Language & Form English short story inspired by Native American oral narratives and storytelling Synopsis

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originally published in the 1974 anthology, The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians, edited by Kenneth Rosen.

Language & Form

English short story inspired by Native American oral narratives and storytelling


The woman narrator goes for a walk by the river where she meets a mysterious man, Silva, who seduces her. He tells her that he is a ka'tsina (kachina) spirit and calls her "Yellow Woman," invoking a character in stories that the narrator had heard from her grandfather. Although she doubts that he is really a ka'tsina spirit, the narrator feels compelled to go up the mountain with Silva and makes love with him repeatedly. Silva is involved in cattle rustling and possibly murder. Though eventually she leaves him and returns to her village, she is sad to be without him and hopes that he will again seek her out by the river.

Main Issues

much of the story centers on the identity of the narrator and of Silva; issues of personal and cultural identity; relation of identity to social roles and narratives; current social roles subverted by old narrative; question of the significance of different/alternative roles created by stories.

issues of allegiances to society and to forces outside of society; marriage and adultery; the human and the spiritual worlds; the social and the natural realms.

issues of duty and desire, social obligations and dreams beyond the confines of social norms.

issues of boundaries; much of the action concerns crossing and recrossing of borders or frontiers; question of significance of different spaces and transgression of established boundaries/limits.

critique of private property; critical role of the images of stealing; conflicts over property; relations of culture to property.

Laguna Pueblo spirituality: addressing of relations between human beings, between cultures, and between people and the natural world.

relationship between myth and reality; myth as critique and transformation of reality.

human, anthropological, cultural, political, social, and economic significance of the story.

relationship between storytelling and understanding of self and human life.

Study Questions

What is the significance of the narrator's romantic adventure with Silva? Is Silva a spirit? Is the narrator "Yellow Woman"? Is it significant that the word "silva" means "forest" or "jungle"? What does that suggest? What does he represent? Why does the narrator follow Silva and accept the role of Yellow Woman? Are the old stories about the ka'tsina spirit and Yellow Woman relevant to Silva and the narrator? What do the stories make possible? What do they suggest concerning human desire and human society? How do they make the love relationship possible? How do such stories fit in with other values and social and moral considerations? How does the story view the issue of adultery and of the narrator abandoning her family to follow Silva? Is she judged or condemned for it? Does she feel guilty about it?

How does the narrator describe her experience of Silva' body? What is the significance of the frequent mention of warmth and dampness? How about the experience of riding the horse? Why does she repeatedly say she feels hungry? How are sensory and bodily perceptions treated in the story? What do they suggest concerning the significance of the situation and the experiences of the narrator?

What does Pueblo mythology seem to suggest regarding human identity and social roles? Is personal identity in the story always the same and always stable? Can a person have more than one identity? Why? How? What forces determine those identities? How or why does identity change? What are the causes, implications, and effects of changes of role or identity?

What is the significance of geographical spaces and directions (north, south, etc) and movement in those directions? How does physical space function in the story? What is its meaning? How are boundaries established? What is the significance of the crossing or transgression of boundaries? Why does Silva say, "from here I can see the world"? What kind of a perception is that? What is his point of view? Is it significant that he mentions the boundaries and areas occupied by the Navajos, the Pueblo people, the Texans, and the Mexicans? What issues do such divisions suggest? How do Silva's perceptions alter or subvert that cultural geography?

Why does Silva say he steals from others? What does he steal? Is his stealing significant in any way? How is it connected to the issues of boundaries and divisions? What does his stealing accomplish or suggest? How does he look at private property? What kind of a statement does Silva make through his stealing (including the stealing of Yellow Woman)? Is she too someone's property?

Why does the narrator give in to Silva's desires? Are they also her desires? In what way? What does her lack of resistance suggest? What does Silva have to offer her?

What is the significance of their encounter with the fat, white man? How is the man characterized? What does he say to Silva? What happens then? Does Silva kill him? What does that suggest?

Why is the narrator sad at leaving Silva? Why does she want to go back to him and kiss and touch him? Why does she believe he will come back?

What is the significance of the narrator's wish that her grandfather could be alive to hear her story? How is storytelling connected to the ideas and issues brought up in the story?

