Identity Seeking by Storytelling
Storyteller by Leslie Silko is a collection of work of different genres including photographs, poems, stories, interviews and mythology. It is “a unique showcase for Silko’s work” (Salyer). “Storyteller”, the short story bearing the same name with the book, is one of Silko’s finest work. It tells a story of a Native Amerian girl takes her revenge killing the white storeman who murdered her parents and becoming a storyteller in the end. However, as an outstanding piece of work of Native American literature, it is much more than a dark tale of revenge.
Multiple interpretations by critics have been aroused. Jim Ruppert reads the story as an identity seeking process of the main character who “loses the boundaries between objective reality and the story and between the present flow of the story and ideas of the past and future”. Nevertheless, Linda L. Danielson tries to interpret the story from a feminist point of view while extending narrative of the central character to the maintenance of cultural integrity “in opposition to the pressure of white culture”. She believes that Silko is “warning non-Indian readers to beware of the limits of their cultural system”. Similarly, Gregory Salyer also perceives the story highlighting “the bland uniformity of white culture”. Moreover, he argues that losing boundaries between ice and sky symbolizes “the loss of identity” of both individual and Native American culture as a whole. Emphasis of the story has been laid on the importance of “telling the difference”.
Given the cultural background and the text itself, “Storyteller” presents the reality of Native American culture struggling to maintain identity and independence as white culture encroaches. Silko leads readers to see the danger of uniformity of cultures and efforts Native Americans make to seek identity, to regain voice and to keep cultural integrity. This paper discusses how the theme is presented by examining the significance of storytelling in Native American culture, the symbolic meaning of ice, sky and sun and different reaction of characters.
The first thing needed in understanding the story deeply and comprehensively is reading the story in Native American cultural context. In Pueblo culture, storytelling is something predominant. It lies “at the heart of the Pueblo people” (Silko). Differing with definition in western culture, storytelling is “this constant process working on many different levels” (Silko). And the story must be told, as Silko says, “from the heart, unpremeditated and unrehearsed” (Silko). The telling “establishes permanence and maintains the culture” (Evans), the storyteller is “a highly revered member” who “has a unique relationship with the past” (Evans).
In the beginning of the story, the girl is only a listener who has no story to tell. Meanwhile, Grandma has the story about the death of the girl’s parents. The old man never quits telling his story of the bear. The girl asks questions and learns until she decides to make a story of her own, a story “about the red-haired Gussuck” (Silko p.30). She kills the storeman with tricks from the old man’s story and becomes a storyteller who does “not pause or hesitate” and “goes on with the story” and “never stops” (Silko p.62).
Just like the old man, the girl preserved her identity in continuously storytelling. Therefore, Native American culture is maintained in the same way. Refusing the excuse that the attorney makes up for her, the girl insists on telling the story in her own way, the way in which the story must be told and the way the Gussucks don’t understand and never will. It goes the same with the Native American culture. It must keep its integrity and independence resisting the assimilation and reformation of white culture. Only in this way, by telling the story as it is, Native American culture is able to survive.
The theme of cultural integrity and individual identity is best presented by the dominant image of merging of the ice and the sky and the sun. Silko warns people of the danger of cultural assimilation using this image in the very beginning of the story through the girl’s thought and words. “She told herself it wasn’t a good sign for the sky to be indistinguishable from the river ice, frozen solid and white against the earth” (Silko p.1). However, that’s the crisis state that Native American culture faces under the pressure of the white culture. Just like the sky “that were lost in the density of the pale ice” (Silko p.1), Native American culture loses itself in white culture’s infiltration. “The obliteration of contrast is the obliteration of boundaries, and boundaries are what form identity” (Salyer). Boundaries between ice and the sky are what have been lost in the story. They have been “swallowed by the freezing white” (Silko p.54). People are losing their language, traditions, lifestyle and environment that they live in. Everything that defines them and their culture is gradually replaced by new ones of white culture. Both the old man and the girl notice this. They know the threat of white culture and the disastrous result that the obliteration of cultural identity would bring. The image has been repeated several times in their words or through their eyes in the story. The storytellers are more like prophets speaking of their predictions. The old man claims that “it is approaching. As it comes, ice will push across the sky” (Silko p.21). The girl says “That was how the cold would come: when the boundaries were gone the polar ice would range across the land into the sky” (Silko p.44).
