Listening to the Spirits: An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko sail

Download 133.45 Kb.
Size133.45 Kb.
  1   2   3   4
Listening to the Spirits: An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko


Studies in American Indian Literatures
 Series 2 Volume 10, Number 3 Fall 1998


Listening to the Spirits: An Interview with Leslie Marmon Silko

Ellen Arnold

The following is a portion of an interview conducted on August 3, l998, at the kitchen table of Leslie Silko's ranch house outside Tucson, in the midst of her extended family of horses, dogs, cats, birds, and one big rattlesnake. On that table is a manuscript copy of Gardens in the Dunes, the new novel Silko has just completed, which will be published early in 1999. At the time of the interview, I was about halfway through the manuscript.1

Gardens in the Dunes is a richly detailed and intensively researched historical novel set at the end of the nineteenth century. It focuses on the lives of Sister Salt and Indigo, two young Colorado River Indian sisters of the disappearing Sand Lizard tribe, who are separated when Indigo is taken away to boarding school in California. Too old for school, Sister Salt is sent to the Reservation at Parker, but escapes to make her way among the construction camps of the closing Arizona frontier. Indigo runs away from boarding school and is taken in by Hattie Abbott Palmer, a scholar of early Church history, and her botanist husband Edward, Easterners who have come West to look after the Palmer citrus groves in California. Thinking Indigo is an orphan, the Palmers take her with them on a Summer tour of East Coast and European homes and gardens belonging to wealthy family members and friends.

Taught early by her Mama and Grandma Fleet the intricacies and pleasures of gardening in the sand dunes along the Colorado before her people were driven out, Indigo is an attentive and appreciative observer. {2} Through her we experience elaborate mannerist gardens in Italy, English landscape gardens, and their American interpretations on the estates of the New England Robber Barons. Amidst this lush and loving description, Silko unfolds a gripping narrative of intrigue, betrayal and revenge, loss, reunion, and renewal.

Ellen Arnold (EA): In Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, you described how Almanac of the Dead originated in a series of photographs you took that came together and made a story. How did Gardens in the Dunes begin?

Leslie Marmon Silko (LMS): Gardens in the Dunes goes way back. Somewhere in my papers I had a sketch for a story about the gladiolus man. It was supposed to be a short story about a man who, when he was young, went to Sherman Institute in Riverside, and at the school they taught him how to cultivate gladiolus. He goes back home and on a piece of family land plants the gladiolus, and then the clanspeople get really angry because it's not a food crop, it's a flower. The idea being that this person is just so lost and in love with these flowers and their colors, even though they're ridiculous and useless. But of course, that comes head on with the needs for food and economy. And so for years and years, I've intended to write this short story called “The Gladiolus Man.”

Then I got interested in gardens and gardening. I've always tried to grow things. At Laguna, I could have a vegetable garden. Since I came to Tucson, it's a real challenge to try to get something to grow down here. I do have the datura growing around the house. Here in Tucson there's the Native Seeds Search group. They try to take care of heirloom seeds, and seeds of indigenous plants and indigenous crops. Since I've come to Tucson, I started to think more about the old time food and the way people grew it, not just in the Pueblo country, but in this area, in the Sonoran Desert.

So I'd been thinking about gardens, but I guess what cinched it is that everyone was complaining--not everyone, but some of the moaners and groaners about my work, who think that Chicano or Native American literature, or African American literature, shouldn't be political. You know, easy for those white guys to say. They've got everything, so their work doesn't have to be political. So, I was like, oh, okay, so you want something that's not political. Okay, I'm going to write a novel about gardens and flowers. And so that's what I thought, though I should have known that even my idea of the gladiolus man, my character who planted flowers instead of food, was very political. I'd always wondered too, why {3} seed catalogues are so seductive, and plant catalogues. I was real interested in the language of description and the common names of flowers. So anyway, I just started reading about gardens.