How are gender issues treated in this story? Is Silko a feminist or is she merely reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes? Is the narrator breaking free from oppression or merely giving in to a new oppressor?

How about cultural and social norms? How are they viewed? Are they criticized or upheld? From what point of view? Are some cultures seen as more or less valuable than others? Is Silko suggesting the existence of truths or forces that transcend culture and society? What might those be?

How does this story define spirituality? How is that spirituality connected to the relations between individuals and between different cultures? How is spirituality connected to the relations between human beings and the natural world? What roles do Silva and the narrator play in the definition of that spirituality?

How is myth employed in the critique of a given social and cultural order? Can myth and fiction play a role in the transformation of the real world? What does the story suggest?

A Laguna Woman
        Storytelling comes naturally enough at places like Old Laguna. Each house, and each crumbling adobe shell of a house, has stories attached to it; every mesa, cerro, arroyo, and spring in the surrounding countryside is home to some recountable event, or waiting to become so. As a child, Leslie Marmon grew up attaching herself, in memory and imagination, to the village and then to the land around it; and because this is Laguna land, many of the stories she grew up with were stories from the Keresan oral tradition, the stories of her father's people and their shared history. In her art as in her life, Silko has continued to maintain her identity with the story of the people of Kawaika, the People of the Beautiful Lake. The story of Laguna, like the biography of Silko and the fictional lives of her novels' protagonists, has always been a story of contact, departure, and recovery.
        Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico on 5 March 1948. Her mother, Virginia, was originally from Montana; her father, Lee Howard Marmon, was at the time just out of the Army, beginning his career as a professional photographer and managing the Marmon Trading Post in the village of Old Laguna, about 50 miles west of Albuquerque. Along with her two younger sisters, Wendy and Gigi, Leslie was raised in one of the houses on the southeast edge of Old Laguna village, just a short walk away, even for a child, from the Rio San José that arcs below the village on its south and southeast sides, separating the village fromor, seen differently, connecting the village to what is now Interstate 40 and before that was US Route 66. In several of Silko's Storyteller pieces, particularly those featuring the Kochinninako/Yellow Woman motif, this part of the river figures as a contact zone,1 where a female representing Laguna identity "within" meets a male who represents some other cultural or spiritual identity "out there."2 This place is also the liminal zone in which the spirits of the Katsinas, passing through it from the direction of sunrise into the village in November, take on the corporeal form of the masked dancers, a transformative event recalled in Ceremony.3 In the work of many writers, such places take shape as wastelands, deserts, and lifeless or life-threatening expanses; in Silko's work as at Laguna, the site of such transformative contact events appears as a place of comfort and regenerative energy, a place characterized by the twin blessings of shade and moving water even throughout the long summer months. Silko's own affinity for this place reflects, perhaps, her own felt "position," occupying as she does a marginal site with respect to both Laguna "within" and the dominant Anglo mainstream "out there"and as she depicts it, it's not a bad place to be.
