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Review: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

September 6, 2009

Ceremony is a story of violence and violation; of borders, the space between borders, and transitions; it is a story of recovery and healing; and it is a story that breaks down cultural forms, norms, and containers.

It is the story of Tayo, a mixed-blood veteran of World War II, as he struggles to realign himself in a healthy relationship with the rest of the world. Tayo’s experience of post-traumatic stress disorder is skillfully evoked by Silko in passages in which the reader witnesses the fuzzy bleeding and blending of time and space to which Tayo is subjected as mundane events in his post-war life trigger his traumatic experiences in war and as a a prisoner of war at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Through these evocative passages and her subtle, atmospheric use of language, scenes of singular literary beauty blend and build a story which, if hazy at first, coalesces by the end of the book into what is a wonderful illustration of how trauma, suffering, and isolation can be overcome through meaningful participation in the world.

As Tayo progresses, taking two steps forward and one step back, then tentatively hunkering down in safe places where he may withdraw or attempt to integrate his experiences, his story spills over into oral histories of some of his ancestors. The story folds in on itself, reiterates and builds on itself in recursive and novel ways.

A pivotal point in the text occurs when Tayo visits an eccentric medicine man who lives alone on a ridge. From his modest home, this man involves himself in the complications of a hybridized world by storing and working with power objects that include not only the stereotypical Indian artifacts of ancestors, but also hundreds of pieces of modern detritus: stacks of newspapers and glass Coca-Cola bottles. All of these are arranged into a pattern, woven together in an arrangement evoking the dissonance and totality found in the post-colonial world. This holism of sacred and profane becomes the backdrop of Tayo’s quest for wholeness and healing; the integration of and healthy blending of these two polarities could arguably be stated as the goal of Tayo’s healing.

The book itself has been described as “a ceremony” by a reviewer at the Boston Globe and has been called “one of the greatest novels of any time and place” by Sherman Alexie. Certainly there is a ceremonial, an experiential, dimension to the reading of this exceptional narrative. A far cry from the clearly scripted and plotted fiction that many Americans prefer to consume, this book is slow and meandering. At the risk of sounding problematic, it is a book that exists in and moves on Indian time. Yet it is more: it is a book about transitions and transgressions, and it touches and transcends much of the violence of Western culture. Far from offering easy solutions, what Ceremony offers is much more profound and useful: it is a great work of literature, a storytelling which is an act and a movement towards an understanding of the human condition in a hybridized and fragmented world which is not easily articulated. And exceptionally, the book moves beyond articulation into the realm of suggestion: it ventures to offer one example of forward movement–not of progress, necessarily, for progress is a problematic word itself; instead, Ceremony shows us how we might return, or at least tells a story of return and healing. Its offering is more than enough: a rare work of incredible meaning and purpose, intent on synthesizing opposites, yet never losing sight of a moral purpose and holistic understanding of relations that has eluded Western culture throughout history.

cross-posted at Deeply Problematic

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