I had this idea about these two sisters, and I knew right away that they weren't Pueblo people. I knew that they were from the Colorado River. There are some Uto-Aztecan groups mixed in with the Yuman groups over there. These were some of the people that lived in some of the side canyons on the Colorado River. So many of the cultures along the Colorado River were completely wiped out. There's no trace of them left. And it was done by gold miners and ranchers. They didn't even have to use the Army on them. Just the good upstanding Arizona territory, the good old boys, slaughtered all these tribes of people that are just gone forever. So I decided that my characters would be from one of these remnant, destroyed, extinct groups. They'd be some of the last of them.

So I started writing, but then it wasn't too long before I realized how very political gardens are. Though my conscious self had tried to come up with an idea for a non-political novel, I had actually stumbled into the most political thing of all--how you grow your food, whether you eat, the fact that the plant collectors followed the Conquistadors. You have the Conquistadors, the missionaries, and right with them were the plant collectors. When I started reading about the orchid trade, then suddenly I realized, but it was too late then! I realized that this was going to be a really political novel too.

In Almanac of the Dead you have the mention of the Ghost Dance. I didn't realize that this [indicating Gardens manuscript] would also be wanting to look at the Messiah, at Jesus Christ of the Americas. There are many different Jesuses. That was another thing I started reading about, the Gnostic Gospels--Elaine Pagel's wonderful book, The Gnostic Gospels. She was in the first group of MacArthur fellows with me, and they called us back to Chicago in 1982 for a reunion. Later she had her publisher send me a copy of her book, The Gnostic Gospels. Well, I was deep in the middle of writing Almanac of the Dead, and that book sat on my shelf for years. So recently I wrote her a letter and thanked her for it, and I said, oh, and by the way, I wrote a whole novel partly because of your book. I started to realize that there are lots of different Jesus Christs, and the Jesus or the Messiah of the Ghost Dance and some of the other sightings of the Holy Family in the Americas were just as valid and powerful as other sightings and versions of Jesus. And I didn't realize until just recently that there are all kinds of Celtic traditions of Saint Joseph and Mary being in England and Ireland. There's always been the Messiah and the Holy {4} Family that belong to the people. And so that got mixed in too. 

Lots of things came together then, and maybe that's what always happens when I write. You can see this idea from years ago, about the Gladiolus Man--my grandfather, Henry C. Marmon, went to school at Sherman Institute, and the early part where Indigo talks about the Alaska girls who came and got sick and died, Grandpa told me that. That really happened. So a lot of what this is, is a kind of accretion, a gathering slowly of all these things I've been interested in, I've heard about, I've read about, a book someone's given me.

And then, in 1994, I went to Germany to promote the German translation of Almanac of the Dead, which is more copy edited and more technically correct than the English version, because for my German translator, Bettina Münch, it was a labor of love.

EA: I can imagine Almanac in German. It seems like German would be a really good language for it.

LMS: Yes. And she's got it in there! Anyway, my German publisher, Rogner and Bernhard, arranged for Bettina to travel with me, and I flew off to Leipzig. That was our first stop, old East Germany. In that very church building where the Democracy movement, the movement that made the Wall finally fall down, began, I did my first reading. And then Bettina would read in German, and it was just beautiful--in English and in German. It was standing room only. So the energy there was . . . I had no preconceived notions, but I have German ancestors. I could just feel that in that realm, those ancestors are not like human beings who differentiate, that my German ancestors were right there for me. I didn't expect it. I guess that's when you're most open to it, when you're not consciously thinking about something. Then those things can happen.