        This same sense of contact zone becoming meeting ground also characterizes the position of the family household with respect to its Keresan and non-Keresan surroundings. From the perspective of the east-west highway, the Marmon house stands below and in front of the rest of the village; most of the rest of the village's houses are built farther up on the domed, white gypsum mesa that looks over the river and the highway beyond it. On the top of the mesa at the northwest corner of the village is the gleaming whitewashed Mission San José, the setting for her first published short story, "The Man to Send Rain Clouds." Along the south and southeast edge of the mesa are the commercial buildings which during Silko's childhood included the Marmon Store, the U.S. Post Office, and the old railroad depot building that was later to become her father's house. During the '40s and into the mid-'60s the Marmon family's general store, located a house or two nearer the highway interchange than the house in which Leslie grew up, served not only residents of Laguna and the surrounding Laguna Pueblo villages -- Paguate, Mesita, Encinal, Paraje, Seama, and Casablanca -- but also cross-country automobilists and truckers.
        Born and raised at this cultural intersection, Silko grew up becoming part of both Anglo and Keresan cultural traditions, as had most of her Marmon ancestors at Laguna. The first Marmons to come to Laguna, Ohioans Walter and his brother Robert, came as surveyors just after the Civil War, married Laguna women, and stayed on, Walter as a school teacher and Robert as a trader; both eventually were elected to serve as Governor of the Pueblo. Conversely, Silko's Keresan great-grandmother Marie Anaya Marmon (Robert's second wife), the "Grandma A'mooh" of Storyteller, left Laguna to attend the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, and Robert and Marie sent their son Henry, Silko's paternal grandfather, to the Sherman Institute in California. Another of the Laguna women among Silko's forebears, her great-aunt Susie (nee Susan Reyes, who was married to Henry's brother Walter), attended both the Carlisle Indian School and Dickinson College (also in Carlisle); upon returning to Laguna she served the community as a schoolteacher and also as a Keresan cultural historiana "storyteller" like Grandma A'mooh, in one of the most important senses of that term. Leslie's father, Lee, served as Tribal Council Treasurer during the time that uranium began to be mined at Laguna. Not surprisingly, given such a heritage, Leslie Marmon Silko grew up in a house full of books and stories, part of an extended family whose members have always been prominent in Laguna's history of contact with Euroamerican social, political, economic, and educational forces. The story of the Marmon family at Laguna is a story of outsiders who became insiders and of insiders who became outsiders -- a story about the arts of cultural mediation, from both sides of the imaginary borderline.
        In Storyteller and elsewhere, Silko acknowledges the extended Marmon family of storytellers, including her aunt Susie, her grandma A'mooh, her grandfather Henry, and her father, as a powerful shaping influence on her own creative vision and storytelling repertoire.4 But, as Silko has also pointed out, the extended landscape of her early years was shaping her vision and providing stories as well.5 Beyond the village and the river to the east lay the red rocks of Mesita, patches of rich wet grazing land, and the Cañoncito Navajo reservation on the other side of some lava flats; to the south were sandhills, red and yellow mesas dotted with springs, cool clear water on the hottest summer days; to the west lay most of the other Laguna settlements, and Cubero and Budville, and the Malpais; to the northwest, looming over it all, high and blue in the distance, rose Mt. Taylor, the place for deer hunting, bear country; and due north, up the long hill where bulldozers and Cats would change the landscape forever while creating the Jackpile open-pit uranium mine in the 1950s, was the conservative village of Paguate, where many of the old-timers lived, and beyond that Seboyeta, near the site of the original Laguna sipapu or emerging place in some of the Keresan origin stories. By the time she was a teenager Silko knew something of these places and their stories:

My father had wandered over all the hills and mesas around Laguna when he was a child, because the Indian School and the taunts of the other children did not sit well with him. . . . I started roaming those same mesas and hills when I was nine years old. At eleven I rode away on my horse, and explored places my father and uncle could not have reached on foot. I was never afraid or lonely though I was high in the hills, many miles from home -- because I carried with me the feeling I'd acquired from listening to the old stories, that the land all around me was teeming with creatures that were related to human beings and to me. ("Interior and Exterior Landscapes" 166)

In addition to the informal education she was receiving from the land and the storytellers in her extended family, Leslie attended the BIA school at Laguna through the fifth grade and then parochial schools in Albuquerque during her teenage school years. She spent her undergraduate years at the University of New Mexico, where she was enrolled in the general honors program, and received her B.A. in English (with honors) in 1969, the year the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded to Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn. She then enrolled in the American Indian law program at the University of New Mexico Law School, but later transferred into the creative writing M.A. program there.
        Though her interest in writing predated her college years -- she was already writing stories in elementary school -- that interest blossomed during her years at the University of New Mexico, during which time she took several courses in creative writing and saw her first work published ("The Man to Send Rain Clouds" in New Mexico Quarterly, Winter-Spring 1969). By 1971 she had chosen writing, rather than the practice of law, as her vocation, and in 1974 (at the end of a two-year teaching stint at Navajo Community College) her career became effectively established with two publications: her collection of poetry Laguna Woman (Greenfield Review Press) and Kenneth Rosen's The Man to Send Rain Clouds, an anthology of 19 Native American short stories, seven of them (including the title story) by Silko. In that same year, another of Silko's short stories, "Lullabye," was published in Chicago Review, and Silko was awarded an NEA writing fellowship. She then moved to Ketchikan, Alaska for two years; there, supported partially by a Rosewater Foundation grant, she wrote most of what was to become the novel Ceremony (1977). The time she spent in Alaska at Ketchikan and the small community of Bethel strongly engaged her imagination -- "Storyteller," the title story of her major collection of short works and the only piece not set at or near Laguna, is unmistakably Alaskan in setting and character. But even while living in Alaska, Silko's creative vision remained profoundly rooted in the landscape of her native Laguna: "When I was writing Ceremony," she wrote to poet James Wright in 1978, "I was so terribly devastated by being away from Laguna country that the writing was my way of re-making that place, the Laguna country, for myself" (Wright 27-28).
        Returning to the Southwest from Alaska, Silko continued to write while holding academic appointments first at the University of New Mexico and then at the University of Arizona. In 1981, after her marriage to John Silko had been dissolved,6 Seaver published her book Storyteller, which brought together much of her previously published poetry and short fiction, re-embedded in a webwork of family narrative accompanied by photographs of the sources of her storytelling identity -- photographs, that is, of the people and the settings to which those stories attach. In that same year, Silko was awarded a five-year, $176,000 MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, allowing her to devote herself full time to her artistic pursuits, including writing the novel that over the course of the next ten years would become Almanac of the Dead.
        A few years earlier Silko had been the subject of a short film, "Running on the Edge of the Rainbow" (1978), in which she played herself as a Laguna storyteller;7 during this time Silko began to develop her own interest in the visual arts, in particular filmmaking, an interest encouraged earlier in several graduate courses as well as by her father's career as a professional photographer (arguably, the combination of verbal and photographic texture in Storyteller anticipates this phase of Silko's career). During the late '70s and early '80s, even while her written work was relocating itself in a much larger sociopolitical context with Tucson rather than Laguna at its center, Silko's filmmaking efforts remained anchored at Laguna. There, she founded the Laguna Film Project and, with some additional support from an NEH grant and with an eye to eventual PBS release, began filming and producing "Arrowboy and the Witches," a 60-minute video version of her story "Estoy-eh-moot and the Kunideeyahs" (Storyteller 140-54).8 To film it, she returned to the mesa country south and west of Old Laguna, a landscape of cottonwoods and sandstone caves in an area locally known as Dripping Springs, which has been in the care of the Marmon family for several generations. As part of the setting for this film but also partly, perhaps, fulfilling the words she attributes to her father in Storyteller" -- You could even live / up here in these hills if you wanted" (161) -- Silko erected a stone cottage near the base of the Dripping Springs mesa. It burned down shortly thereafter, but its ruins are still there, along with the shell of the dwelling occupied by Spider Grandmother in that film, parts of yet another story attaching to this place.
        As Storyteller does mainly in print and "Arrowboy and the Witches" does mainly in motion picture form, much of Silko's non-fiction work of the past decade continues to integrate the conventional domains of visual and verbal art. In 1989, for instance, an essay entitled "The Fourth World" appeared in Artforum, a journal of the visual arts, and in 1995 her photoessay "An Essay on Rocks" appeared in a special issue of Aperture magazine. In these essays, as in her filmmaking, Silko's creative vision remains grounded in her years growing up at Laguna: in "The Fourth World," Silko speculates about the connections between the high teenage suicide rate around Laguna and the open Jackpile uranium mine, while in "An Essay on Rocks" her story about a boulder in a Tucson arroyo ends with an allusion to the story of a similar rock on Mt. Taylor that first appeared in Storyteller (77-78).
        Leslie Silko lives today on a ranch in the mountains a few miles northwest of Tucson, Arizona, where she has been living since the publication of Ceremony. In her most recent novel, Almanac of the Dead (1991), Silko portrays Tucson, the novel's apparent center of gravity and the setting for much of the story, as a hopelessly corrupt city "home to an assortment of speculators, confidence men, embezzlers, lawyers, judges, police and other criminals, as well as addicts and pushers" (frontispiece, Almanac), trembling on the edge of apocalyptic redemption thanks to its locus with respect to the Azteca migration motif. But even in Almanac of the Dead, Sterling, Silko's on-again-off-again protagonist, is a native of Laguna, and the novel can end only when the "Exile" of the novel's second chapter returns to Laguna in its final chapter, titled "Home":

Sterling hiked over the little sand hills across the little valley to the sandstone cliffs where the family sheep camp was. The windmill was pumping lazily in the afternoon breeze, and Sterling washed his face and hands and drank. The taste of the water told him he was home. Even thinking the word made his eyes fill with tears. (757)

