P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

Narrative Power in Native American Fiction
Reflections on Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storyteller" (1981)

Ib Johansen

In the Western world we frequently come across the misconception that what makes Western civilization superior vis-à-vis other (non-European) cultures - and in particular vis-à-vis Native American culture - has to do with the importance of writing in our part of the world, i.e. with the fact that we are (or regard ourselves as) masters of the written word. The ethnocentric - and Eurocentric - bias of Western anthropology (and other arts and sciences), when it comes to assessing the cultural heritage and traditions of Native Americans, is summed up by Gordon Brotherston in a thought-provoking article entitled "Towards a grammatology of America: Lévi-Strauss, Derrida and the native New World text":

All told, we seem not to have moved very far from that highly interested account of the New World given, shortly after its 'discovery' by Montaigne, who spoke of its typical inhabitant as 'so new and infantine, that he is yet to learn his A.B.C.'[1]

As it is pointed out by Brotherston in this article and elsewhere,[2] this is a thoroughly misleading account of Native American cultures and their degree of "literacy", but in the present context I shall leave out further reflections on the historical dimension(s) of this misapprehension as well as on the vast body of sacred literature that demonstrates the falsity of such a view. This cultural cliché is likewise proven wrong, if we take a look at the new Native American (literary) Renaissance, characteristic of the last three or four decades, and represented by important writers such as Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and N. Scott Momaday. These writers use the English language in their poems, stories, and novels, but at the same time they are very much concerned with their indigenous or tribal roots and cultural heritage. In the present context I shall narrow down my focus to one short story written by Leslie Marmon Silko, i.e. her "Storyteller" (1981).

Leslie Marmon Silko was raised in a Laguna village in the American Southwest, but she also has "white" ancestors. If we compare this story to earlier attempts - on the part of white settlers and others - to come to terms with the Native American Other, we notice to what extent Silko has left behind cultural stereotypes and clichés. We are also reminded explicitly of the Puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather's (in)famous treatise The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), when the critic Kate Shanley Vangen entitles an article she wrote on Silko's story: "The Devil's Domain: Leslie Silko's 'Storyteller'".[3] The demonization of the American Other (in this case the Native American) is a strategy pointing in the direction of the very core (and the deep structure) of the predominant ideology. As it is formulated by Vangen:

Women and Indians share a vital connection to natural cycles that is devalued by the Gussucks [i.e. the whites]; thus, the Gussuck must degrade himself (by picturing himself as [a] dog copulating with [a] woman in [a] pinned-up image) in order to interact with women or Native peoples. He must enter the devil's domain, the heart of darkness, the "illegitimate" system of values, if he desires intercourse with "illegitimate" epistemologies. Clearly, he suppresses or denies a sense of responsibility toward the object of his pleasure; instead, the victim is blamed, hated...[4]

In traditional societies the storyteller plays an important role; he/she is placed at the very centre of the community, and his/her activities are considered as essential to the very self-awareness or sense of identity of the community. At the same time storytelling can become a strategic weapon in the struggle for cultural and physical survival on the part of indigenous peoples, endangered as they are in the modern world, on a very fundamental level, by the cultural imperialism of the white power élite - or by what Vangen calls "a system, in other words, that seeks to rob a people of the power of words".[5] What Silko's "Storyteller" is about is precisely the power of words - or narrative power.

In this connection we are reminded of Walter Benjamin's famous essay "The Storyteller" ["Der Erzähler"] (1936). In his essay the German Marxist critic comments on the contemporary decline of storytelling as a living tradition:

[A]n experience which we may have almost every day] teaches us that the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a story properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest thing among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experience.[6]

Of course, more than sixty years after Benjamin wrote this, oral culture as such - and the art of storytelling - seem to be even more endangered by the process of modernization than they were in the 1930's, i.e. the new media and their technologies (e.g., a Hollywood that more or less totally dominates the Western film market, television, "pop" culture, the computer industry, etc., etc.) have, to a very large extent, marginalized not only classic book culture (McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy), but also the premodern precursors of book culture, i.e. the culture of the spoken word, communal storytelling, etc. However, just as the death of the novel has been announced several times during the last one hundred years without being brought into effect, it looks as if both the book (in spite of "book droppers") and oral traditions - cultivated for instance at narrative festivals and on other occasions - have managed to survive and even thrive in the teeth of all these threats to their continued existence and well-being.

