Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony (1977) Literature and War Readalong September 2017

The good news first—I got along better with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony than with N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. I found the writing evocative; the descriptions of the landscape are stunning and it’s a very rich, multi-layered book. The bad news—it was still hard work. There’s not much of a plot, the story isn’t told chronologically, there’s a mix between prose and poems, and without some research, a lot of it would have gone over my head. And that even though I studied cultural anthropology and have at least some idea of Native American mythology.

Given its complexity and that I did only very little research after finishing it, I can’t write an exhaustive review. But I can give you a brief summary and focus on some of the elements that stood out for me.

Tayo, who is half Laguna and half White, suffers from PTSD. He’s a veteran of the war in the Pacific. But not only that, he was also a prisoner of war and one of only a few to survive the notorious Bataan Death March. He’s haunted by the atrocities of war, like the killing of Japanese prisoners, and the things he saw during the march, especially the death of his best friend Rocky. After his captivity, after the war, Tayo spends time at an army hospital but back at the reservation, it’s clear, he’s not cured. He hallucinates, hears voices, drinks too much and gets violent. His family feels that only a medicine man can help but the first ceremony doesn’t change anything because the medicine man is stuck in the past. Only when Tayo finds another medicine man, who incorporates the changes the world has undergone, does he have a chance to heal.

The book explores many themes. Change and identity, the way white people destroy nature and other humans, war, spirituality, the landscape and nature. One could pick any of these themes and write endlessly about it. Since I read this for the readalong, I’ll focus on  a few of the war elements.

There are several things that stood out. First, Tayo, Rocky, and their friends sign up because they hope that fighting for the US, will help them to be accepted. To become “real Americans” one could say. Once back, they soon learn that nothing has changed. They don’t receive any recognition and are pretty much where they were before, only worse off because now they have to deal with contradictions and trauma. Tayo discovers one of the biggest contradictions once he realizes that the Japanese look similar and that the faces of his friends and the soldiers merge in his hallucinations. That’s when he understands he has been instrumentalized by the whites. But not only that – they value him and his people as little as the Japanese. The atomic bomb was tested near the Indian reservations and then used to bomb people, who look a lot like the Indians. The sequence below illustrates this very well.

He had been so close to it, caught up in it for so long that its simplicity struck him deep inside his chest: Trinity Site, where they exploded the first atomic bomb, was only three hundred miles to the southeast, at White Sands. And the top-secret laboratories where the bomb had been created were deep in the Jemez Mountains, on land the Government took from Cochiti Pueblo: Los Alamos, only a hundred miles northeast of him now, still surrounded by high electric fences and the ponderosa pine and tawny sand rock of the Jemez mountain canyon where the shrine of the twin mountain lions had always been. There was no end to it; it knew no boundaries; and he had arrived at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth had been laid. From the jungles of his dreaming he recognised why the Japanese voices had merged with Laguna voices, with Josiah’s voice and Rocky’s voice; the lines of cultures and world were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery’s final ceremonial sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things; united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away, victims who had never known these mesas, who had never seen the delicate color of the rocks which boiled up their slaughter.

Needless to say, that the book is to a large extent a criticism of white society and the way White people destroy everything – other people, animals, and nature. In the ceremony, Tayo learns that there are forces, called destroyers, who brought witchery, or dark witchcraft into the world to destroy it. The whites seem to have been the most infected and now act according to the destroyers’ will.

I know I’m not doing this book justice. It’s extremely complex and poetic. To properly review and analyse it, it would need, at least, a second reading.

I didn’t fully warm to Ceremony. I liked the descriptions of the landscape best. And the parts where Tayo’s on a quest to find his uncle’s cattle. Tayo’s a keen observer and the harsh beauty of the land, the precariousness of life in a dry, desert like place, where livestock is constantly threatened to die of thirst, is powerfully rendered. On the other hand, when I look at our world today, the way climate change affects us all, when I think of the 6th extinction that’s currently underway, and how “he who shall not be named” uses a rhetoric of total destruction, I can’t help but notice that Ceremony is an important book. Many of the themes are as actual today as they were when Leslie Marmon Silko wrote it.

I hope I could give a bit of an idea of the book. Its’ definitely ideal for students of American and/or Native American Literature, as it’s so rich and offers so many topics for analysis and discussion. 

Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

The buzzing of grasshopper wings came from the weeds in the yard, and the sound made his backbone loose. He lay back in the red dust on the old mattress and closed his eyes. The dreams had been terror at loss, at something lost forever; but nothing was lost; all was retained between the sky and the earth, and within himself. He had lost nothing. The snow-covered mountain remained, without regard to titles of ownership or the white ranchers who thought they possessed it. They logged the trees, they killed the deer, bear and mountain lions, they built their fences high; but the mountain was far greater than any or all of these things. The mountain outdistanced their destruction, just as love had outdistanced death. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones; Josiah and Rocky were not far away. They were close; they had always been close. And he loved them then as he had always loved them, the feeling pushing over him as strong as it had ever been. They loved him that way; he could still feel the love they had for him. The damage that had been done had never reached his feeling. This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained.