Like Tayo's in Ceremony, Sterling's personal history is a story of contact with attractive but dangerous non-Laguna forces, departure from Laguna, and eventual return to Laguna with the acquired knowledge of how to live with those forces -- the "Yellow Woman" motif that Silko so strongly associates with the image of the river at Laguna. In Ceremony, Tayo completes his return by crossing this river from south to north at sunrise (255); in Almanac, the water-spirit of Kawaika is presented in its alternate shape: in the open pit of the Jackpile uranium mine, the giant spirit snake Maahastryu, who formerly inhabited the lake after which the Laguna people were originally named, has reappeared, "looking south, in the direction from which the twin brothers and the people would come" (763) in fulfillment of a prophecy of which the Laguna story is but a small part.
        Despite her Arizona address, Silko was recently named a Living Cultural Treasure by the New Mexico Humanities Council. In 1994 she also received the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas lifetime achievement award, an honor she now shares with N. Scott Momaday (1992), Simon Ortiz (1993), and Joy Harjo (1995). No doubt there will be more honors forthcoming. Perhaps Silko, who has never ceased to write out of her experience as a Laguna woman, will like her fictive protagonists one day return to Kawaika and receive them there.




Sandra Cisneros did not have a "normal" childhood. "As a person growing up in a society where the class norm was superimposed on a television screen, I couldn't understand why our home wasn't all green lawns and white wood like the ones in `'eave It To Beaver' and 'Father Knows Best'" (Ghosts 72). She wanted desperately to believe that her poverty was just a temporary situation, so she looked toward stories to escape. There was a book, called The Little House, that she checked out of the library over and over again. The house in the story was her dream house because it was one house for one family, and it was permanent and stable.

Throughout Cisneros' life, her Mexican-American mother, her Mexican father, her six brothers, and she would move between Mexico City and Chicago, never allowing her much time to get settled in any one place. Her loneliness from not having sisters or friends drove her to reading and burying herself in books. In high school she wrote poetry and was the literary magazine editor, but according to Cisneros, she didn't really start writing until her first creative writing class in college in 1974. After that it took a while to find her own voice. She explains, "I rejected what was at hand and emulated the voices of the poets I admired in books: big male voices like James Wright and Richard Hugo and Theodore Roethke, all wrong for me."(Ghosts 72). Cisneros then realized that she needed to write what she knew, and adopted a writing style that was purposely opposite that of her classmates. Five years after receiving her M. A. from the writing program at the University of Iowa, she returned to Loyola University in Chicago, where she had previously earned a BA in English, to work as an administrative assistant. Prior to this job, she worked in the Chicano barrio in Chicago teaching to high school dropouts. Through these jobs, she gained more experience with the problems of young Latinas.

Cisneros' writing has been shaped by her experiences. Because of her unique background, Cisneros is very different from traditional American writers. She has something to say that they don't know about. She also has her own way of saying it. Her first book, The House on Mango Street, is an elegant literary piece, somewhere between fiction and poetry. She doesn't just make up characters, but writes about real people that she has encountered in her lifetime. Cisneros' work explores issues that are important to her: feminism, love, oppression, and religion. In "Ghosts and Voices: Writing From Obsession" she says, "If I were asked what it is I write about, I would have to say I write about those ghosts inside that haunt me, that will not let me sleep, of that which even memory does not like to mention."(73).

America has welcomed Cisneros like a cool drink of water on a hot Chicago day. The House on Mango Street started out without very high expectations, but over time it has become widely known. It was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1985, and has been taught in a variety of academic disciplines including Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies, English, Creative Writing, Sociology, and even Sex Education. Even though Mango Street has been highly acclaimed, her collection of poems, My Wicked Wicked Ways, is perhaps the most widely read (Tompkins 37). Cisneros could be considered a fresh new voice in Chicana literature. According to Cynthia Tompkins of Arizona State University West, "Today Cisneros is perhaps the most visible Chicana in mainstream literary circles. The vividness of her vignettes and the lyrical quality of her prose attest to her craft." (Tompkins 40). Among other awards over the years, Cisneros received the first of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in 1982 that allowed her to write full time. Hopefully Sandra Cisneros will be able to keep on writing for many years to come.

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