Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Once there had been a man who cursed the rain clouds, a man of monstrous dreams.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
I've decided to carry on the tradition of summarizing in poem form. This is the story of Tayo, a young Indian man who has recently returned to the Laguna reservation after fighting in WWII. (I recognize that there are many different terms preferred by indigenous people of America, but for this post I will be using "Indian" in many places simply because that's how they are referred to in the work.)

Tayo is half-white
Tayo is half-Pueblo
Tayo is not all anything

Tayo fought for us
But Tayo is not one of us
Second war of the world
Atomic pain
Great loss

Tayo returns
But Tayo does not return
He is lost

His friends are lost too
They lose themselves in liquor
He wants to be found

Medicine men
Fights with friends


Tayo finds himself in the mountain
The ceremony is complete
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you found that plot poem to be a bit opaque, then WELCOME to my world. There were things I really enjoyed about this novel, but there were also things that disturbed me, and many more which confused and confounded me. This was one of those books where I looked up a summary online after I finished, and thought, HUNH. Really? I was supposed to get all that? Not quite as large a mental gap as, say, Gravity's Rainbow (barf) but still substantial. 

My sister Diana did a read-along with me, so I'll be posting her thoughts shortly. Here are mine.

Between worlds
Reading this right after Native Son was fascinating, because I saw a lot of comparisons between Bigger and Tayo. Each young man felt trapped in his own skin, and wronged by the country to which he was 'native'. Here are a few of my favorite lines describing how Tayo feels when he returns home with PTSD from WWII:
  • They didn't want him at Laguna the way he was.
  • The new doctor asked him if he had ever been visible.
  • It had been a long time since he had thought about having a name.
  • It took a great deal of energy to be a human being.
  • He wanted to walk until he recognized himself again.
I have to agree that sometimes it does, indeed, take a great deal of energy to be a human being. Do you recognize yourself, dear readers? Do you ever wonder if you're someone else? It reminded me of one of my favorite Proust lines:
"So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp." I love the idea that you could accidentally grasp onto another human being's consciousness when you wake up in the morning. Whoops, I'm someone else!
"Jungle rain had no beginning or end."
OK, blobbists, I have to make a confession. I put this book on the list because, aside from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I don't think I've read any other books by indigenous Americans. I thought the biggest leap in my social understanding would be life on a reservation versus my rural upbringing. It hadn't even occurred to me that indigenous people fought in American wars, saw gruesome realities, were accepted as soldiers, and then rejected as humans when they returned. Tayo is so completely lost when he comes back, and between his PTSD and the fact that his cousin, the 'prodigal son', so to speak, died in the war, his identity is stripped away. No one wants to claim him, even the ones who are bound to do so. 
  • A white recruiter, to Tayo and Rocky - "Anyone can fight for America. Even you boys. In a time of need, anyone can fight for her." I found this so repulsive. I know that it is not uncommon for us to expect the same peoples that we denigrate and abuse to be our foot soldiers, and it's happened for eons, but that doesn't make it right. How dare we.
  • "Here they were, trying to bring back that old feeling, that feeling they belonged to America the way way they felt during the war. They blamed themselves for losing the new feeling; they never talked about it, but they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took. They never thought to blame white people for any of it; they wanted white people for their friends. They never saw that it was the white people who gave them that feeling and it was white people who took it away again when the war was over." It was interesting to me that in Native Son, the white man bears the blame, but here, even if the white man deserves the blame, he is not held responsible. 
It's a (white) man's man's man's man's world.
In Native Son, Bigger feels that everything belongs to the white man, but fundamentally it's about personhood that has been stolen. For Tayo, the land is what has been stolen, and personhood is tied to the land. 