Other Reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

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Ceremony is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 October, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

N. Scott Momaday: House Made of Dawn (1968) Literature and War Readalong January 2017

house-made-of-dawn

This is going to be a pretty short post. I finished the book but I didn’t get along with it. It had its moments but overall it was frustrating to read.

Published in 1968, House Made of Dawn was N. Scott Momaday’s first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Critics say it’s his most inaccessible novel. Since it’s the first book, I’ve read by him, I can’t say whether the later novels are more accessible or not, I can just confirm that this one is not. At first the writing reminded me of the more challenging Toni Morrison novels I’ve read (Jazz came to mind), but while I could always make sense of her books, this one lost me. Don’t get me wrong, it has beautiful moments and chapters but it goes back and forth in the chronology, uses stream-of-consciousness, fragments, bits from dreams, mythology. The worst was that I wasn’t always sure whose stream-of consciousness I was reading. And I was never sure why he chose the different approaches. At times, it felt like some of the chapters were creative writing exercises. The chapter that was the most readable read like a short story. It comes towards the end and it helped me make sense of what came before. It’s very powerful and the writing is beautiful. The biggest problem I had is that there is no real story. We just follow the protagonist, Abel, stumble from one episode to the next.

Like Abel, the main protagonist, Momaday grew up on different reservations. What Momaday manages to convey is the confusion. The culture Abel grows up in, isn’t intact. Some of it is part of his heritage but a lot is part of other Native American heritages. Then he joins up and fights during WWII. When he comes back, like his mother and brother, he starts to drink. He kills a man, is sent to prison, comes back and drinks again and gets into fights.

We’re held at arm’s length the whole time, never get a good feeling for Abel’s’ emotions.

The beginning was hard to read because there are descriptions of hunting that made me sick. One in particular, in which Abel captures an eagle.

I’m also not entirely sure, this was a good choice for the readalong. Yes, Abel seems to suffer from PTSD, but he suffers from a lot of other things too. He might not have been better off if he hadn’t joined up.

I’m sorry for this lousy review. I hope someone else has read along and enjoyed it more. I’m sure, if I wanted to spend a couple of days doing research, read secondary literature, then I would find more to like but I’m not really in the mood for that.

 

Other Review

TJ@My Book Strings

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House Made of Dawn is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII novel Magnus by Sylvie Germain. Discussion starts on Tuesday 28 February, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Betty Louise Bell: Faces in the Moon (1994)

In this moving first novel, Bell (a mixed-blood Cherokee) confronts the “lost generation” of Indian women, personified by Grace, who tries unsuccessfully to enter the mainstream of the white world. Her daughter Lucie’s horrendous childhood of struggle and abuse is relieved only by a two-year stay with a great-aunt, who instills in her a sense of pride. Despite the odds, she is now a successful college professor. Returning to Oklahoma for Grace’s final illness, Lucie spends some painful solitary hours examining the shame she has felt for her mother, who lacked both the skills needed to thrive in the white world and pride in her Cherokee heritage. She finds a link to Grace as she rummages through her things is able to engage in the generations-old tradition of proudly seeking the face of her mother when she sees the moon. 

Betty Louise Bell is a half Cherokee. Faces in the Moon is her first and I think only novel. It is to a large extent autobiographical. She teaches Native American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

It was a pure coincidence that I started her novel shortly before beginning to read Cold Mountain which contains a few elements of Cherokee history and mythology.

When Hellen, Lucie’s grandmother, dies, she tells her daughters Gracie and Rozella that she would be watching them from above and that they should watch out for faces in the moon, she would be one of them. This story is part of the stories the sisters, Grace and Rozella, tell each other when they sit at the kitchen table and smoke. The child Lucie listens to these stories. Many of them are meaningless to her. All she can see is that her mother is nothing but a fat half Indian who bleaches her hair, wears the most awful baggy synthetic clothes and goes from one alcoholic violent white boyfriend to the next.

The grown up Lucie has long left her mother and aunt in Oklahoma and lives in some of the big cities like Boston and New York. When they call her, to tell her that her mother has had a stroke, it’s the first time, in many years that she drives back to her home town. While her mother lies in the hospital bed, Lucie sleeps at her place. The ugly furniture covered with plastic, the cupboards full of tins, the keepsakes, the pictures, take her back in time and she starts to explore why she hates her mother so much.

The story that unfolds is told alternating between first person and third person narrative and long stretches in italics. It tells of her mother’s life and of Lizzie, her great-aunt, who was a full-blooded Cherokee. During some years, when her mother couldn’t cope because she had a new, alcoholic lover, Lucie had to stay with her great-aunt Lizzie. At first the child misses her dysfunctional home. Lizzie who suffers from tuberculosis and constantly spits into a tin, is very kind to Lucie and treats her like an equal. Slowly they become friends and her aunt teaches her to be proud of her heritage. The years she spends with her, are the best years of her childhood.