In Mario Vargas Llosa's remarkable novel The Storyteller [El hablador] (1989) - where a young Peruvian Jew gives up Western civilization altogether to become a storyteller among the Machiguenga in the Amazonian rain forest - the power of storytelling is foregrounded in a striking manner:

Talking the way a storyteller talks means being able to feel and live in the very heart of that culture, means having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors...That my friend Saúl gave up being all that he was and might have become so as to roam through the Amazonian jungle, for more than twenty years now, perpetuating against wind and tide - and above all, against the very concepts of modernity and progress - the tradition of that invisible line of storytellers, is something that memory now and again brings back to me, and, as on that day when I first heard of it, in the starlit village of New Light, it opens my heart more forcefully than fear or love has ever done.[7]

Similarly, according to Gloria Feman Orenstein, "...many indigenous peoples all over the globe believe that to retell the story of Creation is to re-create the world"![8] Furthermore, according to Orenstein, "feminist matristic artists and writers believe, along with native Americans, that through the power of the word, originally the spoken word, now transmitted via the print media, they can bring humans into balance with nature and the cosmos".[9] On the other hand, what is focused on in Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storyteller" is rather the inherent power of storytelling - and the capabilities of the storyteller - with regard to reclaiming something that has been lost in the perpetual struggle of indigenous peoples against the political and cultural hegemony of the whites (in this story called "the Gussucks").

When she was a young woman, Leslie Marmon Silko was a school teacher in Alaska, and this faraway Northern country provides the setting for "Storyteller": An Eskimo woman is sent to jail, after having confessed to having killed a white man (a storeman). But her lawyer tries to persuade her to give up this position (her confession), for in the eyes of white society the storeman's death was simply an "accident". She, however, sticks to her version, her story: "'I will not change the story, not even to escape this place and go home. I intended that he die. The story must be told as it is".[10] Her account is, as a matter of fact, a revenge story, a chronicle of an announced (or planned) death, for another storeman poisoned wine which he sold to her parents, causing their death. But insofar as she is obliged to get the story right, what is underscored here is the existential dimension of storytelling - it is never cost-free to tell a story.

Another, in this case a mythical story is simultaneously presented to us - and to begin with also to the main character - by an old man (her deceased grandmother's former husband or common law husband): a man with whom she has what is regarded by her surroundings as an "illicit" sexual liaison. The old man's story is about a huge polar bear pursuing an Eskimo hunter, and in the end this hunter is left defenseless in the middle of the frozen Bering Sea with his powerful opponent: "...the jade knife fell; it shattered on the ice, and the blue glacier bear turned slowly to face".This is how "Storyteller" ends, and apparently the last paragraph of Silko's text is a flashback, describing (what appears to be) the old man's (the storyteller's) death throes and his obstinate refusal to stop narrating his story to the very end - for in the preceding paragraph we have been told about precisely the old man's struggle with death, and in that paragraph we are also told about the woman's takeover of the old man's position as a storyteller: "...she went on with the story, and she never stopped, not even when the woman [i.e. the jailer] got up to close the door behind the village men [i.e. her listeners]".[12] At this point we might ask what story - or which story? Is she going on with (1) the old man's story about the hunter and the polar bear, or is she presenting (2) her own story to her audience (i.e. possibly (a) a murder story [where her parents are murdered], (b) a revenge story [where she kills the storeman], or (c) a story about the end of the world [the sun frozen in the middle of the sky])? We do not know for certain - in a certain sense these two [or should we rather say five (?)] narratives merge. Maybe the final paragraph belongs to the story itself, i.e. to the story that she cannot or will not stop, and in that case she is telling the villagers about (1) her grandfather's death throes as well as recapitulating in their presence (2) his final words about the polar bear and the hunter.

