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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 490-491

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Book Review

Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition

Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez. Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition. U of Arizona P, 1999. x + 259 pp.

Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition is a very ambitious book, a David taking on Goliath. Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez's feelings of vulnerability are evidenced by her defensive posture of quoting a myriad of Native American writers and scholars as well as well-known critics from allied fields. While her amazing command of the field is demonstrated by the number of people from whom she draws support, the constant repetition of similar positions can be tiresome. Her over-all argument, however, is well conceived, incisive, and transformative to the degree that her readers are willing to recognize the oppressiveness of structuralism and poststructuralism, particularly when those theories are applied to non-Western literatures. Citing an excellent critique by Louis Owens, she joins him in rejecting "a post-modernism that 'celebrates the fragmentations and chaos of experience,'" because such an approach is not "useful in reading Native literature that 'places humanity within a carefully, cyclically ordered cosmos and gives humankind irreducible responsibility for the maintenance of that delicate equilibrium.'" This text, particularly chapters 1 and 2, provides a thorough critique of European based theories of discursivity, theories that insist on a subject that requires the subalternity of an object, a Baktinian polyvocality that can only comprehend difference as conflict, and a critical stance that presumes universality while ignoring its own hegemonic presumption.

What grounds Brill de Ramírez's thought is her command of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophical investigations (her first book is titled Wittgenstein and Critical Theory: Moving Beyond Postmodern Criticism and Towards Descriptive Investigations); her sensitive readings of a wide range of Native American literature; and her Bahá'í faith that draws her to the sacred in word, sound, and silence akin to Native American beliefs. According to Brill de Ramírez we as readers must emphasize what Saussure de-emphasized by shifting our scholarly focus to "parole" and the conversivity that recognizes subject status for all engaged in discourse.

She illustrates what she means by the transformative co-creative interaction of storyteller-writer and listener-reader in chapters 3 through 6 as well as the epilogue where she draws on very well-known and less well-known, but excellent, Native American writers to demonstrate the profound differences between conversive and discursive thinking, a choice [End Page 490] she sees as being between true dialogue or conflictual monologic interaction. What makes the illustrative texts so interesting is that she sees the writers themselves working along a discursive-conversive continuum, sometimes quite consciously having characters struggle internally and externally with voices that are divisive versus voices that recognize "relations to" and therefore bring the self into balance.

Clearly Brill de Ramírez is an admirer of Simon Ortiz for she quotes from After and Before Lightening at the beginning of each of the three sections of her book. She uses the poetry of Nia Francisco, Luci Tapahonso, and Ester G. Berlin to illustrate conversive storytelling among the poets themselves and in their presumptions of listener-readers through the tone and presentation of their poetry. She also uses a sharp contrast between Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storytelling" and "Storyteller" from Storyteller to make a sharp distinction between holistic conversivity and a would-be conversivity that is constantly disrupted. Another chapter focuses on the Native American understanding of the sacred and of personhood. Here an in-depth and perceptive discussion of Anna Lee Walters's short stories "The Devil and Sister Lena" and "Talking Indian," Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, and Luci Tapahonso's poem "For Lori, This Christmas I Want to Thank You in This Way," delineate very significant cultural differences in Native and Euro-American thought. The conversive-discursive continuum and its damning effect on Native Americans if they lose touch with conversivity are well-illustrated in a discussion of N. Scott Momaday...


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