Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller
To label the book Storyteller “fiction” would be wrong, but it would also be wrong to call it nonfiction, poetry, essays, memoir, or history. There is a collective truth to these terms in that there is a little bit of each in the Pueblo Laguna author’s book which combines the hummah-hah oral stories her Aunt Susie passed down to her with photographs of the important storytellers in her life from her childhood, historical context, Silko’s own fiction and poetry both fiction and nonfiction. In refusing to be labeled as any one literary form, the book comments on questions of identity and belonging. Storyteller also brings up questions about why we as humans write, read, and tell stories at all, ultimately deciding that we communicate by story for survival. The Pueblo Laguna people believe that telling stories is how elders share their practical wisdom in memorable ways with the younger generation.
The book’s incredible continuity preserves the literary language used by her familial influences on her storytelling to reinterpret old myths into a contemporary setting and tackle a more modern survival, as in the short story “Yellow Woman.” This one was told to her by her grandfather, and while maintaining the distinctive poetic diction of his version, Silko creates her own take on the myth where the fantastical being from the old way of life encounters a modern woman who knows the story and refuses to acknowledge that she is a part of it. In the old story, the woman is kidnapped by a mysterious creature and never seen again, but Silko’s Yellow Woman is a reluctant protagonist who goes with the creature willingly to get away from her unsatisfying marital life, eventually returning from the mountain adventure claiming she was kidnapped as an excuse for her disappearance.
The book is a great source for the recent history of the Pueblo Laguna people, splicing the memoir with historical context which explains why she was forbidden from learning the Laguna language. Silko remembers when children like herself were discriminated against for relating to their cultural identity, and so in order to keep her safe, Silko’s family would not teach her their language. The nonfiction memoir and history blends together to further mirror the stories of old by fusing narrative with educational survival guides.
Silko’s own fiction prose and poetry is featured in the book next to the traditional stories, with no distinction as to which is which. Her poetry and prose comments on sexuality, abortion and spirituality with the same grace as the wise tellers who taught Silko the stories about talking animals and gods. The idea behind the Pueblo Laguna storytelling is a versatility that each teller brings, changing the details slightly but always remembering exactly how the original goes, and Silko’s work meshes alongside those stories in total harmony.
Storyteller might defy literary form but ultimately it serves as an archive and tribute to her culture, her people’s history, family history and personal experiences.