The Eskimo woman is, as a matter of fact, trying to read the signs of the times, and in her view what is about to happen very soon amounts to the end of the world, where everything is going to come to a standstill:

...Look at the sun. It wasn't moving; it was frozen, caught in the middle of the sky. Look at the sky, solid as the river with ice which had trapped the sun. It had not moved for a long time; in a few more hours it would be weak, and heavy frost would begin to appear on the edges and spread across the face of the sun like a mask. Its light was pale yellow, worn thin by the winter.[13]

The apocalyptic theme of the story - and the way it is presented to the reader - definitely points in the direction of the fantastic, for what is portrayed in the passage quoted above appears to be a supernatural event. Already at an earlier point in the plot the protagonist has foreseen what is going to take place, what is happening to the cosmos (in this case the main character's foreknowledge is thematized in another, compositionally later but chronologically earlier passage that uses her point-of-view to underscore the ominous character of the event): "She wanted to laugh again because [the storeman] did not know about the ice. He did not know that it was prowling the earth, or that it had already pushed its way into the sky to seize the sun..."[14] Eventually, after the storeman has drowned and other decisive events have taken place, the sun is (apparently) set free, but the power of the ice over the universe is still unmistakable and lethal:

white sky. The sun had finally broken loose from the ice but it moved like a wounded caribou running on strength which only dying animals find, leaping and running on bullet-shattered lungs. Its light was weak and pale; it pushed dimly through the clouds.[15]

Another element pointing in the direction of the fantastic is the appearance of the protagonist's dead grandmother as a ghost:

Her grandmother was there suddenly, a shadow around the stove. She spoke in her low wind voice and the girl was afraid to sit up to hear more clearly...But the last words she heard clearly: 'It will take a long time, but the story must be told. There must not be any lies'...She thought her grandmother was talking about the old man's bear story; she did not know about the other story then [i.e. the story of her parents' death].[16]

Thus her own grandmother reminds her, once more, of the power of storytelling! But this soul-shattering reminder is transmitted to her by a voice from the past, a ghostly inhabitant of the realm between this world and the Otherworld. To the extent that we attempt to situate "Storyteller" within the category of the fantastic, we notice that there is also a kind of loophole in the narrative, offering an alternative perspective on the events of the story - or at least on some of them. For according to her own attorney, what she presents to him as her version of the story (the "murder" of the storeman which is regarded as an "accident" by the lawyer) could also be considered an exemplification of her madness: "'Tell her I will do all I can for her [addressed to the jailer who functions as interpreter]. I will explain to the judge that her mind is confused'".[17] Thus the notion of madness makes it possible to explain what looks like supernatural events on the basis of a purely natural code. The double encoding of the fantastic - where it is virtually impossible to choose between a natural and a supernatural interpretation of certain decisive events - is thus in place; but at the same time the power of storytelling itself seems to transcend or disrupt all the rules and regulations of the so-called "normal" world![18]

In a manner which is difficult to come to terms with, the story narrated by the old man about the polar bear and the hunter appears to influence what is going on in the village, i.e. the power of storytelling displaces the overall drift or telos or intentionality of Silko's narrative, its representation of reality, adding a new dimension to everything. Whereas the old man's extremely slow-paced manner of telling his story takes on an almost obsessive character - where he is "describing each crystal of ice and the slightly different sounds they made under each paw [of the gigantic polar bear]"[19] - the cosmic significance of this infinitely prolonged pursuit (where the hunter himself is hunted) is likewise foregrounded. And what, from one point-of-view, looks like a kind of extreme realism is thus, from another viewpoint, turned into an allegorical narrative, where the bear represents not only the call of the wild, but on a larger scale simultaneously all the uncontrollable forces of the natural world and, ultimately, death itself as the last destination of the mental traveller through the wilderness of this world.

