kind of what this novel that I’m writing—that I’m sort of wary of, that I’ve been living with—is about. It’s a fraternal twin to “Almanac of the Dead.” But the gestation period is really disgusting on this new one. What it was about was the rise of the right wing, and neo-Nazism—and then Trump came. I think I once heard or read somewhere that novelists should not write about contemporary life or affairs—and I wasn’t. I was writing a bit into the future. But, when all of this happened, I had already had that in the novel, and it was disconcerting. I decided that I couldn’t bear to live it and to write it. So I’ve kind of backed off. And I’m thinking of different ways to write it.

But short answer: the seven-foot-tall interdimensional beings that the different tribal people know
—at some point, they show up, around every seven hundred or eight hundred years. And it’s difficult to say what might happen to troublemakers—you know, fill in the blank of who’s the troublemaker. But short of a deus ex machina, I think is what you call it, I don’t see it.

When the far right became more prominent in reality, did you feel that there was something prophetic about your writing?

Yes, I did. With “Almanac of the Dead,” I felt terrible—one day, I was writing this section about a stolen or kidnapped child, and I came out of my writing office in downtown Tucson and turned on the radio, and a child had been kidnapped. When people come to the border now—you know, I hope Biden rots in hell. It pisses me off that he can’t seem to do much more than Trump did, violating international law, refusing the right to seek asylum. That part of “Almanac,” with people coming to the border—I saw that coming. And I knew that, when I finished “Almanac,” the one part I left out was the right wing. It’s creepy to live here in Tucson right now. I’m not interested in being a brave martyr. So I’m hoping to scratch up just enough energy to revisit the novel, but, honestly, I get nervous about it. I’m glad that “Almanac” is so long and complicated. No one in Arizona could read it, and so I’m safe because of that.

There’s the Bookmans on Speedway, in Tucson—that’s where I got my copy. But, to your point that nobody reads it, the spine was untouched.

I’m not surprised!

Does the new novel have a title yet?

Well, I had been calling it “Blue 7’s,” a reference to slot machines. That’s how long it’s been in progress, or, in being, looming over me: the casino gambling on Indian reservations in Arizona, at that time, was a new thing. I was going out with this guy who liked to go to the casinos at two o’clock in the morning, and I got interested in watching people. It is so weird, if you just go to watch. I was going to have my narrator be a person trying to recover from her gambling habit. She gambles only at Indian casinos. So I watched and watched. It’s about being able to foretell the future. Know the lucky numbers.

There was a bookseller online called Middle Earth Books, and he had all the best Buddhism books and Celtic weird stuff and fairy stuff and voodoo. He also had “Telling Fortunes by Cards.” So I am working with that material, too. That always happens when I write novels. Sane people would turn these various things into two or three other books, but I see them all as being terribly important to one another. I know what the way out is, and it’s pretty much deus ex machina.

The seven-foot interdimensional beings that come to shake us out of our stupor.

Yes. Well, let me tell you, my friend Benjamin Barney, who lives up near the Lukachukai Mountains—he’s an amazing Diné man. He told me about two Navajo women, two sisters, who had been out herding sheep up in the Lukachukai Mountains, and this seven-foot-tall Yeibichai, which is like a star being, came out of the trees and told them that only those human beings who follow the old ways will survive.

You mentioned things that you were reading for this new novel. I’m curious what you were reading when you were writing “Almanac of the Dead.”

Well, I remember having a hell of a time getting “Das Kapital.” The University of Arizona library didn’t have any copies, and then later on, I needed Engels, “The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State,” so I remember struggling to get hold of that, and needing that.

But there’s another component, and that is the mural. I got about halfway through “Almanac.” The MacArthur Fellowship was up, and I had this huge pile of manuscript, and I had no idea how it was going to end, or where it was going. I was horrified that I had blown the MacArthur Fellowship and written this big door-stopper thing. And now what was I going to do?

There had just been a bad governor elected, Evan Mecham—he condoned calling Black children “pickaninnies.” I was outraged at that. I started spraying anti-Mecham graffiti. “Recall him.” “Get rid of him.” Stuff like that. Anyway, we were successful, and when we were successful my landlord was anxious to cover up the graffiti, so he hired some kids to paint the wall white. One morning, I drove up after the wall was painted, and I looked at the old, rough bricks, and I could see where I could put a giant snake. I just let that novel sit there for four or five months, and I went outside and started painting this snake that was fourteen feet long.

And he was wonderful. He was huge. And then I realized that he had human skulls in his stomach. And, finally, I said to myself, “Well, if I can pull this off, I can finish that novel.” So I got the mural to the point where the message was there. It was in Spanish. It basically says, “The people are cold. The people are hungry. The rich have stolen the land. The rich have stolen freedom, the people demand justice, otherwise revolution.”
Well, I put that all in Spanish, so I wouldn’t get shot off my ladder while I was painting—because, of course, the Tucson cops used to park there, in that empty lot by the wall where I was working, and do their paperwork. But they couldn’t understand Spanish. So, when I finished, I went inside, and the whole Mexico part, the whole Zapatista part, just came out.

The other thing I did to break the block was: Larry McMurtry
bought me the complete Freud, and I read twelve or thirteen volumes of Freud. I also had Larry get me old almanacs when he was out scouting books. I think the oldest one he got me was from 1799. In one of them, in the back, in pencil, a farm woman had written on the morning of that big meteor shower in 1833.
It’s so beautiful. She wrote in pencil about some meteor shower that night. So I looked at all these almanacs, just like I went through Freud.

