In the summer of 1977, I was taking classes in a writing program at Goddard College, a small school in the Vermont woods where Raymond Carver was teaching before he became famous and Richard Ford was one of Carver’s students. Young writers who visited that year included Tim O’Brien — who hadn’t yet published Going After Cacciato , his National Book Award winner — and Ann Beattie, whose first books had just recently been published. Trying to focus on writing makes one an appreciative reader: that summer I read John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country and it was the first time I recognized how much work must go into his writing which, to a reader, seems so effortless and transparent, lacking in artifact and affect.
In this frame of mind I wandered into a small bookstore in Montpelier — Bear Pond Books (now in larger quarters across the street) — and spotted a book in the New Fiction section — Ceremony , by Leslie Marmon Silko. I’d never heard of the book or author, but the earth tones of the dust jacket were attractive to me, and Silko’s mixed-blood Indian heritage intriguing.
Ceremony tells the story of a group of Indian World War II veterans in a way that both describes them and also expresses their own views of their situations. To accomplish this, Silko had to bridge a very considerable chasm: to use the form of the novel and the words that are its medium to reveal a world that arises out of an oral, not written, tradition — one in which signs and omens, and various non-verbal perceptions, feelings, intuitions and sensations carry a weight and meaning unknown to Euro-centric society. I was stunned by the book: Silko succeeded at something so subtle and so profound that most novelists, I felt, would not have even thought to attempt such a thing — let alone have been able to accomplish it. Ceremony did more than revive my faith in the novel: it expanded it.
Years later, in an interview in which she was asked what the most difficult part of being a writer had been for her, Silko responded that she had found the effort to be faithful to the storytelling traditions of her grandparents and other forebears, while committing the words permanently to a page, had been much more arduous than she had expected. It was then that she realized, she said, how disparate the cultures were, and how much effort was required to pull them together — to get some of the content of one into the form of the other.
Discovering Ceremony sparked for me the question of how much other writing there was like this, and had other Native American writers faced the same kinds of challenges and mastered them as convincingly as Silko had done?
I quickly encountered N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn , which had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, and James Welch’s novel, Winter in the Blood . After that, it got more difficult. The anthology The Man to Send Rain Clouds had been published in 1974 and contained short fiction by Silko as well as some writers I hadn’t heard of — Simon Ortiz, Anna Lee Walters, and others. Several anthologies of Native American poetry had also been published in the early 70s — Voices of the Rainbow , Carriers of the Dream Wheel and Come to Power . From these I encountered more writers, many of whom seemed to deal with the kinds of issues of identity — social, political, cultural and metaphysical — that Silko’s book raised.
But there were not many Indian writers, or novels, to be found.
Welch and Silko were among the first of a new wave of Indian writers after Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Since they began publishing to wide critical acclaim, the floodgates have been opened. There are dozens of Native American writers publishing fiction these days, and even more publishing poetry. Louise Erdrich’s novels are bestsellers upon publication. Joseph Bruchac has embarked on an ambitious project to create the first sequence of historical fiction depicting life in America prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
Robert Conley has written numerous well-received Westerns. Paula Gunn Allen has become well-known for both her feminist poetry and her scholarly critiques, while Gerald Vizenor is famous for his postmodern fiction and his literary and cultural criticism. Thomas King has blended a comic sensibility with the tragic historical facts that permeate Native American history to create a modern analogue of the tribal storyteller — whose words remember and honor the past and also provide a means of healing from the injuries of it. Martin Cruz Smith is a bestselling thriller writer. And Sherman Alexie — poet, novelist, screenwriter — was named by both Granta magazine and The New Yorker as one of the 20 best young American novelists. As James Welch wrote, comparing the present day to the time when he and other young Indian writers like Silko and Ortiz were working in near-total isolation from each other, “now you can’t shake a tree without two or three Indian writers falling out. And the best part of this renaissance is that these writers are good.”
Native American writers have become ubiquitous and important in a wide enough variety of fields and disciplines that it almost begs the question as to whether there really is a “Native American literature” any more, or if these writers deserve to be considered simply as “writers,” with no ethnic qualifier. There is no one answer to that question, I think, but the fact that Native American literature has the possibility of aspiring to, and sometimes even achieving, a kind of cultural transcendence that the mainstream literature cannot generally approach, because of its being rooted in the prevailing cultural assumptions, suggests that we would do well to remember the sources of this work, even when the form no longer requires that those roots be visible. Native American literature should be seen, I think, as not a subset of American literature but an expansion of it. The best writing by Native American authors has shown us a kind of transcendence we didn’t even know was possible, and a kind of redemption we didn’t even know we needed.