According to Kate Shanley Vangen, "[w]omen and Indians [and presumably also Eskimos] share a vital connection to natural cycles that is devalued by the Gussuck" (cf. note 4); the gigantic polar bear and the wounded caribou in the sky (alias the sun, cf. note 14) take on a cosmic significance, where both human beings and animals are embedded in the same mythical narrative (and human beings are acutely aware of their links to the animal world, a kind of participation mystique or unio mystica). Thus the wounded caribou can be related to an earlier episode in the story where the colour red is focused ("the red tin [a waste product of Gussuck culture or anti-culture] nailed to the log-house"),[20] but this piece of tin is also related to the mysterious death of the protagonist's parents (it is left as a "trace", revealing the crime committed by the storeowner, when her parents were poisoned) - thus Gussuck culture constitutes, as it were, an open wound in the cosmos, i.e. the world inhabited by the Eskimos from time immemorial. The second storeman's death cannot undo this crime, but to the extent that the story is told, i.e. offered to an audience (by the old man and afterwards by the protagonist), the narrative process itself appears to be capable of recuperating what has been lost - even if it is a never-ending story, even if "[i]t will take a long time"[21] to tell it, and you will never be able to finish it. The old man tells his story to the death, but when he passes away, someone else is (always already) prepared to take over (the protagonist). Thus we are once more reminded of Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller", where it is stated that "[d]eath is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death..."[22] The borrowed time of the storyteller is borrowed from death. And the archetypal agon between hunter and polar bear in Leslie Marmon Silko's "Storyteller" - a struggle to the death - illustrates this point in a striking manner. Even if it is likewise true that human (Native Alaskan, Native American) survival depends on the gifts of the storyteller - on an unstoppable narrative, adjusted to the rhythms and seasons of the cosmos itself.

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1 Cf. Gordon Brotherston: "Towards a grammatology of America: Lévi-Strauss, Derrida and the native New World text", in: Literature, Politics and Theory. Papers from the Essex Conference 1978-84. Edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen, [and] Diana Loxley (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), pp. 195-96.

2 Cf. also Gordon Brotherston: Book of the Fourth World. Reading the Native Americas Through Their Literature (Cambridge, New York, and Oakleigh, Victoria, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

3 Cf. Kate Shanley Vangen: "The Devil's Domain: Leslie Silko's 'Storyteller'", in: Coyote Was Here. Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization. Edited by Bo Schöler (Århus: The Dolphin No. 9, April 1984), pp. 116-23. In Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692) the clergyman comments as follows on the metaphysical characteristics of the colony he inhabits: "The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's Territories...", Cotton Mather: On Witchcraft. Being the Wonders of the Invisible World (New York: Bell Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 14 (Mather's italics, my ellipsis). Allegedly, the community of the native inhabitants of the New World is altogether in the grip of His Infernal Majesty!

4 Ibid., p. 122 (my ellipsis).

5 Ibid., p. 117.

6 Walter Benjamin: Illuminations. Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn (London: Collins/Fontana Books, 1973), p. 83. Cf. Walter Benjamin: "Der Erzähler", in: Illuminationen. Ausgewählte Schriften 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, Erste Auflage 1977), p. 385 (my ellipsis): "Sie [i.e. eine Erfahrung,...zu der wir fast täglich Gelegenheit haben] sagt uns, dass est mit der Kunst des Erzählens zu Ende geht. Immer seltener wird die Begegnung mit Leuten, welche rechtschaffen etwas erzählen können. Immer häufiger verbreitet sich Verlegenheit in der Runde, wenn der Wunsch nach einer Geschichte laut wird. Es ist, als wenn ein Vermögen, das uns unveräusserlich schien, das Gesichertste unter dem Sicheren, von uns genommen würde. Nämlich das Vermögen, Erfahrungen auszutauschen".

