Leslie Marmon Silko: Reading, Writing, and Storytelling

By Velikova, Roumiana | MELUS, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Leslie Marmon Silko: Reading, Writing, and Storytelling


Velikova, Roumiana, MELUS


Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems, a video film issued in 1978 by the University of Arizona as part of the series Native Literature from the American Southwest, features a combination of storytelling and poetry reading sessions interlaced with Leslie Marmon Silko's commentaries on the characteristics of the Laguna Pueblo oral tradition. The video is an important document in that it functions as an oral counterpart to Silko's published work especially because all the pieces Silko reads or tells in front of the camera also appear in some version in her 1981 collection of stories and poems, Storyteller. The film, therefore, provides a unique opportunity for exploring the dynamic relationship among oral storytelling, reading, and writing in Silko's work; it allows for mapping out the specific changes which occur when the oral performance is codified in writing, as well as when the written version of an oral story is reintroduced into the performance context of the poetry reading.

The relationship between oral performance and written text (and between oral and literate culture) has long been a matter of controversy. Folklorists have frequently complained that the inadequate transcription of oral texts, which leaves out their extratextual characteristics, renders these texts flat, and allows for gross misinterpretations of their stylistic features and aesthetic value (Fine 4-15, Tedlock 32). In an attempt to promote a performative approach to transcription and translation, Elizabeth Fine systematizes the different channels available in oral performance and in print. On the performance side, she lists three broad groups: (1) aural: linguistic (phonemes, morphemes, and words) and paralinguistic (vocalizations and voice qualities); (2) visual: kinesic (bodily movements), artifactual (use of objects), and proxemic (physical setting); (3) tactile and olfactory (senses of touch and smell) (115-33). Aside from the linguistic nature of the print medium, Fine sees only two channels--and fewer options--for transmitting the oral performance into writing: (1) digital: analphabetic (letter abbreviations) and alphabetic notations; (2) iconic notations (typeface and symbols) (134-45). Clearly, even a faithful use of notations cannot fully recreate the oral situation. At their worst the transcripts are difficult to read; at best they are an approximation of the original performance, which can never be exactly reproduced (nor need it be, considering the importance of context-specific improvisation in many oral performances).

While she derives her poetry from oral storytelling, Silko does not make much use of the iconic notations that Fine and other theorists have suggested, but her poems nevertheless exhibit a number of features that mark them as originating in oral performance. (1) In my attempt to single out and analyze these features, which get transmitted between the oral and the written medium (and vice versa), I use transcript approximations of her videotaped performance and employ iconic and marginal alphabetic notations to record important extratextual variables, such as voice qualities and bodily movements, on the part of the performer and her audience.

Before mapping the various patterns of transformation occurring in the movement of texts between the oral and the written medium, it is important to consider the constraints of the video production within which reading and storytelling take place. An educational video, conceived as a representation of one poet's relation to her native oral tradition, Running on the Edge of the Rainbow is a combination of scripted and improvisational, oral and literate, formal (literary) and informal (conversational) bits, all of which unfold in the presence of a film crew on location, to the extent that photography and film editing allow. The video is comprised of material shot on March 26-31, 1976 on the porch, inside, and around Silko's adobe house in Old Laguna.

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