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Read the Resistance, November 2017: Ceremony

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For this month of Read the Resistance, an online book club that highlights written works of and about resistance, we asked Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan and, most recently, The Misfit’s Manifesto, to recommend a book that exemplifies resistance to her. Her pick? Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Join Yuknavitch for a discussion about the book on November 28.

Ceremony follows the journey of Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry who returns home to his Laguna Pueblo reservation,” said Yuknavitch. “The story of war and its residual physical, mental, and emotional impact are written on the body of a man who is haunted by more than one culture, more than one kind of violence, more than one kind of fracturing of identity. Pueblo mythology and storytelling thread through Tayo’s experiences, and memory—family, personal, cultural—interrupts the present tense in waves. How do we form and hold on to an identity from the shrapnel of the world we have made? How do we learn to love in the crater of a bomb blast?”

Remembering as Resistance

“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, Ceremony

“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.” –Paul Beatty, The Sellout

Throughout much of Ceremony, we see Tayo in a state of numbness, a “gray winter fog.” Whether in a hospital on medication that “drained memory out of his thin arms,” or self-medicating in a bar with other veterans, Tayo resists remembering all that has come before—his youth when Rocky was still alive, the pain of his losses, and even the stories his elders have told. Trapped between identities—white and Native American, soldier and citizen, educated off the reservation versus educated on—Tayo sits in an in-between place where even timelines are murky.

But as Tayo connects with the medicine man, with Ts’eh, with the land, and with the stories of his ancestors, he begins to resist the fog, to resist the erasure of his and his people’s past, and to come to grips with the reality of his situation. And when he seems to slip back into his old ways, to see how easy it would be to continue drinking with his friends, to “get lost in this place of theirs; where the past, even a few hours before, suddenly lost its impact and seemed like a vague dream,” he pulls himself away from it in the end, finishing the ceremony he set out to complete. “Next time,” his uncle Josiah told him when he was young, “just remember the story.”

Key to today’s resistance movements, too, is to never forget: to honor the men and women who paved the paths for today’s movements to travel. At last month’s Lit Crawl Brooklyn, the all-women Resistance Revival Chorus, born of The Women’s March, sang songs of resistances past to maintain momentum for today’s activists, “in tribute to the historical importance of music in the protest movement.” Like the spoken stories passed from the medicine man to Tayo, music and its mnemonic quality allows historical understanding to transfer form one generation to the next.

Writers, too, play an important role in maintaining historical memory. From the historical understanding of the ways racism was created and perpetuated that fuels Ta-Nehisi Coates’s lauded work; to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical that reminded our country that our founders were immigrants; to last month’s Read the Resistance selection, Salvage the Bones, in which Jesmyn Ward sets in writing a harrowing Hurricane Katrina experience that will remind readers for decades to come of the particular devastation the hurricane brought to low-income, African-American communities, writers of varying styles ensure with their work that stories are not forgotten.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  • Are there historical events or movements you see as being integral to understanding today’s resistance movements? By remembering these past movements, what lessons might be learned for contemporary activists?
  • In an era of “alternative facts,” where historical events vary dramatically depending on the teller, what are some creative ways that citizens can help to ensure that stories, people, and events aren’t forgotten?

The Power of Story

“I will tell you something about stories / [he said] / They are all we have, you see, / all we have to fight off / illness and death.” –Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” –Joan Didion, The White Album

As Tayo and a corporal carry the dying Rocky in a blanket through the jungle, Tayo tells “a story to give them strength,” the words “as if they had substance, pebbles and stones extending to hold the corporal up.” Tayo’s story keeps the soldiers moving, resisting the easier solution: to drop the blanket and quit. Tayo’s grandmother, too, finds strength in stories—for her, stories are what allow her to cope with the gossip that is spread about her family, the insults they bear. “The story was all that counted” for the old woman. “If she had a better one about them, then it didn’t matter what they said.

But in Ceremony, we also see how story has the power to destroy. “As I tell the story it will begin to happen,” says the witch who controls the oppressor and pits human against human. “Set in motion now / set in motion by our witchery,” she says, and as she speaks the words, the witchery comes to life. We see, too, the negative consequences of the wartime stories the novel’s veterans tell about “the good times in Oakland and San Diego.” They repeat the stories “like long medicine chants,” allowing these stories to bring temporary relief—but as Tayo learns, these glorified memories, like alcohol, numb the men rather than allow them to heal.

Like in Ceremony, we see today how the power of story is not always wielded nobly. The viral infection of false news—examined in PEN America’s report Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth—and its ability to manipulate and misinform is a perfect example of when the power of story leads to negative outcomes. We are seeing now how a well-crafted narrative that’s deliberately misleading has the potential to influence voters, shape mindsets, and drown out truth. And as in Ceremony, when Emo and fellow veterans comfort themselves with rosy versions of the past, we see in our present how glorifying the past while brushing over its devastating mistakes can be a manipulative narrative device that serves the desires of the teller.

