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Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
Often, I purchase a book without intention of immediate reading. The cover may attract my eye while browsing at the bookstore, and, reading the synopsis or first pages, I recognize the book as one with which I wish to commune at some point in the future. Or, the book may come to consciousness through my bibliophilic friends, recommendation, and increasingly through my reading reviews and hearing podcast discussions. Through the years, this has led to a few shelves of books that are quietly waiting for their time. In Japanese, this practice is called tsundoku (Mims, 2018).
My trust of tsundoku through the years has rarely let me down. More than twenty years ago I purchased a copy of James Baldwin’s (1956/2013) Giovanni’s Room. That novel, which I now consider one of the greatest books ever written, sat on my shelf for years until it called me. The book – its message, language, and tenor – came to me precisely when I needed it, lifting me through a fog of confusion as a young-ish queer man. I’ve had similar experiences with Zadie Smith’s (2005) On Beauty and Wally Lamb’s (1998) I Know this much is True. These books, and many others, spoke to me from the shelf when they were ready for me, or perhaps more appropriately, when I was ready for them.
Several weeks ago, I was reading in bed and such a moment occurred again: a book which I had purchased almost 20 years ago kept catching my eye. I could feel its pull on my heart, mind, and spirit. It was time: the book and I were ready to entangle. That book is Leslie Marmon Silko’s (1977/2006) Ceremony.
I knew instantaneously why the book waited, and why it called to me now. On page 2, the book begins with a poem:
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.
With the COVID19 pandemic unfurling around the world, crippling millions with illness, and killing hundreds of thousands of people, one cannot help but recognize the power of stories in this time. Ceremony is a story of deep-seated illness and death – not just physical illness, but social and environmental illness, psychological illness, and the death of the heart and soul. But it is also a story of redemption: of healing from illness, overcoming death, remembering those we have lost, recovering our cultures and ourselves, and emerging with new humility, patience, gratitude, and heart.
It is a book uniquely suited for readers of our time.
Memory, Time, and Space
A powerful narrative structure undergirds Ceremony. Silko (1977/2006) disrupts traditional linear narrative form and conceptions of time. The book is constructed through a series of flashbacks, epic poetic retellings of traditional Indigenous stories, moments of immediacy, and what we might call visions (or hallucinations). Tayo, the novel’s main character, seems to capture Silko’s (1977/2006) intention in this short reflection on visiting an Indigenous medicine man named Ku’oosh, who uses story as a form of healing:
It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, and the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a story about why it must be said this certain way. . .the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love. (pp. 32-33)
Language and words are clearly intentional in this novel, coupled in symbiosis. Silko is as intentional as Ku’oosh. The collapsing of time and narrative structure is Silko’s way of challenging the notion of memory, to be certain. Ceremony is about how we remember, what history gets told, and how we use poetry, story, and ceremonies to retain connections with our ancestors, those who come after us, and as a means of reconnecting with ourselves.
But more importantly this structure powerfully brings the reader into a sort of presentism. The past-present-future of Western European time, memory, and history dissipates in this novel, creating a feeling of cosmic interconnection. Tayo discovers the importance of this cosmic and timeless relationality late in the novel:
He knew then why the oldtimers could only speak of yesterday and tomorrow in terms of the present moment: the only certainty; and this present sense of being was qualified with bare hints of yesterday and tomorrow. (p. 179)
The narrative flow of this book, with its uniquely constructed structure of memory, poem, events, visions, and journeying, moves the reader into this experiential way of being in the world. I can honestly say I have never read a book like Ceremony. The language, storytelling, and connection to characters, nature, and global space-time, is truly unmatched.
Post-Traumatic Stress of Veterans
Tayo is a half Indigenous/half White veteran of World War II. In the book’s opening pages, readers are ushered into the jungles of the South Pacific front of the war: the language is vivid, and the use of color (green) and weather (rain) begins to emerge as a narrative device of the story. Suddenly we break to Los Angeles, a medical hospital with white walls and white sheets (whiteness, and the impacts of race and mixed blood heritage are another theme of the novel, which will be unpacked below). Finally, we emerge in the desert of the southwest United States, with its deep reds and browns, pulsing sun, and dry air (juxtaposed against the wetness of the Pacific jungles).
