- Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony, Almanac of the Dead, Gardens in the Dunes ed. by David L. Moore
This collection of essays presents students and scholars of Leslie Marmon Silko's work with a breadth of critical perspectives for reading Ceremony, Almanac of the Dead, and Gardens in the Dunes. As part of Bloomsbury's "Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction," editor David L. Moore has assembled a series of short chapters that provide entry into literary analysis without relying on jargon. The book will be of particular interest to students learning to interpret novels and indigenous literature, as well as professors who want to introduce their students to an expansive set of resources to make sense of one of the most important contemporary Native American thinkers. The collection also makes a new contribution to the field of Native American/Indigenous literatures by putting forward three original articles on Silko's most under-discussed novel, Gardens in the Dunes.
The methodological strength of the collection appears in how the authors mine the archive of Silko's nonfiction, unpublished texts, and memoir to bring out resonances between her fiction and biography. Carolyn Decker's chapter "The Lost Women of Silko's Ceremony" analyzes an unpublished version of the novel held in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (79). Silko felt this early version of Ceremony failed due to her over-identification with the main character, a mixed-race woman named Angie seeking her own healing ceremony. The chapter takes on critiques of Silko's weak female characters in Ceremony and provides the opportunity to revisit and re-contextualize representations of gender, trauma, indigeneity, and mixed-race identity in the text.
The collection aims to place Silko "in the broad context of modern American and global literary history" (Moore 1) but at times falls short in engaging how literary studies in the Euro-American tradition can be incompatible with and hostile to the Native American literary critical project. This absence leaves the reader disoriented when one essay engages Silko's Keresan pueblo cosmology on its own terms and the next uncritically applies Euro-American empirical and aesthetic logics to Silko's work. The most obvious of these moments occurs in Chapter 8. In the midst of a fascinating reading of how Silko takes up the fiction of Henry James in Gardens in the Dunes, Lincoln Faller dismisses Silko's epistemological stance and the significance of the Ghost Dance for indigenous spiritual and political life. Faller writes,
If the vast preponderance of EuroAmericans are not to return to Europe or otherwise disappear—one of the great animating hopes and fantasies of the Ghost Dance—but remain on this continent, as of course they will, how shall they do so, in what relation to the land and all those (not just human beings) who occupied it before them, and all those who still do?(Faller 212; emphasis my own)
Silko famously writes "the Indian wars have never ended in the Americas" (Almanac 15), yet Faller's argument dismisses one of Silko's crucial challenges to settler-colonialism: her reframing of settler society as unjust and impermanent. [End Page 452]
This moment speaks to one weakness of the collection: the essays are in conversation with the fields they represent (studies in the novel, indigenous studies, queer studies, gender studies, ecocriticism) but are rarely in conversation with each other. Moore has done some of this work to synthesize the chapters in his introduction and each section opener. Particularly compelling is his articulation of Silko's aesthetics of witness and testimony. This framing lays out the responsibility of the reader to engage with "the lives and communities in these stories," to be in reciprocal relations with the human and non-human inhabitants of the Americas, and to uncover the ongoing atrocities of settler-colonialism (Moore 13). Still, I would have liked to see a through-line on how decolonizing approaches shift the ground on which literary studies does its work.