Throw Me off the Ledge
Silko gets spacey in new memoir
Review by John Bear
The Turquoise Ledge
Leslie Marmon Silko
Cool, I thought, I can dig on this—not the speed-walking, but the rock-hounding. I like a good stroll out in the heat, looking for a crinoid’s stem or maybe some nice petrified wood. Get that cholesterol moving on through the veins; maybe see a snake.
Silko describes the chemical properties of turquoise as well as the genesis of the word (it means "Turkish" in French). While she’s getting her cardio in, she decides to take an unexpected metaphysical detour. Instead of rocks, we’re suddenly peering into parallel universes and talking with extraterrestrial beings.
The word “Memoir” is in the title, so I went in expecting a story of Silko’s life. And there is some. But talking about speed-walking and then veering off into supernatural phenomena is a more representative taste of things to come.
It reads like reflections written on legal tablets that have been heavily refined, edited. The dust jacket calls it “inventive structure.” I call it confusing.
Finding an ancient grinding stone may lead to a story that a relative told about her elders singing songs while grinding seeds. That in turn leads to a story about how the Coyote character from Laguna lore crashed on the rocks after attaching feathers to himself because he wanted to hear the song. Facts about the history of native peoples in the Southwest are sprinkled throughout. The shifts in place, time and topic are disorienting, though they are more or less connected to one another.
Silko’s nonlinear, cyclical narrative technique echoes traditional Native American storytelling. Throughout The Turquoise Ledge, she attempts to mix science, history, biography and a whole lot of mysticism; the traditional with the modern. But all the pieces never seem to attain synthesis.
It reads like reflections written on legal tablets that have been heavily refined, edited. The dust jacket calls it “inventive structure.” I call it confusing. The Turquoise Ledge doesn't follow the “I was born / I went to school / I had some laughs / now I'm writing about my life” arc. Silko grew up in the Laguna Pueblo, west of Albuquerque. She is of mixed ethnicity and touches on that being problematic. She writes about attending Bureau of Indian Affairs school, a place where the children were forbidden to speak their native language upon crossing an imaginary line out front. It piqued my interest, but then Silko jumps to another topic. She touches on drama, then moves on. I kept thinking, No—go back to the drama.
It’s essentially poetry pretending to be prose. And it just doesn’t work as prose. Three hundred pages of philosophical musings mixed with autobiography is like jumping overboard and hoping you make it ashore. The book’s probably geared more for Silko fans, people already familiar with her work. This is her first long-form work in nearly 10 years and rabid Silko-heads have probably hungered for it. The writing kept me reading, but mostly because I was chasing a story that never unfolded. I had hoped for a New Mexican Angela’s Ashes. What I got was On the Road.