As part of SALSA’s panel on ‘Español in Contemporary Fiction’ at the forthcoming Irish and British Associations for American Studies conference in Belfast (IBAAS), I’ll be asking how we can open up Leslie M. Silko’s notoriously difficult Almanac of the Dead (1992) by reading it bilingually—with an ear to both the English in which it is written and the Spanish to which it occasionally draws its readers’ attention.
Almanac has become infamous among scholars of contemporary fiction and Native American writing: weighing in at 763 pages, it takes as its subject nothing less than ‘depravity and cruelty’ in the Americas since European occupation began in 1492, and works to prophesy the ‘eventual disappearance of all things European’ (Almanac, 317, 570). Amidst over seventy characters and litanies of horror that range from police torture to child abuse to bestiality, Almanac is a novel that poses serious challenges to its readers, overawing and alienating them in equal measure.
Silko herself has been remarkably candid about Almanac’s complex, decade-long genesis while she lived in Tucson, Arizona. In an essay in Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, she remembers the point at which Almanac began to make her anxious:
In the fall of 1985, I began to feel nervous about finishing Almanac by the time the MacArthur Prize Fellowship ran out. The novel was over one thousand pages in manuscript by then, but I still felt I was only halfway, although I did not dare tell anyone the truth. My first novel, Ceremony, had been published in 1977, and naturally colleagues, friends, enemies, and family were all beginning to wonder. What did I do all day long locked in my office? I can remember a poet advising me that the second novel should be something short and simple in order to avoid the terrible jinx of ‘the second novel.’
Why hadn’t I taken the poet’s advice? (‘Notes,’ 141-2)
As she wrestled to ‘get control’ of her novel, and a new cast of ‘Mexican Indians from the Maya country’ found their way into her story, Silko found herself drawn to a new, seemingly unrelated project:
At this time, Arizona politics outraged me enough that I took a can of spray paint outside and painted graffiti on the wall of a building visible from Stone Avenue. Recall Mechem. Impeach him. Indict him. Eat more politicians, end war, end taxes. My landlord…let the graffiti stay on the wall until Mechem was recalled. After the wall had been whitewashed I decided to paint something nice for the people of the neighbourhood, who had endured the graffiti. The urge to paint the wall became stronger than the urge to sit at my typewriter and wrestle with the new characters…I decided I would paint and just let the novel sit for a few weeks. (‘Notes,’ 142-3)
As will be familiar to anyone who has read her memoir, The Turquoise Ledge, or any of her interviews, Silko’s relationship with her creative process always seems exceptionally instinctual and unconscious. This seems to have been exactly the case with her mural on Stone Avenue:
I don’t know why, maybe because the wall was so long, but I walked outside one day with my paint and I outlined the figure of a rattlesnake thirty feet long. I liked the snake so much that I didn’t want to stop with just the snake figure. I kept painting. The longer I worked on the mural, the better I felt about the novel. I worked some days on the novel, other days painting my mural, which eventually measured forty by twelve feet. As the mural began to work out beautifully, I realized it was somehow a sign to me that the novel would work out also, and I would be able to complete it successfully. (‘Notes,’ 143)
Leslie Marmon Silko, ‘Stone Avenue Mural,’ Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, pp. 150-1.
Silko goes on to suggest that painting the mural helped her pull together a number of ideas about Almanac, and to regain control over her monster-novel:
Gradually, in 1988, I began to realize the relationship between the mural of the snake and the latter part of my novel. The snake in my mural is a messenger. He emerges out of a rainstorm and is surrounded by flowers, birds, and other creatures. His belly is full of skulls. Above the snake I painted words in Spanish as if they had blossomed out of the flowers and plants that grew around the giant snake. The words are in Spanish and this is what they say: ‘The people are hungry. The people are cold. The rich have stolen the land. The rich have stolen freedom. The people demand justice. Otherwise, Revolution.’ (‘Notes,’ 143-4)
Our panel at IBAAS takes as its central gambit the idea that it is not possible to understand the American imagination monolingually. It is with this in mind that my research on Almanac considers what it might mean that Silko needed her mural’s message to be in Spanish: if Silko had to imagine in Spanish to finish her Anglophone novel, what happens when we approach it bilingually? What if the source of the novel’s reputed difficulty is less its Cormac McCarthy-esque violence and more that it is, like Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, using a form of bilingualism to stare down our Eurocentric tendencies? At IBAAS I will be thinking through these questions by reading bilingually those ‘Mexican Indians from the Maya country’ (‘Notes,’ 143) who found their way into Silko’s Almanac.
Thanks to Kiron for getting us started in preparation for the IBAAS conference in Belfast. Can’t wait to talk about this in more depth!
 See particularly Conversations with Leslie Marmon Silko (ed. Ellen L. Arnold) and Howling for Justice: New Perspectives on Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (ed. Rebecca Tillett).