Howling for Justice: New Perspectives on Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead

Feb 21st, 2016 | By | Category: 27-3: The Trials of Teacher Education, Media Reviews

Howling for Justice: New Perspectives on Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead Edited by Rebecca TillettEdited by Rebecca Tillett
University of Arizona Press (2014)
240 pages

Review by James Thomas Stevens

Howling for Justice is a welcome addition to critical and theoretical discussions revolving around Silko’s reader-polarizing Almanac of the Dead. While none of topics of criticism is groundbreaking, differing critical lenses and voices offer new arguments to Marxist, border studies, gender/sexuality, environmentalist, postcolonial, and disability discourses. One chapter of particular interest is Keely Byars-Nichols’ essay, “The Black Indian with One Foot: Reading Somatic Difference and Disability in Almanac.” The author shifts topic after a brief discussion of somatic difference and focuses more on the intersections of African and American cultures and religions, while repeatedly expressing what many of the other contributors note: Silko’s persistent reminder of the need for an education of one’s own culture in order to survive. The most “somatically different” character in Silko’s novel, Trigg, the wheelchair-bound businessman, relegated to “chicken in a basket,” gets no mention at all in this chapter about the “extraordinary” body.

Another chapter of interest addresses criticism of Silko’s treatment of her book’s gay male characters. This essay, entitled, “‘Now We Know that Gay Men Are Just Men After All’: Abject Sexualities in Silko’s Almanac,” introduces the term “pornographic objectification” to critically analyze most of Silko’s many characters. Dorothea Fischer-Hornung, quoting Janet St. Clair, writes that Silko’s depiction of homosexual men “engages the reader in a thorny dilemma. Mired in negative stereotype, it offends. On the other hand, the metaphor works.” Fischer-Hornung’s chapter is not thoroughly convincing that the offensive metaphor is warranted; however, it is an intriguing and well-written essay.

Joanna Ziarkowska’s essay, “Disease, Disability, and Human Debris: The Politics of Medical Discourse in Silko’s Almanac,” is both far-reaching and concise, and though it focuses on the healthcare system in the United States and how “it operates as a tool of oppression and discrimination and reflects the racism and classism of contemporary America,” the chapter provides useful information on the two previous topics—somatic difference and abject sexualities. Ziarkowska gives a strong argument that both homosexual discourse and medical discourse in the novel are metaphorical rather than literal, while exploring disability.

Overall, this collection of essays is a thought-provoking read, ending with an afterword—an interview with Leslie Marmon Silko 20 years after Almanac’s release. Howling for Justice would prove immensely helpful to readers, especially college students, struggling to grasp the meanings and possible readings of Silko’s daunting 763-page novel.

James Thomas Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk) is an associate professor and the current chair of creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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