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. A light breeze accounts for some of the gestures in the porch scenes, and running engines occasionally interfere with the sound. Silko's immediate audience, as identified in the transcript of the tape, consists of poet Joy Harjo with her young daughter, Rainy Dawn, and the Laguna woman Sandy Johnson. Silko is also videotaped at home while telling a story to her sons, Cazimir and Robert. The camera largely focuses on Silko, who for the most part seems undisturbed by its presence, especially in close-ups. Of her interlocutors, Joy Harjo is obviously camera-shy, which limits her reactions to occasional suppressed laughs and hand gestures, such as rubbing her thigh or fixing her hair. Sandy Johnson, on the other hand, gives the impression of being fairly relaxed and at ease and provides active response to Silko's stories.
The camera does not focus exclusively on Silko's house; it roams over the landscape of Old Laguna, alternatively closing in on the mountains, the mesas, the river, the buildings, and the people. The movement of the camera is generally synchronized with Silko's poetry reading, so that it shows the places Silko mentions in her poems:
She looked into the shallow clear water. ("Storytelling") (close-up of the river) Green spotted frogs sing to the river ... (green water) You lay beside me in the sunlight ... (sun) Mountain forest wind travels east ... ("Indian Song: Survival") (mountain)
The landscape shots underscore the indebtedness of Silko's work to her native land. Color video, she tells Per Seyersted, "provides the `feeling' and the sense of the place," and "the `context' or `placing' of these stories which are, after all, so much identified with specific locations around the pueblo" (qtd. in Seyersted 39). Seyersted also reports Silko's involvement in further projects of videotaping readings of her work. It is important to note, however, that in the landscape shots, the camera moves away from Silko's immediate surrounding and interlocutors, resorting to the use of a disembodied overvoice, which runs alongside the landscape. Since the film focuses on one element of the context at a time (either close-ups on Silko and her audience, or panoramic views), it hinders the smooth integration of discourse, setting, and "`the …
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Publication information: Article title: Leslie Marmon Silko: Reading, Writing, and Storytelling. Contributors: Velikova, Roumiana - Author. Journal title: MELUS. Volume: 27. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 57+. © 2007 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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