But we also see today the positive impact stories can have on our population. At this fall’s Brooklyn Book Festival, PEN America asked festival goers to answer the question, “What do stories have the power to do?” “To make the voiceless heard,” said one contributor. “To show that we can work together,” said another. “To make us empathetic.” “To expand children’s minds and prepare them for loss.” That narratives can speak across difference, can build empathy, and can give volume to marginalized voices speaks to the tangible power that words have. And this power can be seen on a near daily basis—whether in the form of a novel, a movie, or a conversation in a café.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  • In Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko blends a variety of storytelling techniques to tell the story of Tayo, his family, and his people: prose, poetry, oral traditions, song. What effects do these various methods have on the story and on you as a reader? What power do these styles carry in the novel?
  • How would you answer the question, “What do stories have the power to do?”

Alienation vs. Belonging

“But now the feelings were twisted, tangled roots, and all the names for the source of this growth were buried under English words, out of reach. And there would be no peace and the people would have no rest until the entanglement had been unwound to the source.” –Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

“Come on out. Come home again. / Your mother, the earth is crying for you. / Come home, children, come home.” –Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

On many levels, Ceremony is a story of alienation. Tayo and his people have been alienated from their environment by invaders who have stolen their land and claimed it as their own. They’ve been alienated from their customs by these same invaders, who’ve erected schools that scoff at the beliefs of the Pueblo people’s ancestors, teaching the young children to reject these inherited beliefs. Tayo and his fellow veterans are alienated from their loved ones by their experiences from the war—traumas that send them to the bottle to numb their pain. And as a child of mixed heritage—a Pueblo mother and a white father—Tayo experiences additional alienation from his family and his friends, labeled a “half-breed” by many in his community.

But as much as Ceremony is a novel shaped by alienation, it is also a story of belonging: of those who see past the boundaries drawn in the sand and choose instead to recognize the world as one of interdependence, a Beloved Community. When Tayo visits Betonie, the medicine man, the older man tells Tayo that the witchery that led to the creation of the oppressor, men who “will turn on each other . . . destroy each other,” has alienation as its goal. The witchery “want[s] us to separate ourselves from white people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction,” says Betonie. Resisting this separation, resisting this insistence on difference, on divisiveness, is what will lead to healing. And by the end of the novel, this is the mindset that Tayo has acquired: “He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time.”

Alienation as theme is as contemporary today as it was in the post-World War II era in which Ceremony takes place—particularly, still, for Native American populations. With oil now flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline, following months of protests that brought varying populations together to fight the pipeline that travels beneath the Lakota and Dakota people’s source of water, we’ve seen Native Americans stripped of the power to protect their own water source, alienating their bodies from the sustenance that will fuel them. We see politicians rhetorically dividing citizens into “many sides,” pitting population against population with words that keep individuals focused on their differences rather than their commonalities. And we still see the residual effects of one of the most successful divisions of all, the founding of slavery and the distinction between black and white laborers.

But in the resistance to these methods of division, we can find those who are building coalitions, strengthening communities, and recognizing the power of individuals to achieve shared goals. Native Americans and non-Native climate activists joined together at a time when our climate’s prospects seem more dire than ever; authors from around the globe with varying causes pledged together to defend free speech from those who wish to silence it. So while the divided nature of our culture seems at an all-time high, as in Ceremony, we can find encouraging examples of those who refuse to be defined by irreconcilable difference.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  • How do instances of alienation and belonging appear in your own life and community? Are there ways behaviors can shift to reduce experiences of estrangement?
  • In Ceremony, witchcraft uses division as its fuel, keeping humans fighting one another rather than the witchcraft that has cursed them. To what extent is the metaphor applicable to our world today? And what might we do to resist this phenomenon?

 

About Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of national best-selling novels The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction as well as the Reader’s Choice Award; the novel Dora: A Headcase; and a critical book on war and narrative, Allegories Of Violence (Routledge). Her widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice. A book based on her recent TED Talk, The Misfit’s Manifesto, was released this fall.

 

About Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko was born in 1948 to a family whose ancestry includes Mexican, Laguna Indian, and European forebears. She has said that her writing has at its core “the attempt to identify what it is to be a half-breed or mixed-blood person.” As she grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation, she learned the stories and culture of the Laguna people from her great-grandmother and other female relatives. After receiving her B. A. in English at the University of New Mexico, she enrolled in the University of New Mexico law school but completed only three semesters before deciding that writing and storytelling, not law, were the means by which she could best promote justice. She married John Silko in 1970. Prior to the writing of Ceremony, she published a series of short stories, including “The Man to Send Rain Clouds.” She also authored a volume of poetry, Laguna Woman: Poems, for which she received the Pushcart Prize for Poetry.

 

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