So not only were my German ancestor spirits really close, but the young East German women were just devastated at that point, by what the change, what unification meant. They lost day care, they lost jobs, they lost the right to terminate pregnancies they didn't want, so their world was collapsing. They'd had all these dreams about what unification would mean, and now they were just being crushed. Leipzig was being colonized by huge construction cranes to build skyscrapers. Capitalism was trampling them and crunching them under its boot. I had so many German women come up to me and say they felt hopeless, they felt completely despondent over the betrayal of what they had hoped unification would be, and then they read Almanac and they found hope in Almanac. And I was like, Yes! I wrote that novel to the world, and I was thinking about the Germans, I was thinking about the Europeans. I believe that the {5} Pueblo people, the indigenous people of the Americas, we're not only Indian nations and sovereign nations and people, but we are citizens of the world. So I had all these people come up to me and say, Yes! And the ancestor spirits were there, and it was almost like they were creating. . . . There was a medium, a field, of positive and real communication. And so Berlin, same thing--standing room only. It was wonderful. Munich. And then, Zurich. 

Zurich. The book tour was in the Spring, so it was around the time of Fasching, Festival, their Spring rites. Right at sundown I was walking with the publishing rep through the narrow downtown streets of Zurich, with all the revelers and parades they do for Lent. It's like a European Mardi Gras, but of course it's pagan. And so I'm loving it, and I think that's one of the reasons that maybe I could feel the German ancestor spirits out, because even though they consciously don't know why they're doing it, the Europeans when they dress up in their masks and go around like that, that's an old rite. And even though they consciously aren't aware of it, they're still doing what they're supposed to be doing. All of a sudden, we were walking down the street, and up ahead there were these giant blackbirds. And they moved through the streets in this kind of silence. Someone who might want to rationalize it might say, oh you just saw another group of the people masked, but the whole feeling of it, the silence, and watching them move through the street, was like a kind of apparition. So I saw this apparition of these raven or blackbird beings move through, and when we got to where they had been, we couldn't see them anywhere. We just found one little black feather.

So here I am on book tour, and what a time it was! There was some kind of heightened energy, and it had to do with the old spirits, and that they would come. That they didn't care about where you had come from, that they don't make those kinds of boundaries. I felt welcomed. I felt at home. And then two years later, when I spent three weeks in Italy with my friend Laura Coltelli, who's also my Italian translator, there were blackbirds that were there with me. And I also have blackbirds who live here with me. So there's something about blackbirds. 

When I came back, my whole experience of Germany and Zurich was just like, whoa. I also have ancestors from Scotland, and I've always been interested in their old stones, and of course I'm a stone worshipper. I've got stones around, you know. You're a stone worshipper. Lots of stone worshippers! And so, by golly, once I knew that Indigo was going to go to Europe, I knew that she was going to see gardens in Europe, and I knew that something of what's alive there, that there's a kind of continu-{6}ity. . . . I mean Europe is not completely Christianized. The missionaries were not completely successful. There is a pagan heart there, and the old spirits are right there. When I went to Rome, I saw the old cat cult. The old Mediterranean cat cult never died out. It's there in Rome and all these old ladies and old men feed cats, and the cats look at you, and you look at the cats, and the cats say, this is all ours. So going into Gardens of the Dunes, I had a tremendous sense of the presence of the oldest spirit beings right there in Europe, and that lots of Europeans, even the ones that don't know it, are still part of that. As hard as Christianity tried to wipe it out, and tried to break that connection between the Europeans and the earth, and the plants and the animals--even though they've been broken from it longer than the indigenous people of the Americas or Africa--that connection won't break completely. That experience was so strong that I wanted to acknowledge it a little.

EA: So in a way, you can see Almanac giving birth to Gardens in the Dunes, by taking you to those places.

LMS: By taking me to those places. Exactly. It was with the Almanac where I first realized that there are these spirit entities. Time means nothing to them. And that you can have a kind of relationship with them. They rode me pretty hard in Almanac of the Dead. But then I learned not to be afraid of them, to go ahead and trust them. Yeah, I was meant to go there. And the spirits were waiting there, probably called around by Almanac. But by then, I was also able to see fully the whole of it, that there was so much positive energy. And the old spirits that made me write Almanac, they meant well, even though two-thirds of the way through, they're about to . . . 

