Confidence was not my friend when I was a young woman. In high school I hid behind a quiet and somewhat meek demeanor; always swimming in the fear that my peers would reject me. There were two exceptions to this quiet modality: my history and English courses.
It was completely natural for me to engage and respond to class readings because I already had such a robust personal history of reading. My mind had been synthesizing and analyzing texts since I was a young girl, and thus had a confidence and sense of self in those classrooms that I did not have elsewhere.
However, I may have been over zealous as my peers came to find me horribly irritating and always seemed agitated by my eagerness. While I understand their reaction, I know that for me it was such a rare experience to be confident and capable of producing valuable insight, that I simply could not mute myself. I could see that irritation among my classmates grow to a new height when we read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.
After so many years, I don’t think that I can accurately explain why this novel produced such a strong reaction from me; but as I re-read it for this book challenge, I found myself once more swept away into my waiting imagination and space of curious reflection. This story feeds something within me that most other stories, even those I love, don’t quite manage. I don’t think I have the verbal repertoire to adequately express what exactly that element is, but I think if others were to read Ceremony, they would find themselves similarly touched.
Leslie Marmon Silko is an absolutely stunning writer with a beautiful and undeniable gift of storytelling. It surprises me that Ceremony does not hold the same resolute place on American Literature syllabi as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Scarlet Letter have. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be, as Native American history and literature tend to have a sparse existence among curriculum – at least it was within mine.
In my opinion, Ceremony spotlights the necessity of storytelling and story learning. It is remiss of us as a collective to ignore the fact that American history extends far before the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria arrived in the Bahamas. Stories such as Ceremony should be required reading in order to truly follow our nation’s literary heritage.
About the book:
The protagonist Tayo has returned to the Laguna Pueblo reservation after serving and being held prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. With him he brings the residual trauma that perniciously haunts and debilitates him. Among the traumas that taunt him is the memory of witnessing the death of his cousin, Rocky, who died during the Bataan Death March of 1942. Tayo was meant to protect him and serving the military was meant to uplift Rocky from his circumstances. Yet neither were achieved.
Tayo is deeply sick and, along with his fellow soldiers within the reservation, turns to drinking as an attempt to drown out the terrors that refuse to mollify. This combination of numbing agencies provides only temporary reprieve followed by crushing agony.
In desperation, Tayo searches for another form of healing and turns to medicine man Betonie who incorporates elements of the past and elements of modernity into his practice of ceremony. With his guidance, Tayo seeks resolution through the rituals and traditions of his heritage. Ultimately, it is the practice of storytelling, of following the trail of his story back to his most truthful self that alleviates the drowning of misery bestowed upon by the distortions and despairs of life.
“But as long as you remember what you have seen, then nothing is gone. As long as you remember, it is part of this story we have together.”
Leslie Marmon Silko tackles topics of race, discrimination, theft of land, life, and decency in a tremendously meaningful and profound way. I wish Ceremony was more widely read because I believe it has the power to broaden understanding and push my country (the United States) to teach a more accurate history of this land and the people who have lived here. Perhaps though, that is exactly why it is not.
Power of Storytelling
I believe that storytelling is one of the most remarkable things that humans do. As a history major, I know that it is stories that maintain the record of life and ensures that lessons learned are passed down through the rungs of time and across generations. So many cultures use this medium to ensure that their story endures but sadly, at least from what I see and has been the experience within my own family, it is a ritual that seems to have been neglected and left behind. I think this possible loss is a disservice not only to our individual selves, but to the greater global collective.
“You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.”
On the individual level, knowing who you are, tracing your own story, and connecting to truth is, I believe, vital in securing inner knowing. I think that is why this reading challenge I’ve designed for myself is so important to me. Lately I have found myself feeling as though I am in the middle of wide open meadow with no clear path in any direction. I keep swiveling around, trying to find something to connect me to a firmer, more defined version of myself.
For many months now I’ve been saying the phrase “I don’t know” as if it were a ritualistic prayer of defeat. It has been my response to identifying what I want in my career, what hobbies I may want to pursue, the type of person I would like to marry, where I want to live, who I want to be surrounded by, and truly, nearly, any other question that requires internal insight. Those questions are not uncommon, but I have looked upon them with an almost resolute assuredness that I do not have the capacity to see what is right for me.
It is as though someone took away my ability to translate my life constellations and I no longer know what I am made of and what makes me happy. I’m sitting in classroom, trying to avoid eye contact so that the teacher doesn’t pick on me.
The one thing I know with absolute surety is my love of books and my connection with worlds and realities that exist within the pages of the stories that have most impacted my life. Unlike Tayo, I do not have cultural rituals to guide me, only the pathway of books lined against my wall, crowded under my bed, and decorated across table tops.
Therefore, while standing in the midst of my routeless meadow, I chose to pick up these books – 16 stories that trace my own individual lineage from adulthood to childhood. What I have begun to find are pieces of me, aspects of my character that I have long blanketed under the insecure haze of “I don’t know”.
I still have some ways to go, but I can say that it has already been healing and has revealed parts of myself that I had forgotten or had never given the opportunity to reveal itself.
The Power of Ceremony
I don’t know what exactly it was that caused me to light up when I first encountered Ceremony, I like to think that it is my intrinsic connection to storytelling. After this second reading, I am touched so much by the power Leslie Marmon Silko places upon stories and the near genetic trail they connect cultures with. It only needs to be reignited to establish its potency.
Yet there lies another component of Ceremony that I was probably too ignorant and – quite honestly – selfish to truly see. And that is the reality of the inaccuracies wedged between the lines of our history books and the blatant disregard of truth taught in our classrooms.
In my experience, the history of America, and more specifically, the United States, is greatly flawed and missing substantial aspects of our lineage. My elementary education marked the beginning of the United States with the arrival of Christopher Columbus. In those first few years of education, he was marked as a hero and then later as I grew, his heroism was diluted by the destruction he brought to the native tribes who came into contact with the European arrivals.
From there – and again, from my experience – history moves through the timeline of colonialism, briefly touching upon the conflicts between tribes and settlers, primarily highlighting the victories of those colonists and the ultimate success of American independence from British tyranny.
We treat our story as though it began when white men came to center stage, bulldozing those who had lived and thrived on this continent long before Columbus’ arrival.
I’m finally at a place in my life where I can see how wrong that it and what a disservice it does for all of us who know an misleading story of self – the story of our land. I realize that my life has directly benefited from that incomplete narrative and I hope my life will open the opportunity for me to help shift that fact.
“I will tell you something about stories, [he said] 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. Their evil is mighty but it can’t stand up to our stories. So they try to destroy the stories let the stories be confused or forgotten. They would like that. They would be happy. Because we would be defenseless then.”
Tayo follows the rituals of his heritage, performs his own ceremony, and finds strength of truth and self as a result. I dream of a time when my nation, this world go on a collective ceremony and reconnect to truth and the spirit that binds us all to each other and the land we live upon. Only then, I believe, will the deep ever present wounds that continue to spur conflict ebb away and the possibility of true connection can be born.
“When someone dies, you don’t get over it by forgetting; you get over it by remembering, and you are aware that no person is ever truly lost or gone once they have been in our life and loved us, as we have loved them.”
The next book on my reading challenge is Homer’s The Odyssey!
Silko, Leslie Marmon, Ceremony. New York: The Viking Press, 1977.
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