So then, to make it work, if you want to foretell the future with narrative, like in the old way, I also subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Tucson Citizen—the dailies. I didn’t know anything about capitalism, really. And I made myself read the Wall Street Journal. And, in the early eighties, it was really good. I read it like poetry. That’s what you do if you can’t understand it. I did that with particle physics, too. It was weird stuff like that—old almanacs and the Wall Street Journal. That’s why “Almanac of the Dead” worked the way that it was supposed to, which is to foretell. That’s how you gear up. You put all this stuff in together.

You’ve been in Tucson for a while now, but you grew up in New Mexico. How did you end up in Arizona?

I was in New Mexico, and I went to law school and then—praise the Lord, I saw the light and I dropped out of law school. I had got a little N.E.A. Discovery grant for my writing—I think a thousand dollars or something. And so I thought, Gee, maybe I could be a writer. I never really thought of being a writer. I was going to try to do justice for people, be a lawyer. Then I figured out what that was about. So, when my husband and I got done with law school, we went up to the Navajo reservation for a couple of years. And I taught at Navajo Community College, which is now Diné College, and that was where I got a lot of material for “Ceremony.”

When we were in Alaska, I couldn’t get a job, and that was good, because I just had to write that novel. So I wrote “Ceremony” in Alaska. I told my husband that I was leaving—he could come with me, and I’d support him, but I had to get out of there. We moved back to New Mexico and got a teaching job. When my marriage sort of went to hell in Albuquerque, I came down to Tucson, and then I got the MacArthur Fellowship, and I quickly quit teaching.

Tucson is one of the most beautiful parts of this country—there’s something really special about the land there.

I’m looking out the window right now. I live on this hilltop. I’m looking out the window toward the southwest. And I can see Wasson Peak is right there. And the parking lot for hikers has a number of cars, but it doesn’t matter. You know, the desert wants people to love it and go tramping through it. Today is just sublime. And it’s been raining. So there’s a mist that reflects the green. There’s a kind of green mistiness overhead that is just really beautiful.

And the Laguna-Acoma area’s real, real beautiful—a lot of people feel that way about there. But oh, no, I came here. And I was a goner.

I loved the land there and tramping around the desert, but there’s also something strange about all the Raytheon planes
flying overhead.

Yes, there’s that combination. When I came here, years ago, I wondered, What is it? There are the old ghosts that I write about, in “Almanac,” along the Santa Cruz. You know the secret C.I.A. base that was, or is, in Avra Valley?

I didn’t know about that.

Evergreen Air had its facility out there, and Evergreen Air, of course, was connected to the C.I.A.

Some years ago, Amazon took a novella of mine—Penguin didn’t want it because it was kind of political. I only just sort of made fun of the way everyone stuck flags all over their cars after 9/11. But, anyway, that’s another story. I wrote this novella that Penguin passed on and Amazon took—it’s called “Oceanstory.” It illustrates, in what I think is a valid way, the presence of the C.I.A. If you could have been from someplace else and come to a place where it can make you hate the United States—that could happen to you here.

I think that’s why I’m here—the contradictions and the kind of madness. I wasn’t surprised after January 6th that the weirdest-looking guy, with horns and the outfit, was from Arizona.
I’m not surprised that the most batshit crazy of the crazies are from Arizona.

I saw that Joy Williams
blurbed your memoir, “The Turquoise Ledge.” I know she lives in Tucson. Do you ever see her? Do you know her?

Years and years ago, I went to parties there when Rust Hills
was still alive, and I saw a lot of her. And then I don’t know. It is an occupational hazard for me: I’m so slow. I spend most of my time alone, trying to try to work.

It’s about being a writer, if you really write. I’ve been painting lately, but that’s just because I don’t have a 401(k). Luckily, I have a bit of a green thumb when it comes to hemp, or cannabis. So I can save money. I decided I can’t make money, but the thing I could do was save money by growing my own and so forth and painting little paintings. But then all I could think of is, Oh, no, I’m going to be called the Grandma Moses of the Pueblo.

In the past few years, legal battles and the protests at Standing Rock have brought public sympathy for, and attention to,
the fight for tribal sovereignty. Do you feel connected to those efforts? And do you feel optimistic about them?

Well, I’m glad—I’m glad that people still go out there and give the pipeline companies some grief. However, what you see is sort of a replay of tribal government, tribal councils—that the B.I.A. [Bureau of Indian Affairs] is not really looking out for the interests of the little communities. There was a lot of bloodshed at the Second Wounded Knee.

Were you aware of the events at Wounded Knee as they were happening?

I pretty much just heard it as news as it was coming through. I had a young child. I was trying to go to law school. I had already decided some years ago that what I could do for justice was to write and to think, not to march around. I’m kind of a loner. I always have been.

Then Marlon Brando’s people heard from Scott Momaday that maybe they could hire me. Scott had quit Brando’s series on American history from a Native point of view. In the meantime, Brando had been talking to people that had been up at Wounded Knee, and they were still having trials. So Brando called me, because he wanted to do something on the life and death of Anna Mae Aquash.
Her body was found in a melted snowbank with a bullet in it. And that was the occasion for me to look more closely at Wounded Knee.
It was just like the time with Alcatraz.
Was I ever tempted to go join up? No. There are other things that I felt like I could do better. But, when I see these new protests, it’s more “Hey, we’re still here. We’re still alive.” ♦

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