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The Importance Of Storytelling

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2614 words Published: 8th May 2017

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In her insightful essay on the tradition of Pueblo Indian storytelling – “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective” – Leslie Silko displays the huge role that stories play in the life of the ethnic group she originates from, she reveals the importance of storytelling for her family, ancestors, neighbors, closest friends and personally herself. In spite of the title that draws our attention to the concepts of language and literature, the main and central issue of her essay, which first appeared as a speech for delivering before the audience, is story proper.

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Story is not a thing to be told at certain moments in certain circumstances, if we deal with the lifestyle of Pueblo Indians. The whole life of those people is saturated with the multitude of stories and “stories-within-stories”. A Pueblo Indian, from his/her very birth on, hears and listens to the stories, then, growing up, begins narrating them him/herself, and in such a way all his/her life is accompanied by this vivid tradition. Thus, storytelling may be thought of as a texture of their life, for, on the one hand, the entire world and reality are perceived in the light of stories, and, on the other hand, all the collective and individual experience of the Pueblos is transformed into stories and then orally passed on to the following generations. This custom is more than just an equivalent of folklore in European or Asian traditions.

Leslie Silko emphasizes that “a written speech or statement is highly suspect” among her people as it does not allow sharing the feelings appropriately. Mere graphical symbols are not able to express all the copiousness of human experience, but an oral word is. At first sight, it seems somewhat odd for a person reared in European tradition, but if we look back at such ancient celebrities as Socrates who also rejected the written word as contributing to the deterioration of our memory, it becomes not so alien for us as well, although the following epochs established the importance and even the preferable credibility of what is written or typed.

The same may be said about the Jewish tradition, its pre-Talmudic period when Torah she be-al-pe [1] was prohibited from being put down; the same is about early Christian tradition when Gospels were merely told by one person to another; the Vedic period of the Hindus when their sacred texts were recited orally and were not fixed in written form. There could be found much more parallels to the phenomenon of Pueblo story telling in the history of other ethnic groups and civilization.

Leslie Silko goes on and says that, for the Pueblos, “language is story” (Silko 49). It is most clearly illustrated by the fact that many words in the Pueblo Indian language have their own stories. When a story is told, the teller often goes into the stories of words, and thusly a phenomenon of “stories-within-stories” emerges. The story becomes a web that is woven in all directions, which is contrary to the convention of linear step by step narrating in European tradition.

“Language is story, story is language” – that dialectic unity of Pueblo weltanschauung determines the structure and content of their stories and the essay devoted to them in particular.

The basis of any nation’s, ethnicity’s mentality lies in their cosmogonic and theogonic myths, which constitute their collective unconscious, the latter predetermines the style of thinking, living, and interacting of a certain nation. The Pueblo Indians are not an exception here, and the author introduces the “Creation story” for us to understand the peculiarities of Pueblo perception of the universe.

The story is significant both for its parallels and discrepancies with the Biblical creation story; moreover, the latter are more numerous and are worth being mentioned first. The world was created by Thought Woman – Tseitsinako – “thinking of her sisters and, together with her sisters”, she “thought of everything that is” – and there appeared the world. Thus, everything that is immanent in our world is a part of the whole; every element, every constituent of the reality belongs to this whole. The humans are also an inseparable element of the universe and belong to this universal entity. Contrary to the Bible where the world emerges as a result of God’s word, or Logos (Genesis 1, 3; John 1, 1-3), the universe appeared through the thought of the goddess and her sisters, the tight link of humans to the nature are also more apparent in Pueblo Creation story. In the Bible, people are created and let in the Garden of Eden directly by God, in the Pueblo tradition they come into the world due to the hard efforts of the animals – Antelope and Badger.

Such a world outlook determines the monistic perception of the reality, it influences both the language and the storytelling of the Pueblo people. Stories are the part of their everyday life, they are multidimensional, web-like, organized in a complex structure that stretches far beyond chronological or formal logical framework. There are many repetitions, characteristic of the oral speech, digressions, stories-within-stories etc that make their stories a multilayer texture. There are no separate stories in Pueblo folklore – each story is a part of some more general or fundamental story, and the latter in turn constitutes larger stories, so that the whole Pueblo traditional and even modern everyday discourse is one big story with a huge number of smaller and infinitesimal subdivisions.

“The stories are always bringing us together, keeping this whole together, keeping this family together, keeping this clan together” tells us Leslie Silko. The destination of story is thus to preserve the wholeness of the universe. The author gives us three illustrations, three stories that are still being told and re-told until nowadays.

The first one relates about a young man who lost his new Volkswagen and “felt very bad about it”. The structure of the story may be defined as the threefold one: 1) the guy earns money, purchases the car and drives it; then 2) it falls into the ravine and is broken to pieces; 3) there come his friends and relatives trying to offer him consolation. What do they do in particular? They tell stories about the people who also lost their cars in the ravine, moreover, many of them lost their children and parents when their cars were going down into the arroyo. The third part of the story is an essential element of Pueblo storytelling. Those stories join the guy’s life experience to those of the other people, and when put into that context, his loss is (or seems) not so great, he turns out to be relatively lucky, because he shunned the danger of losing his own and his relatives lives.

The stories of the friends and neighbors turn grief into consolation, desperation into hope, loneliness into amiable support. Finally, that guy’s experience joins the common discourse of people whose cars fell into the arroyo, that guy consequently joins those people, he is not alone and that is the greatest consolation possible in such circumstances.

The second story about a girl who drowned herself in Kawaik Lake is more dramatic. There can be also distinguished three parts: 1) girl’s request to her mother to cook her yashtoah, the conditions her mother announces; 2) girl’s decision to get drowned; 3) carrying out her decision and her mother’s return home.