EA: They're about to do us all in!

LMS: They're about to do everyone in, me included, believe me! You can really see how this grows out of that experience.

EA: What that gives me a sense of too, is that we want to describe a lot of the things we do as “remnants” that don't have the same meaning anymore, without thinking about the fact that there are things that are living through us, even when we aren't consciously aware of it.

LMS: Exactly.

EA: That we're being used to keep these things alive.

LMS: Exactly. And then as usual, I start out with a conscious idea of what I think I'm doing, and then the Messiah came into the novel. The garden is so important in early Christianity, in the Bible, and gardens are so important to the Koran. In the three great monotheistic religions-- Judaism, Moslem, and Christianity--garden imagery is real important.{7} Once I had my Sand Lizard sisters down on the Colorado River, I remembered from my reading for Almanac of the Dead that in l893 there was a Ghost Dance at Kingman (now in my novel, I fudge and move it over to Needles). Then as soon as the Ghost Dance comes into the novel, I know that Jesus and the Messiah are in there, and then I know the Gnostic Gospels have to be in there. And then my whole sense that in Europe, there's the corporate church, that kind of Christianity, and then there's this other Jesus. Jesus would have a fit, just like I wrote in Almanac of the Dead, if he could see what his followers did.

So there's very much a connection [between the novels], even though the effect on the reader is very different. Gardens in the Dunes is meant as a reward, something less rigorous for the reader. If you make it all the way through Almanac, it makes you strong. But it's like one of those stronger remedies. You do have to tell some people, hey, if it starts to bother you, put it down. Rest. Take it easy. Every now and then I'll run into someone who, by god, read Almanac of the Dead in three days, just read it. And I'm like, whoa, isn't it toxic to do that?

EA: One of the reasons I had so much trouble reading it is because the Los Angeles riots happened right in the middle of my reading it, and I could hardly pick the book up without feeling like it was coming to life all around me. It was very frightening.

LMS: The book seemed to know that. Even the urgency to go ahead and finish it. I look now and I see thats and whiches that shouldn't be there in Almanac, but it was like those little spirits who rode me, they said: your vanity? Your vanity about how your prose looks on the page, your vanity about wanting to satisfy the Ph.D. students and readers, your vanity? Your vanity! When I tried to get it finished and published within two or three years like the publishers wanted, the old spirits said, your vanity? You want to do something on a schedule like that? No, it's our book. You swallow all your hopes and pretensions. You swallow all your vanity. And then the urgency, when it kept saying, it's about time, it's about time, time coming, time, it has to go out, your vanity, no. And so I did that, and then Simon & Schuster chose November 2, 1991 as the pub date. November 2 is the Day of the Dead. November 2 was the day in 1977 that the doctors told me that I would probably die in surgery. And so the thing about time, and the urgency, and the spirits saying no, this thing goes out now, and then how when you were reading it--everything about the Almanac has been really eerie. When I got done with it, Simon & Schuster couldn't have known or timed it, they just arbitrarily brought it out on November 2. They don't know what day that is.

EA: So that is actually the day that they brought it out?

LMS: It's called the pub date, it's a literal date that's connected with all books, it's like a birth date. And that was its day. The other thing that was interesting about Almanac of the Dead is that it's ISBN number has 666 in it. I love that! [Laughter] I didn't ask for that! I didn't ask for November 2! And of course the ultimate thing that it did--January 1, 1994, I pick up a Sunday paper, and it says that the Zapatistas in the mountains outside of Tuxtla Gutierrez. . . . Then the hair on my neck stood up.

EA: Mine too! And everybody else who'd read it.

