Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is a book that I have been meaning to read for a long time. I have come across the title many times doing research and it, along with Almanac of the Dead, represent Silko’s significant contribution to indigenous writing in North America. There’s only one problem: it is also a war novel. Let me be clear and state that this is my opinion alone and comes from having overdosed on World War II novels a few years back. I am still trying to recover from this overdose, so I had some trouble getting in Ceremony.
The novel centres on Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo, who has returned from World War II haunted by the death of his cousin Rocky and the slaughter of the Japanese he witnessed. He has been sick for many years and Auntie, a self-righteous and cruel sister to Tayo’s long-dead mother, encourages him to get help. However, the help he receives is not white medicine but a visit from a Pueblo medicine man who starts Tayo on his path away from alcoholism and mental trauma towards healing. The novel deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse by natives, the use of nuclear weapons in World War II, and the tensions of a divided Pueblo community. The narrative is broken into small chunks interspersed with poetry and Pueblo oral tales that complement Tayo’s story.
In a way, this novel is primarily a war novel, concerning Tayo’s recovery from a traumatic experience in the Phillipines. Yet, it is also a novel about an indigenous man recovering his indigenous traditions in the face of years of white colonization. The tension between these two themes animates the narrative and provides an interesting framework for the novel (except if you are still suffering World War II novel fatigue). I felt like the novel really got going midway through when Tayo’s quest to complete his ceremony get underway. I want to say that this is because this is where Ceremony shines but I am a little nervous about that claim. In a way, it might be where Ceremony acts like I think it “should”: it becomes an indigenous novel with a native reclaiming their heritage successfully. In reading the indigenous category, I feel like more and more I am finding myself grappling with what kinds of stereotypes I bring to the category and how often I realize they are more constrictive than helpful. I hope that by the end of this reading challenge, I will be able to throw such views out the window entirely.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in indigenous writing.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.