Many of the elements in this novel, including the sparse prose, reminded me of Erdrich’s Love Medicine. These lives are bleak and a constant struggle. Alcoholism is frequent. Gracie, Lucie’s mother, is a very typical example. She tries everything to make people forget that she is half Indian. Her hair almost falls off, from the bleaching, she would never wear anything made of natural fibres but rather sweats in synthetic dresses. She changes her boyfriends constantly. Most them are white and beat her up. She is mean and doesn’t take care of her daughter. She is half illiterate and the letters she writes to Lucie later in life, fill her daughter with shame. They sound like the letters of a child and are full of errors.

What truly shocks Lucie at Lizzie’s place is when she sees a photo of a young beautiful Indian woman with long black hair, holding a little baby. If Lizzie hadn’t told her, she would never have recognized her own mother.

Bells’s writing is sparse and tries to imitate spoken language. This is a means to emphasize the importance of oral traditions. Unfortunately I didn’t think it was very well done. The changing from the first to the third person and to the italicized parts didn’t seem to follow a logic. I could understand why Lucie had a problem with her mother but the hatred wasn’t really explained. Because she gave her away or because she was poor and almost illiterate and denied her heritage? Was hurt or shame the source of it or both?

The ending is abruptly redemptive which I found quite odd too. I didn’t mind reading the book. Not at all. It’s interesting in parts but overall a bit disappointing as the structure was confusing. I would have liked to know more about the Cherokee culture. What Bell describes seems typical of many Native Americans with a severe identity crisis. And yet, this could have been the point. Maybe she wanted to show that once people are robbed of their identity, they all become alike, no matter whether they are Cherokee or Chickasaw or Choktaw. And since they are poor and not well educated all they have is the imitation of mainstream culture.

I liked that the book seemed very realistic and didn’t try to draw a romanticized picture. And what worked very well was how the difficulties of the mother-daughter relationship are described and how she captured that moment when Lucie sat in her mother’s empty apartment, looking at all her things and knowing that she would never return.

Has anyone read this or Louise Erdrich?

A Few Plans for 2012

Happy New Year to all of you, my readers, commenters, subscribers and friends.

I wish that 2012 will be a wonderful year for all of us!

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This is the year in which I will

– Buy fewer books

– Read at least three books from countries I’ve never read a book from (most likely: Nigeria, Vietnam, Portugal)

– Read fewer novels

– Read plays and poetry

2012 Fearless Poetry

I will participate in Serena’s Fearless Poetry Exploration Challenge. It’s not a very demanding challenge, all you have to do is, read two poetry collections or participate in her Virtual Poetry Circles.

– Translate poetry

– Read more fantasy and YA

– Read more life writing including diaries, memoir and letters

– Pursue some of my reading projects that I had abandoned like

  • Native American reading project. I have a huge pile and have already read one book during the last week of last year.
  • African American reading project and as part of this the
  • Zora Neale Hurston reading project

– Start the new movie series World Cinema. The idea is to take a trip around the world in movies.

– Work on my About page. This page is actually clicked a lot and I was mortified to find out that since the day I started this blog, I hadn’t changed it which means it’s still a draft version. And it almost reads like a job application. It’s embarrassing.

– Write far less reviews and drastically shorten the summary sections

– Write in different ways

– Finally learn how to upload photos. I know you are dying to see my cats, my messy apartment, the view from my windows and oh the book piles. No worries, that’s not what you will get (or let’s say, the cats, yes, but not the mess and the shamefully high piles). I’d like to explore the medium photography and here is the moment to mention one of my very favourite blogs Mrs Pearl’s aka Carole’s Pearls and Prose. All of her posts are like gifts. Not only does she share her beautiful photography, she also shares a lot of tips and tricks.

– Read less, write more. No, not blogposts. Don’t get alarmed.

– 6/12 cities project. I want to travel quite a bit this year and, if possible pair this with some reading. The planned destinations so far are

  • Stockholm
  • London
  • Paris
  • Milano
  • Istanbul
  • ?

As I’m notorious for overthrowing my vacation (and other) plans it’s possible the final list will look very different. Milano and Paris are the most likely as they are close (4 respectively 3 hours by train). Why these 5 cities? I haven’t been in Paris for over a year and ususally went there at least a few times per year. Milano – The famous cemetery and I need clothes. Or rather a style change is overdue and how to best achieve that than with Italian fashion, right? Stockholm – I’ve never been there. Istanbul – I’m sure I will love it.

These are my blogging related plans. I spare you the others, the list is three times as long.

How about you? Are you making plans or just go with the flow (which I will eventually do as well but I love plans)?