Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony” was written through a fit of nostalgia.
This fact was especially important to author Danielle Geller, who recently re-read the novel after moving to the Pacific Northwest. In his introduction to the book, Silko wrote from Alaska about how much he missed the desert. Living in the gray winters of Victoria, Canada, and after earning his masters in writing in Arizona, Geller could relate.
Geller joined authors Brandon Hobson and David Heska Wanbli Weiden in a Los Angeles Times Festival of Books discussion in honor of Silko, moderated by poet and Times contributor Rigoberto González. The trio paid tribute to Silko, who received the 2020 Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award for writing about the American West.
Geller explained how Silko’s descriptions of the desert soothed his own homesickness before marveling at the non-linear structure of “Ceremony.” “It shows how trauma really distorts time,” Geller said, “… how the arbitrary distinction between the past and the present disappears.”
The effect resonated with Geller’s experience of his childhood. Her memoir “Dog Flowers” brings back memories of Geller’s troubled family history, documenting how she came to understand her mother, from whom she was separated at 5 years old.
“I started to feel a lot more empathy and sympathy for her,” Geller said of her mother, after learning more about her life through the things she left behind. Accessing her mother’s mayflies – like diary entries of people she dated or what she had for dinner – helped Geller see the parallels between their lives.
“Dog Flowers”, like Hobson’s novel “The Removed” and Weiden’s noir thriller “Winter Counts”, portray people struggling with addictions. Each author spoke about the importance of avoiding stereotypes about Native Americans and drug addiction.
“I wanted to create an honest representation of what is happening on my reservation,” said Weiden, a registered citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. He wanted to recognize the issues plaguing his community and others – to describe them realistically – while making it clear, as Geller pointed out, that studies do not show a greater susceptibility to alcohol abuse among indigenous communities than any other group in the world.
Woven into the authors’ discussion, there was a recognition of the generational trauma that Native American communities still face today. Weiden’s grandmother was taken to Carlisle Indian Industrial School where she was not allowed to speak her language or practice her spirituality. Virgil, the protagonist of Weiden’s novel, wonders what it is like to live free from the burden of the “murdered children, the stolen land, which every Native carries.”
Hobson took these heavy themes in his own dark direction – in an underworld mentioned in many traditional Cherokee stories. “I wanted to take Edgar to the Land of Darkness and see that this place wasn’t much different from where he already was,” Hobson said of his troubled hero.
“The Removed” also draws attention to the land and the trauma it also suffers. The games of gravity throughout the book – like an image of rain rising in the sky – evoke an Earth weighed down by historical memory.
Hobson, Geller, and Weiden have all noted the apparent renaissance of Indigenous writers in today’s literary landscape. Geller observed an encouraging level of solidarity among Indigenous authors – offering everything from advice to cover texts – while Weiden acknowledged contributions from the Institute of American Indian Arts, in which all three authors were involved. The institute’s emphasis on mentoring and dedication to the craft has helped usher in a generation of Indigenous writers – interconnected and supporting each other.
“There’s this culture now that we want to help each other,” Weiden said. “Native people have always been community driven, and I think we’re finally showing it. “