7 Mario Vargas Llosa: The Storyteller. Translated by Helen Lane (New York, etc.: Penguin Books, 1990), pp. 244-45 (my ellipsis). Cf. Mario Vargas Llosa: El hablador (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1987), p. 234: "Porque hablar como habla un hablador es haber llegado a sentir y vivir lo más íntimo de esa cultura, haber calado en sus entresijos, llegado al tuétano de su historia y su mitología, somatizado sus tabúes, reflejos, apetitos y terrores ancestrales...Que mi amigo Saúl Zuratas renunciara a ser todo lo que era y hubiera podido llegar a ser, para, desde hace más de veinte años, trajinar por las selvas de la Amazonía, prolongando, contra viento y marea - y, sobre todo, contra las nociones mismas de modernidad y progreso - la tradición de ese invisible linaje de contadores ambulantes de historias, es algo que, de tiempo en tiempo, me vuelve a la memoria y, como aquel día en lo quel supe, en la oscuridad con estrellas de poblado de Nueva Luz, desboca mi corazón con más fuerza que lo hayan hecho nunca el miedo o el amor" (my ellipsis). Cf. also the many references to the power of storytelling in Leslie Marmon Silko's own novel Ceremony (1977), describing the attempts of a war veteran (a young Native American) to claim the cultural heritage of his own people and thereby to put behind him the traumatic experiences undergone by himself in World War II, cf. Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony (New York: New American Library, 1977), p. 273, where Old Grandma summarizes the prevailing view concerning the stories circulating in her community (or rather: the view that prevailed in the old days): "She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. 'It seems like I already heard these stories before...only thing is, the names sound different'" (Silko's ellipsis).

8 Cf. Gloria Feman Orenstein: The Reflowering of the Goddess (New York, etc.: Pergamon Press, 1990), p. 18 (my ellipsis), where the critic discusses the surrealist artist Remedios Varo's painting La Creación de las Aves [The Creation of Birds] (1958).

9 Ibid., p. 19.

10 Leslie Marmon Silko: Storyteller [stories and poems] (New York: Seaver Books, 1981), p. 31.

12 Ibid., p. 32 (my ellipsis).

13 Ibid., p. 18 (my ellipsis).

14 Ibid., p. 29 (my ellipsis).

15 Ibid., p. 32.

16 Ibid., p. 26 (my ellipses). Incidentally, we notice how the shadow metaphor is introduced here to signalize the "spectral" presence of her grandmother in the household: "Her grandmother was there suddenly, a shadow around the stove" (my italics). As a matter of fact, shadow imagery tends to dominate the American fantastic, and it also plays an important role in Leslie Marmon Silko's fiction, cf. her Gardens in the Dunes. A Novel (New York, etc.: Simon & Schuster / Scribner Paperback Fiction, 2000 (first published in 1999)), p. 31, where an episode in the history of the ghost dance is described at the beginning of the narrative: "Although scattered snow flurries remained, the mass of storm clouds drifted east; the buffalo horn moon was still visible as the morning star appeared on the horizon. While others danced with eyes focused on the fire, Indigo [the main character of the novel] watched the weird shadows play on the hillsides, so she was one of the first to see the Messiah and his family as they stepped out of the darkness into the glow of the swirling snowflakes. How their white robes shined! Indigo glanced around quickly to see if others had noticed. She watched the Messiah and the others, who seemed almost to float as they descended the high sandy hill to the riverbank. How beautiful he was, just as the Paiute woman said. No wonder he called himself the morning star!" We notice how the play of weird shadows appears to call forth or provoke the epiphany portrayed above - an epiphany dominated by an all-enveloping atmosphere of transcendental weightlessness, as it were!

17 Ibid., p. 31.

18 Cf. Tzvetan Todorov: The Fantastic. A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated from the French by Richard Howard (Cleveland/London: The Press of Case Western University, 1973), p. 25: "The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event". Cf. Tzvetan Todorov: Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970), p. 29: "Le fantastique, c'est l'hésitation éprouvée par un être qui ne connait que les lois naturelles, face à un événement en apparence surnaturel".

19 Leslie Marmon Silko: Storyteller, op. cit. , p. 26.

20 Ibid., p. 28.

21 Ibid., p. 26. Cf. note 16.

22 Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, op. cit. , p. 94 (my ellipsis). Cf. Walter Benjamin: Illuminationen, op. cit. , p. 396: "Der Tod ist die Sanktion von allem, was der Erzähler berichten kann. Vom Tode hat er seine Autorität geliehen... " (my ellipsis).

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