"We fought their war for them.
But they've got everything. 
They took our land, they took everything!" reminded me of

"They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." from Native Son

Do you believe the lie? Do you live the lie?
Tayo, to himself: "Why did he hesitate to accuse a white man of stealing but not a Mexican or an Indian? He had learned the lie by heart - the lie which they had wanted him to learn: only brown-skinned people were thieves; white people didn't steal, because they always had the money to buy whatever they wanted." There's a term for this pattern of thinking - internalized racism? I can't quite put my finger on it; I think there was another term in my head. Anyway, it should force us all to do a gut check, methinks. I liked Tayo's next line:

"As long as people believed the lies, they would never be able to see what had been done to them or what they were doing to each other."

But, like Malcolm X and like Bigger Thomas, Tayo learns that whiteness is not singly equivalent to evil. One medicine man tells him: "Nothing is that simple. You don't write off all the white people, just like you don't trust all the Indians."

What is your tribe?
In addition to forgetting that indigenous peoples had multi-layered identities as Americans, I also forgot, to some extent, of the variety of tribes and the ways in which tribal identity reinforces or conflicts with other identities. Silko only touches on a few tribes in this work, but it made me want to learn more and research more about our nation's too-often hidden history.

This land is your land, this land is my land...
The importance of nature and the earth to Tayo and his culture were some of the only things I really liked about him. I wanted to like him, and I wanted to root for him, but I didn't feel like Silko really gave us the chance to get to know him. I also found it off-putting that her protagonist was a rather personality-less man - I wanted a woman's perspective, a woman's voice, maybe even (gasp!) some female side characters, if we can't have a female protagonist. His aunt and his grandmother were in the distance, but I never felt truly connected to them. It reminded me of how odd I found it that House of the Spirits centered around obnoxious Esteban and not any of the lovely del Valle women.

Some bits about nature:
  • "Indians wake up every morning of their lives to see the land which was stolen, still there, within reach, its theft being flaunted. And the desire is strong to make things right, to take back what was stolen and to stop them from destroying what they have taken." What struck me as I read this was the role of time, and the unfortunate fact that if you go back far enough, a new layer of imperialism, or subjugation, or slavery, or despotism will appear. I remember my favorite word from Intro to Comp Lit - palimpsest - a kind of manuscript where the original writing has been scratched off to make room for future writing, but traces of the old writing still remain. America's history is like a palimpsest, and unfortunately there's a great deal of pain hidden along with the triumphs of democracy and individual liberties. Bigger came earlier in the literary canon than Tayo, but Tayo's pain predates slavery and the Civil War.
How are we doing, dear blobbists? Do you need a break? A snack? Here's a mental caesura:

Oh I'm sorry. Was that too literal for you? 

Here's a less literal caesura:

AAAAAnd, we're back. 

The good news is, even though white people stole the land from Tayo and his people, they know a secret:
  • On white people buying up the land near the reservation: "They only fool themselves when they think it is theirs. The deeds and papers don't mean anything. It is the people who belong to the mountain."
  • "He had lost nothing. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones."
Then there's this excellent line:
"He breathed deeply, and each breath had a distinct smell of snow from the north, of ponderosa pine on the rimrock above; finally he smelled horses from the direction of the corral, and he smiled. Being alive was all right then: he had not breathed like that for a long time." I love this line, and its simple poetry. What smells make you feel all right to be alive? I think for me it's new rain, browned butter, and fresh coffee. 

Alnilam, Mintaka, Alnitak***
 ***Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Hatsya
             ***Meissa, Saiph, Rigel 

I have a personal affection for the constellation Orion, so I was pleased to see it featured in Silko's secondary narrative which follows the 'Spider-Woman', a sort of Mother Earth equivalent.

"Maybe you have Orion in there

And then
everything - 

his clothing, his beads his heart
and the rainclouds 

will be yours."

Dessert stomachs, states with their own atmosphere, standing on a mesa to touch the moon
Tayo talks about how in his youth, he thought that you could touch the moon:
"He had believed that on certain nights, when the moon rose full and wide as a corner of the sky, a person standing on the high sandstone cliff of that mesa could reach the moon. If a person wanted to get to the moon, there was a way; it all depended on whether you knew the directions - exactly which way to go and what to do to get there; it depended on whether you knew the story of how others before you had gone."