There is simply no escaping our modern understanding of Tayo’s condition: he has post-traumautic stress disorder (PTSD). Silko’s construction of this illness is masterful, but extremely painful to read. We learn of Tayo’s experiences through flashback scenes – they are raw, painful, and unforgiving (this is a warning to any reader of the novel). Tayo experiences all the physical symptoms of PTSD on his return to the United States after the war: the retching and vomiting, headaches, and inability to see light. He experiences social anxiety, loneliness, anger, separation from family, and enacts physical violence upon others. He descends into alcoholism. He grieves over the loss of his best friend, Rocky, and his uncle, Josiah. Tayo’s physical and psychological torment are only two of the illnesses the book addresses, and Silko (1977/2006) masterfully crafts language and storytelling to make us as readers connect with this trauma:
He [Tayo] cried, trying to release the great pressure that was swelling inside his chest, but he got no relief from crying any more. The pain was solid and constant as the beating of his own heart. . .he crawled inside and watched the storm swirling on the outside and he was safe there; the winds of rage could not touch him. (p. 35; p. 37)
The solution to these illnesses is not found in the medical wards of the Los Angeles hospital, or the social medications of heavy drinking and sexual escapades. These do not work for Tayo. Rather, Tayo must begin a journey to understanding the ceremonies of his people, the history of colonization, communing with elders and visionary ancestors, and reconvening with nature:
His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything. (p. 116)
Tayo visits a second medicine man, Betonie, to begin this ceremonial journey, which to a great extent involves a recounting of colonization, a grappling with internalized racism and the legacies of mixed heritage, and a return to relationship with the ancestors, animals, plants, and the land.
Colonization and Decolonization
Grappling with the history of colonization is central to Tayo’s ceremonial journey. Colonization is not just about the taking of land, but the enactment of lies told by the conquerors, the internalization of those lies by the colonized, and the violence these physical and psychological acts of colonization enact on the entirety of creation. Decolonization, both physical and psychological, can only come when one lays bare the lies, sutures broken relationships with self, others, and the natural world, and envisions a world where all is in relation and all is love.
Tayo’s ceremonial journey through this process of decolonization – reconnecting with his heritage, culture, history, ancestors, nature, the land, and himself – is experienced through the entirety of the novel through the same beautiful and haunting narrative structures with which we learn of his illness.
Tayo faces the truth of how white people severed their relationship to the world, leading to great destruction:
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive
The deer and bear are objects
They see no life.
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.
Colonization and its concomitant destruction result from a severing of relationship with the world. While there are certainly tremendous costs paid by the colonized, Tayo learns that there are also costs paid by the colonizers:
only a few people knew that the lie was destroying the white people faster than it was destroying Indian people. But the effects were hidden, evident only in the sterility of their art, which continued to feed off the vitality of other cultures, and in the dissolution of their consciousness into dead objects: the plastic and neon, the concrete and steel. (p. 190)
The price paid by the colonized is, of course, tremendous. Part of Tayo’s post-traumatic stress disorder comes from his participation in World War II – a war which was designed by white people “to fill their emptiness. . .to glut [their] hollowness” (p. 178). Tayo’s participation in the war arose from his best friend Rocky’s desire to belong to a white country and white people that rejected them as Native Americans. The war temporarily suspends mistreatment wrought by white racism: “I put on that uniform, and then by God I was a U.S. Marine” (p. 37). Such inclusion does not last, however. Silko (1977/2016) brilliantly captures the disappointment and anger felt by Tayo and other Native American veterans in the aftermath of World War II:
The war was over, the uniform was gone. All of a sudden the man at the store waits on you last, makes you wait until all the white people bought what they wanted. . .they blamed themselves for losing the new feeling; they never talked about it but they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took. (p. 39)
Tayo, who is half-Native American, half-White, struggles with his identity throughout the novel. Like his friends, much of Tayo’s illness manifests as an internalized racism:
the people had been taught to despise themselves because they were left with barren land and dry rivers. But they were wrong. It was the white people who had nothing; it was the white people who were suffering as thieves do. (p. 189)
It is this realization that leads to Tayo’s journeying within to ward off the demons of his internalized racism, to reconnect with ancestors, Indigenous stories, nature, and the land. This journey of decolonizing the self is most vividly captured when Tayo reclaims his uncle’s brown and white cattle (the coloring of the cattle symbolic of Tayo’s own racial heritage) from a white rancher who has stolen them:
He cut into the wire as if cutting away at the lie inside himself. . .as long as people believed the lies, they would never be able to see what had been done to them or what they were doing to each other. (p. 177)
These shifts do not happen linearly, as I have emphasized throughout this post. However, the beauty and power of this story cannot be understated. Tayo’s ceremonial journey is one that is both deeply personal but intimately communal. It takes place among plants, animals, spirits, visions, and people that must be experienced by the reader.
