Academic journal article MELUS

Exploring the World of the Different in Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead

Academic journal article MELUS

Exploring the World of the Different in Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead

Article excerpt

A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the "normal."

Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera

Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead dramatically brings to life Gloria Anzaldua's layered description of the indeterminate, unfixed nature of the borderlands. Silko situates her dystopic, chaotic novel in the contested locations straddling national, ethnic, corporeal, and ideological boundaries. Much of the theoretical engagement with border texts such as Almanac has drawn from Anzaldua's framework to focus upon the hybrid nature of social and individual identities as a means of investigating the liminal spaces of la frontera. Jose David Saldivar, for example, suggests that understanding culture in terms of "material hybridity, not purity" allows writers and critics to reposition the nation-state as a site within many diverse and intersecting "cognitive maps" (19) rather than as the center of cultural identity. Such cognitive remapping is certainly part of Silko's project in this novel. Through a narrative foregrounding of the histories of indigenous people who consider the US-Mexican border to be illegitimate--especially after the broken promises of Guadalupe Hidalgo--she attempts to destabilize what she calls the "nation-state fiction" (Coltelli 123) of cohesive national perspectives and identities.

However, even as Almanac of the Dead reworks familiar themes taken up by other borderland writers, Silko is intent upon interrogating the limits and exposing the dangers of romanticizing indigenous or ethnic authenticity. Specifically, this essay explores how Silko deploys disability and queer identities to complicate authenticity in two important ways: first, to expand borderland notions of hybrid identity; and second, to ironically expose the cultural erasures of eugenic histories connected to homosexuality and disability--erasures that mirror and complicate current identity politics of border theory.

Silko's novel attempts to push the definitional boundaries of "those who cross over ... through the confines of the 'normal'" (101). Anzaldua's pioneering work has been rightly celebrated for giving voice to women whose experience had been too long relegated to the margins of political theory, yet, at the same time, by privileging a lesbian, mestiza consciousness as "a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes" (101), another form of exclusivity was immediately invoked. In addition, because border theory has grown politically out of Chicano and native resistance to dominant Euro-American culture, many critics have used the borderland/la frontera as an exclusionary site, where one's ethnicity and ideological stance against assimilation become dues of membership. David Johnson and Scott Michaelsen take issue with border theory's encampment in discourses of inclusion and exclusion because "'resistance' locates the border, cites it between 'us' and 'them.'" They argue that if border theory accepts ethnic authentication coupled with prohibitions around participation, border studies itself begins to serve "another purpose: namely ... the dream of purity" (18).

Border theory's interest in authentic identity or other forms of social purity mirrors the central tensions within Almanac of the Dead and becomes germane to the development of Silko's overarching cultural critiques. Geographically centered around Tucson, Silko weaves a complex narrative spanning nearly five hundred years, connecting the continents of North and South America, Africa, and Europe. In this postmodern dystopia, more than seventy characters navigate a social context where disproportionate wealth, exploitative sexuality, and corrupt individualism have subsumed community relationships and collective memory. …

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