Individual is like the sun in the sky. The sun “wasn’t moving; it was frozen, caught in the middle of the sky” (Silko p.4). The sky is “solid as the river with ice which had trapped the sun” (Silko p.4). Native Americans have been lost their identity in the cultural assimilation as ice has already “pushed its way into the sky to seize the sun” (Silko p.48). They have been stripped off their language and abandoned their lifestyle, traditions and everything in their culture which they root in and which make them who they are. Nevertheless, they can never enter into white culture and has no say in the white world. They have been trapped by white culture.
However, the girl hasn’t given up seeking her identity and her own way to go. And she makes it by resisting influence of white culture and telling her story in her own way, a way in which Native American culture depends on for continuity. Her victory is also showed by the same image of the sun, the sun and ice in a contrast between the beginning and the end. At the end of the story, before she starts her story, the girl looks out the window and sees that “the sun has finally broken loose from the ice” (Silko p.60). The sun’s breakthrough and regaining of power symbolize the girl’s success in fighting for identity, integrity and freedom. Although it may be hard to make a great change with one person’s strength since the sun’s light is still “weak and pale” (Silko p.60), it is a start for finding its own place and getting Native American back to its track. The girl knows that white culture could and would be beaten as long as every native American beware of and keep their identity and integrity just like ice will finally “descend from the sky” (Silko p.59). The fate of individual and Native American culture has interacted.
The struggling for identity and integrity is also showed in different ways of storytelling of different people. Grandma keeps the story to herself until the girl asks. Her story is a story in which her role is to accept the result that the Gussuck have arranged. The story ends up with nothing conclusive after the storeman leaves, otherwise, she could tell the girl more (Silko p.39). Instead, she tells the story once and “never speaks of it again” (Silko p.39). The old man is the one from whom the girl learns the rules of storytelling. He keeps telling his story and tells it as it is. However, there’s no audience for his story. He warns people about the danger and how the end is approaching. No one understands or cares. Nonetheless, recognized or not, he possesses his identity and integrity in his storytelling and making his own ending.
The girl is more energetic and initiative in fighting for her own identity. She plans and takes control of her own story which is her own destiny. After the storeman dies as she intends, she insists on telling the story as it is. She refuses the reformation of the white attorney to the story even when telling the true story on the court may cost her life. She understands that “the story must be told as it is” (Silko p.59) just like culture must be kept its way without reconstruction and reformation by other culture. The three characters in the story have struggled to varying degree and ended with different destiny. However, as long as the story is told, the role in the story wouldn’t be dead and Native American culture will live.
All the analysis discussed above aims to clarify the theme of the story and how Silko manage to present rich meaning with a simple story. The significance of storytelling and storyteller in Native American culture lays the foundation for understanding this story. The author’s worries about cultural assimilation and the loss of self identity are best embodied in the image of the sun, ice and the sky throughout the story. Silko suggests her will for fighting and taking control of one’s own fate through different reactions of different characters. “Storyteller” is a wonderful story and a thought-provoking one. As Gregory Salyer puts it, it is a story “not simply entertainment or fantasy but invoke the realities” and “generates death as well as survival”.
Evans, Taylor Charlene. “Mother-Daughter Relationships as Epistemological Structures: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and Storyteller”. Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature. 1996. 87-172.
Salyer, Gregory. “Storyteller: Spider-Woman’s Web”. Leslie Marmon Silko. New York: Twayne, 1997. 58-84.
Silko, Leslie. “Storyteller”. Leslie Marmon Silko. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Ruppert, Jim. “Storytelling: The Fiction of Leslie Silko”. Leslie Marmon Silko. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Danielson, L. Linda. “A Feminist Reading of Storyteller”. Leslie Marmon Silko. New York: Twayne, 1997.
This paper is well organized in three parts with a brief introduction, body part and a sound conclusion. Three reasons have been offered: the importance of storytelling in Pueblo culture, the meaning behind the image of the sky, ice and he sun and different reactions of characters. Other scholar’s opinions and arguments have been acknowledged.