On Tending to Change, Responsibly
Ceremony is a novel with deeply resonant themes beyond that shared in this post. The role of plants, animals, and insects in our journeys, and the respect we should pay to our non-human earth companions, is important and central. So too are the effects of white destruction on the natural world. Silko’s (1977/2016) weaving of the atomic bomb into this story is mastercraft, and in returning to her careful use of language – it will make one weep.
But, hidden within the novel is a nuanced message about relationship and the interconnectedness of all things. This is not a novel that rails against the white man, colonization, or destruction without nuance: “Nothing [is] all good or all bad. . .it all depended” (p. 10), we learn early in the novel. Tayo, being of mixed background, clearly wrestles with the legacies of white colonization in his own blood. Reconciling this tension is part of the illness he must overcome – he cannot internalize hatred against his entire being, and Silko’s (1977/2016) ability to weave this tension throughout the story is stunning.
I point this out not to alleviate the tension of white readers. The novel is and should be read as an indictment of colonization, cultural genocide, and environmental destruction by white people.
Yet, the novel speaks, on a larger and more vibrant plane, about the necessity of tending to change, responsibly.
For example, Betonie, one of Tayo’s medicine men in the novel, discusses the ways Indigenous people must attend to change in their ceremonies:
After the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong. (p. 116)
A central tension in the novel is whether Tayo can even participate in the traditional ceremonies, as he is only half Indigenous. Betonie himself, it turns out, is also half-white, and Silko (1977/2016) is clearly wrestling with the dynamics of changes in racial composition within the Native American community. How do we attend to biracial and bicultural realities responsibly?
It is a matter of transitions, you see; the changing, the becoming must be cared for closely. (p. 120)
For Silko (1977/2016), our responsible tending to change must come through story. We must find ways to connect our stories, to hear the stories of those whom we have hurt (including the stories of our non-human earthly companions), and to remember that story is what heals us – what brings us together. This is the greatest of Tayo’s realizations:
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 distances and time. (p. 229)
In our own time, we are struggling greatly with the challenges of illness, death, and change. Some of us fear the “terror at loss, at something lost forever” (Silko, 1977/2016, p. 204) ushered in by the COVID19 pandemic. We must tend to this moment of great change responsibly, and as Silko so generously reminds through her beautiful novel Ceremony, remember that “things which don’t shift and grow are dead things” (p. 116). We are still in the midst of “the struggle for the end of the story” (p. 216). May it be that stories, novels, books, and poems guide us toward greater introspection, reflection, and awareness of our interconnection. May we use stories to “fight off/illness and death,” building a more relational, connected, better, and loving post-pandemic world.
Baldwin, J. (1956/2013). Giovanni’s room. Vintage.
Lamb, W. (1998). I know this much is true. Regan Books.
Mims, K. (2018). All those books you’ve bought but haven’t read? There’s a word for that. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/books/review/personal-libraries.html
Silko, L. M. (1977/2006). Ceremony. Penguin Books.
Smith, Z. (2005). On beauty. Penguin Books.