Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit – Leslie Marmon Silko (1996)

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This is a collection of more than 20 essays that cover author (and English professor) Marmon Silko’s perspective on life for Native Americans (or First Peoples) in the U.S.  toward the close of the twentieth century.

Some of the essays were pretty eye-opening, as despite being an independent minority population of their own, it was clear that this Native American First Peoples tribe of the Laguna Puebla has social justice problems and public health issues akin to other minority groups who have faced colonialism of different types across the world.

Mormon Silko grew up in the Laguna Pueblo tribe and witnessed how the tribe has reacted to modern issues as well as how the group has tried hard to maintain its history and traditional ways. As with any group who has a mostly nomadic history, traditions were mostly passed down orally from, in this case, her grandfather and via the tales of the Spider Woman who was the basis of the Pueblo Creation Myth.

(Side Note: I personally adore this story of how the world was created and how we continue to be linked with one another, no matter who or where we are. (See the myth here for details.) In fact, I love the myth so much that I used it in a speech that I gave on campus just the other day and any time that I’m referring to the importance of collaborative work and everything/one is connected, it comes up.)

Articulate and angry, Mormon Silko’s personal essays are diverse in subject, covering topics from her childhood to Pueblo culture to abuses by the Border Patrol to land and water rights. The introductory essay was pretty academic and needed quite a lot of concentration on my part as a reader – challenging when I’m on the elliptical at the gym! However, the remaining selection of essays was more on the level of a General Reader (as opposed to academic writing for a tenure packet) and so the tone does vary substantially throughout the book.

The vague overall tone was one of anger, and I could empathize with the author on this. I’m sure I’d feel similar emotions if my descendants (and current family) still faced ongoing discriminatory practices off the tribe’s reservation. However, steps towards improvement must have been made since the book was written?

As with the varying tone, the quality of the essays was variable as well – not that there were some weak ones, but I do think that there were some that were much more powerful and strongly written, and the level seemed to decline as the book progressed. (Or was it reader fatigue?)

As with almost any collection of essays, especially those written by an academic presumably enmeshed in the tenure process, and then combined with the usual formulae of a typical university creative writing program, there was some repetition where it was obvious that one essay had been retooled slightly to meet a different objective or journal. I tend to find this repetition annoying as I would argue that doing so was the result of being lazy/too busy/on summer break. Some careful editing would cut this problem out, but who’s the editor when one is a creative writing faculty? Both judge and the jury at times, I think, unless you’re careful.

So overall, a fairly well presented selection that portray a way of life that’s arguably disappearing over the years. Just a few content problems, but nothing that a good editor could not have mended.

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