LMS: It went out over the internet. It blew people away. Well that's why, it had a sense of time. The spirits had a sense of time and things about dates and time. It's like Almanac of the Dead did everything that it wanted, that's how it's been. And it didn't care about editing or copy editing, and it did not care about my vanity. It did not care about being shaped into a more traditional novel. Some people have said, oh Almanac of the Dead, you could break it into four or five of that kind of fiction that's so popular, the quick read or the page turner. But that's not it at all. I was not allowed to. I completely was taken over, and everything about it was meant to be. The spirits just wanted it out there. And so I let go of it, and then that's what happened in terms of getting that particular ISBN number, that pub date, for you to be reading it when the riots happened, for the Zapatistas. . . . They knew, and I knew somehow, now that I can look back.

What's interesting is Commander Marcos [spokesman for the Zapatistas] went to the mountains in 1980, and that's when I started to have transmissions. I started to have to spontaneously write down things from the Almanac. So there's a real parallel there, which works on that plane that extends across the universe, where stuff travels faster than the speed of light.2 So the Almanac, everything about the way Almanac has gone out into the world and since then, is so spooky.

EA: In Almanac, the Reign of the Death's Eye Dog is a male reign. It seems that what you see in Almanac is the ultimate of a patriarchal system. Gardens seems so very female. Were you consciously balancing that?

LMS: No not consciously, though very soon I became conscious of it. And then I thought, well, yeah. Of course there are males in this female world, like Big Candy, that I was interested in.

EA: But they're very different men from the ones who were in Almanac!

LMS: The Almanac men, everything in Almanac, isn't quite realism. This [Gardens] is more going back to a kind of literary realism. No, almost all {9} of those characters are so intense or extreme as to be almost mythical. This [Gardens] was to try to explore and see if I could make a book so that, if you had a scale and you put Almanac on this side, they could balance out. And I think Gardens explores dimensions of history and has a span almost like the span in Almanac, but it's just a different way of looking at it again.

While I was writing Almanac, I got an invitation to go to Gettysburg College. I thought maybe I shouldn't go, because I was working on Almanac, and I was trying to get it done. And then I thought, oh well, I'll go. I took Almanac with me. I took the manuscript I was working on with me. And do you know, I'll never try to go to bed and sleep at Gettysburg. Those dead souls and spirits, they were just overwhelming. And that's where the part of Almanac of the Dead came from, where some character says that the Civil War was the blood payment for slavery in the U.S. Actually the war was only a partial payment. That part comes from spending that night there, and do you know, I lost part of the manuscript of Almanac of the Dead there. It stayed in Gettysburg. It was a section about Zeta, Lecha's sister in Almanac of the Dead. It was so precious, and somehow I managed to lose it. It disappeared there. Oh boy, I won't go back to Gettysburg. Those big battlefields like that, and those burial grounds, and those things that aren't supposed to be there. . . . Gettysburg was very powerful, and I doubly won't go back to Gettysburg now. There are so many souls and spirits howling and crying in the Americas, not just indigenous ones.

EA: I haven't finished the manuscript yet, but one of the things that I feel really strongly in Gardens of the Dunes is the artificiality of the lines we draw between people, between peoples and nations. The battles and the Messiahs, these are the kinds of things individual people share in common. If you set them apart from the politics behind them, people in Europe and the indigenous peoples in the Americas have a lot more in common than they have that divides them.

LMS: Exactly! And those who would make the boundary lines and try to separate them, those are the manipulators. Those are the Gunadeeyah, the destroyers, the exploiters. I'm glad that comes through, because that's what I was trying to do, to get rid of this idea of nationality, borderlines, and drawing lines in terms of time and saying, oh well, that was back then. And because I felt that in Germany. I felt that when I was talking with those women. It's because I've experienced it. And the more you really feel it and believe in it, the more angry you get at these manipulators who would divide people. Our human nature, our human spirit, wants {10} no boundaries, and we are better beings, and we are less destructive and happier. We can be our best selves as a species, as beings with all the other living beings on this earth, we behave best and get along best, without those divisions.

Share with your friends:
  1   2   3   4

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page