The core part of the story seems to be the second one, for it shows the transformations in the girl’s decisions and intentions. There are also “stories-within-stories” here, and certain periods and details are highly repetitive, they are yashtoah, “I’m going to Kawaik and jump into the lake there” and similar phrases. The girl tells the old man about her quarrel with her mother and her suicidal decision, the man, in turn, goes to her mother and tells her what her daughter is about to do. These stories are so intertwined and interwoven, so organically situated in the context, that it is problematic to take them out of there.

The story is more or less organized in a chronological order, the sequence of events is not interrupted but attention should be paid to the fact that this story was heard by the author of the essay in a modernized version from her aunt. It is a vivid argument that traditions, and Pueblo storytelling in particular, possess a dichotomic nature – on the one hand, they pass the ancient experience of the ancestors on to modern generation, on the other hand, they include the present experience of the people and add them to the common stock of Pueblo history. So, the previous, present and future generations are not separated, they are connected by a strong link of storytelling, which preserves the past and provides space for the future.

What is more, this story “explains” why the butterflies are so beautiful and multicolored. The story of a girl is tightly connected to the biological diversity in the animal world.

The third story happens in modern time, but it is nevertheless organized according to the existing pattern of Pueblo storytelling tradition – numerous repetitions, associations, reminiscences, stories-within-story etc. The woman goes into details of the troubles of her life – loss of husband and mother, hardships of employment etc – but it ends with a glimmer of hope, she meets with her aunt and grandfather, the latter gives her a very dear present – a silver 1907 dollar, which shocks every member of their family.

Later, as she writes, “I kept it for a long time because I guess I wanted to have it to remember when I left my home country”.

The silver dollar presented by her poor grandfather became a material token of her warm memory of her family, childhood and homeland.

Thus, the storytelling does not appear to be “something that is done at bedtime” in the life of Pueblo Indians, it is the essence of their life.

Detaching oneself from the mentioned stories, and having a look at the essay as the whole, it becomes evident that the essay itself is a Pueblo story, although told to the non-Pueblo people.

It incorporates the analyzed stories, it is originally oral, it is saturated with the monistic worldview and it has a fair chance to be incorporated into a larger piece of storytelling and is already the constituent of the Pueblo Indian discourse.

The essay is also peculiar for being addressed to the two worlds – the traditional world of the Pueblos and the modern globalized world. This essay intends to initiate and hold a dialogue between these worlds, to deepen the mutual understanding that may result in mutual enriching of the two distinct cultures.

The author herself and the people she tells the stories of are inspiring examples of the success on this way of reciprocal understanding. She and the characters of the stories are integrated into modern American society, but they did not lose touch with their cultural and ancestral legacy either. Although this view is not in full accord with Paul Lorenz who states that the values of American Indian cultures “have been forced to confront the alien values of European American culture” (Lorenz 59).

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One more important aspect of the storytelling should be paid due attention to as well – the unity of teller and listener. Leslie Silko emphasizes the importance of the latter – “a great deal of the story is believed to be inside the listener; the storyteller’s role is to draw the story out of the listeners” (Silko 51). Ib Johansen, however, views this issue from a bit another perspective – “In traditional societies storyteller plays an important role; he/she is placed at the very center of the community, and his/her activities are considered as essential to the very self-awareness or sense of identity of the community” (Johansen) – it is the teller whom Ib Johansen places as the key figure in storytelling. Here we see a classic example of the European approach.

As it occurs to me, there is not the notion of central or key role / importance in Pueblo Indian world outlook. Important are all the inhabitants and objects of the world despite their role, size, destination; all of them are of equal relevance, all are necessary, all indispensable, all divine.

The monistic and pantheistic approach to life, people, phenomena and objects determines the reverent attitude towards them, on the one hand, and creates difficulties in establishing the hierarchy of values, on the other hand. It is indeed problematic to define what passage is most important in a certain story, or what relations are more preferable – either personal, or tribal, or clan ones.

Paul Lorenz recognizes that the fiction of Leslie Silko “is the product of American Indian, rather than Western, cultural values” (Lorenz 59). Indeed, the very style of her essay shares many common features with the traditional Pueblo Indian narratives. It is evident in her reference to ethnologists and anthropologists who tend to differentiate “the types of stories the pueblos tell” – she says that the people of her ethnic group never divide the stories into classes, “family stories are given equal recognition” (Silko 51).

A distinctive characteristic of the storytelling among this tribal group of Indians is that they attach more importance to what is said than how something is said, the content is more important than the form according to Pueblo weltanschauung. “The particular language spoken isn’t as important as what a speaker is trying to say”, writes the author of the essay. That peculiarity is also marked by Ib Jansen when he retells case of an Eskimo woman accused of killing a storeman.

Thus, the notions of myth, legend, parable, tale and the like are not quite applicable to the tradition of Pueblo storytelling, they are difficult or, even impossible, to differentiate in the context of their culture. The Creation story, Home Country story, the story of the young man’s Volkswagen and the speech of Ms Silko are of equal relevance and credibility in the eyes of Native American. They do not abandon negative stories of their own families and clans; they are always trying to convey the content, essence of the story so that the expressive means retreat to the background. The cosmogonic and sacred myths are as plausible as their own experience in the context of Pueblo Indian Culture.

Summing up, it is reasonable to point out that “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective” and the other works mentioned in this paper focus on the essential characteristics of Pueblo people’s storytelling tradition, they emphasize its monistic worldview, illustrate how several stories may unite into one; their language and the whole life are tightly linked to the stories and cannot be imagined without each other. Pueblo Indian storytelling tradition cannot but be recognized as a truly valuable constituent of the American and world culture.


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