Having recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir The Turquoise Ledge (2010), I know well how deeply connected she is to the Arizona desert, its landscape, wildlife and climate. To read in the preface to her most well-known and celebrated novel Ceremony, that in 1979 she moved with her husband and two sons to Alaska, I’m not surprised she had difficulty coping, a deeply rooted woman out of place. The lack of sunlight caused her a terrible lethargy and depression. Once she began writing this novel, the depression lifted.
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.
She wasn’t just homesick for the place, she missed the people and the storytelling, so she awakened them by writing them into the novel, narrating a kind of prose poem using powerful mythological women like Corn Woman, Changing Woman, Serpent Women and Thought Woman (the spider), who with her sisters created all life by thinking it into being. It is she who is thinking this story, the author narrates it.
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
This fable-like story frames the novel, interrupting it throughout to remind us of how things were, of the distractions, the suffering and regret, the need to make amends, the value of setting a challenge, going on a quest, the need to make sacrifices and bring back what is necessary for forgiveness and healing to occur.
And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.
It wasn’t until I had read the novel through that I began to understand the connection between the Pueblo myth and the story, first we encounter it, then we begin to make sense of it. At times while reading, I was on the edge of understanding, informed a little by what I I know of shamanic stories, rituals, signs and traditions, there were many references I’d encountered from reading Alfredo Villoldo’s Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers.
The story focuses on the character Tayo, a young man whose very existence reminds some of his family members of things they detest. When they look at him they remember. He is always trying to make amends, to win approval, yet he seems destined to disappoint. He is of mixed blood, stuck in a place where he seems not to be able to inhabit either culture he is connected to, and yet there are expectations of him, both imposed from outside and from within.
“They are afraid Tayo. They feel something happening, they can see something happening around them, and it scares them. Indians or Mexicans or whites – most people are afraid of change. They think that if their children have the same colour of skin, the same colour of eyes, that nothing is changing.” She laughed softly. “They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different? That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves.”
He has recently returned from war, traumatized, he is suffering and struggling to find peace, trying to avoid the temptation of oblivion that other young veterans have fallen for. He has nightmares and hallucinates. His grandmother makes a suggestion:
“That boy needs a medicine man. Otherwise, he will have to go away. Look at him.”
The title Ceremony refers to the healing ceremonies based on the ancient stories of the Diné and Pueblo people. The ceremony that Tayo goes through reminds me of the hero’s journey, ultimately he has to leave and go on a quest, which he does, he meets someone from whom he learns things, he fulfills the challenge he set himself and then returns.
At this point the novel I wasn’t thinking in those terms and the ending is quite terrifying, until I reflect that this is indeed all part of the ceremony, and the biggest test of all comes at the end when he must embrace and use all those aspects of himself, the wisdom of all the cultures running through his veins.
He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together – the old stories, the war stories, their stories – to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distance and time.
It felt almost like an initiation to read this novel, waiting for its meaning to awaken as I read, I loved it and can’t wait to read more of her work, her ability to write the modern story that demonstrates the power of the mythological stories that get handed down through generations is brilliant. It reminds me of the retellings of the Greek myths that are currently popular, bringing the learnings of storytelling into contemporary situations, teaching us their wisdom, showing how their message never ages, the necessity for each person to live through it to understand it.
What She Said:
The only cure
is a good ceremony,
that’s what she said.
A brilliant and gifted storyteller, highly recommended.