A collaboration of preservation and innovation can best describe Leslie Marmon Silko's work. A lover of stories and books, Silko took on the daunting task of codifying the vibrant oral tradition of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Born in New Mexico in 1948 on the Laguna reservation, Silko is of mixed heritage: Mexican, White and Laguna. Her childhood was filled with the rich tales of the Laguna tribe, passed on from her grandmother A'mooh and grandfather Hank Marmon's sister-in-law whom Silko fondly referred to as "Aunt Susie."
In 1969, the year Silko graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of New Mexico, she published her first story, The Man to Send Rain Clouds, for which she received a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant. In 1974, seven of Silko's stories were included in anthologies of contemporary Native-American writers and she published her first book of poetry, Laguna Woman.
In 1978, a documentary entitled Running on the Edge of the Rainbow: Laguna Stories and Poems was released by the University of Arizona. The film portrays Silko telling her stories and reading her poetry, supplementing her written works with the performance aspect that cannot exist in the written medium.
Apart from being a writer, Silko taught at many universities around the United States. She began teaching at Navajo Community College in Arizona, moved to Ketchikan, Alaska, and later taught at the University of New Mexico—her alma mater—and the University of Arizona. Throughout her illustrious career as a professor, she continued to write, releasing her first novel Ceremony while in Ketchikan in the mid-1970s, various short stories and the Almanac of the Dead, one of her darker and more sinister works, in 1991.
The plot, tone and content of her novels varies greatly. Ceremony tells the story of the return home after World War II of a soldier who cannot escape his post-traumatic state and mental anguish. In an effort to do so, he agrees to take part in a traditional Native-American healing ceremony. The The Almanac of the Dead is a gruesome retelling of the colonization of Native Americans.
Silko incorporates Laguna mythology into her writing. Many of her themes relate to the unity of man and nature, healing and rebirth, good and evil, the process of change, the importance of nurturing and identity. Despite the novels' modern setting, the underlying wisdom is that of ancient Laguna thought.
Silko's writing transcends the typical boundaries of genre and is classified as both Native-American folklore and postmodern literature, with glimmers of realism and science fiction and fantasy. Since many of the myths glorify maternal qualities and Laguna Pueblo is a matrilineal society , Silko has been read as a feminist writer as well. She utilizes the characteristics of Native-American folklore that include irony, hyperbole and sexual humor.
Her stories have a cultural feel and lack the anticipated political undertones of Native-American literature, because, as Silko said, "The most effective political statement I could make is my art work. I believe in subversion rather than straight-out confrontation." It is through her art that one can detect a disdain for capitalism, since it inadvertently allows for the abuse of power.
Silko's struggle as a storyteller was translating the dynamic inflections, gestures and tone into writing without stripping away the life of a story. Many of her works are centered around her preoccupation with time in the Native-American sense, time not as a linear progression with a beginning and end, but a cyclical one. In the course of her writings she has also studied the post-Einsteinian physics of time and space. One way this manifests itself is in the structure of many of her stories and poems that are non-chronological and often told through flashback and memory recall.
Silko is also well educated in European philosophy and openly admires Wittgenstein and Spinoza. Those studies have informed her analysis of how language shapes thought and, ultimately, culture.