Leslie Marmon Silko writes stories that are derived directly from the oral tradition of storytelling prevalent in the Laguna Pueblo culture in which she was raised. She does so in an attempt to keep alive the stories that celebrate her culture and ancestry. Within Silko’s most anthologized story, “Yellow Woman,” originally published in The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians (1974), a story within a story exists. “Yellow Woman” begins with the present-day story of a young woman who leaves her family after she is seduced by an unfamiliar man she meets beside the river. The past continually interrupts this present-day story, however, as the narrator reminds the reader of the legend prominent in Pueblo culture about the Yellow Woman and ka’tsina spirit, or Whirlwind Man. Myth and reality become blurred when the narrator wonders whether she, too, has been possessed by this spirit, and whether Silva, the man she meets, is really the legendary ka’tsina spirit. It is the clash between the past and present in this story within a story where the tension exists as the Yellow Woman must negotiate the fl uid boundaries that exist between past and present, myth and reality.
Yellow Woman must come to terms with her place within these two stories and ultimately reach some conclusions about her status within her Pueblo culture as well as her place within the Yellow Woman legend. Within this negotiation is born her own search for identity as a woman who is committed to a life as a wife and mother and one who struggles with the strong sexual desire that draws her toward Silva, who may be the legendary ka’tsina spirit. When the Yellow Woman leaves the riverbed to go north with Silva, she questions her status as Yellow Woman when she states, “I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I’ve been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw.” Whatever the reason for her inability to leave Silva, she realizes that she cannot separate her experiences from those told in the Yellow Woman story. She accepts that she will be identified as a Yellow Woman when she thinks about her grandfather, who would say that she was “Stolen by a kat’sina, a mountain spirit.” Her story becomes one of the many volumes in the Yellow Woman legend, and she must accept this new identity and her new role. While on one level the story can be read as one of seduction and romance in which the narrator meets a handsome stranger on the riverbank and is lured away by his charm and prowess, on the other hand, a case can be made that the young woman was denied the choice to leave him—possibly through either his sexual or spiritual, almost magical powers that he uses to possess her, or through evidence in the text that suggests that he uses force and the threat of violence to command her. When the two leave the riverbed, Silva holds her wrist “after [she] had stopped trying to pull away from him.” On another occasion, she expresses fear when during a sexual encounter she tries to pull away from Silva but he pins her down while saying, “You will do what I want.” Allusions to her captivity and the possibility of physical violence allow for a reading of this text that supports her unwillingness to leave Silva; however, she seems to be mesmerized by his charm, the magic of new and lustful romance, or the “thrill” of her participation in the long line of stories that construct the “Yellow Woman” myth. For example, she thinks about her family back at home and knows they will be wondering about her but still does not consider returning. Instead, she finds herself caught up in the magic of her experience, and it appears that she is somehow drawn to Silva, unable to leave him even when she is alone and is free to come and go from his home. She takes a walk with the intention of returning home but tells the reader that although she had meant to go home, she found herself back at Silva’s house. She states, “When I saw the stone house I meant to go home. But that didn’t seem important anymore, maybe because there were little blue flowers growing in the meadow behind the stone house and the gray squirrels were playing in the pines next to the house.” Here magic is associated with the natural world that she is temporarily a part of—a world away from her duties as a mother and wife in the Pueblo.
The Yellow Woman never completely loses touch with reality, as memories about her place in the Pueblo interrupt this Yellow Woman’s mythical experience, yet she ignores these intrusions until she finds herself in physical danger. She leaves Silva only after the reality of actual danger interrupts her magical experience after she and Silva are confronted by the rancher when they are on their way to Marquez. Only after she sees that Silva may possibly shoot the rancher does she flee him and make her way back to her family. Here her journey with Silva is over, and her affair ends with a fearful flight. With nowhere else to go, she reenters reality and finds herself back at her home on the Pueblo, left with only the belief that someday she will see Silva again by the river.
In “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective,” Silko informs audiences of the importance of storytelling in her Pueblo culture. She explains that storytelling is a continual process, a process that transcends the boundaries of time. In this essay, Silko stresses that a story is an important part of community history, regardless of the period in history when the story took place or when it is told. Proof that the story of Yellow Woman is timeless exists in “Yellow Woman” as the reader is simultaneously offered the traditional, mythical tale of Kochininako, the Yellow Woman familiar in the Pueblo storytelling tradition, embedded in another, contemporary version of the nameless Yellow Woman of this story. By the end, when the narrator decides to tell her family that “some Navajo had kidnapped me” the reader realizes that in the experiences of this young narrator, another Yellow Woman tale is born.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Barnett, Louise K., and James L. Thorson. Leslie Marmon Silko: A Collection of Critical Essays. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
Jaskoski, Helen. Leslie Marmon Silko: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction Series. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Rosen, Kenneth, ed. The Man to Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories by American Indians. New York: Viking, 1974.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” In Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
———. “The Yellow Woman.” In Storyteller. New York: Arcade, 1981.