It's like Neverland, right? Second star to the right and straight on till morning? I loved this imagery, and it reminded me of the amusing things we believe when we're still putting the world together in our heads. I, for instance, used to think that all the states and countries were stacked on top of each other, ground to sky, and so to cross from Pennsylvania to New York, for example, you'd have to travel through the atmosphere and start at the ground again. Logical Meredith tried to clear this up, since she had often ridden in cars between such states, and didn't remember crossing any atmospheres. But then imaginative Meredith countered with, "You always fall asleep in the car! You probably just missed the atmospheres changing!" ;)

A few years ago I was having dinner with my friend Sarah and her boyfriend, Chris, and he said that we should all get ready to fill up our dessert stomachs. I asked him to elaborate, and he said that as a boy, he thought we had separate stomachs for each course of our meals, and so he would delightedly inform his mother that he wasn't full, since he hadn't even touched the space in his dessert stomach!

What did you believe when you were young, dear readers? Dessert stomachs or alternate atmospheres? ;)

Lyrical lines I Liked:
  • "His body had density again." 
  • "The feelings of shame, at her own people and at the white people, grew inside her, side by side like monstrous twins that would have to be left in the hills to die."
  • "When it came to saving her own soul, she wanted to be careful that there were no mistakes."
  • "I've seen you before many times, and I always remembered you." I love this line so much. I was torn between this one and the one I chose for the title, but I felt like the title was more inclusive of the novel's intent. 
  • "They are trying to decide who you are." Another strong contender for title.
  • "Spider Woman had told Sun Man how to win the storm clouds back from the Gambler so they would be free again to bring rain and snow to the people." While some of the secondary narrative was confusing, I loved the imaginative quality to it. I know it only seems magical to me, since it's a different origin story than the one I was inculcated with, but I think there's something special about this. When you're told something is true from a young age, you are inclined to either accept or reject it. When you hear an alternate version, it can have a sort of mystical ring to it.
  • "She was with him again, a heartbeat unbroken where time subsided into dawn, and the sunset gave way to the stars, wheeling across the night."
petite pieces of poetry:
Because this book heavily features poetry, I wanted to take a moment to honor it with some of Silko's poems from the novel. 

"They flew to the fourth world
Down there 
was another kind of daylight
everything was blooming 
and growing
everything was so beautiful."

"I have left the zigzag lightning behind

I was born from the mountain
I leave a pat of wildflowers"

"Back in time immemorial, things were different, 
the animals could talk to human beings 
and many magical things still happened."

Did you see what I did just there? ;)

Words, Words, Wondrous Words

hackamore - a simple looped bridle, or a bridle without a bit, operated by exerting pressure on the horse's nose

hogan - a traditional Navajo hut of logs and earth

arroyo - a steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region

kiva - a chamber, built wholly or partly underground, used by male Pueblo Indians for religious rites

Did you know all those words, blobbists? I did not. 

Well, all good things must come to an end, and so, alas, must this post. I want to leave you with a few final thoughts:

"I will tell you something about stories. 
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."

It's so true. I don't know where I would be or what my life would be like if I had never found reading, and like Scout, I can't imagine losing it - it is, to me, like breathing now.

And in case you actually garnered some sort of affection for Tayo:

"I'm walking back to belonging
I'm walking home to happiness
I'm walking back to long life."

Our past is indeed a complex one, as Americans, and the intricacies of individual and collective identities can be painful to observe and immerse ourselves in. But how can we truly know ourselves until we understand what and who we are made of, and acknowledge who has won out and who has suffered in each phase of our becoming? 

I'll leave you with one final line:

"Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, 
the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them. 
It was a world alive, always changing and moving; 
and if you knew where to look, you could see it, 
sometimes almost imperceptible, 
like the motion of the stars across the sky."

On this day of remembrance, let us remember all the people who stand up for us and our freedoms in the ways they feel are right, our soldiers, both literal and literary, our forgotten, and our cherished nurturer, Mother Earth.

1 comment:

  1. a very lyrical post, and philosophic, too.