Ceremony Found: Sylvia Wynter’s Hybrid Human and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

Abstract: This paper engages Sylvia Wynter’s theory of the hybrid human as a prism for reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony. Wynter’s work aims at decolonizing Western categories of knowledge, positing the notion of an Autopoetic Turn/Overturn to unsettle the coloniality of Man as an epistemo-ontological category. The epistemic break Wynter envisions to catalyze this unsettling involves an understanding of the human as a hybrid species, made up of biological as well as symbolic life, bios and mythos. Such an understanding of the human is revealed in Silko’s novel, as its protagonist, Tayo, undergoes a ritual of ceremonial healing that mirrors Wynter’s Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, disentangling himself from Western modes of knowledge by scripting a new story for himself and his people. Drawing on two of Wynter’s essays that carry “Ceremony” in their titles, my paper explores the intersections between Wynter’s theory and Silko’s fiction. By showing how Silko fictionally reenvisions new futures of being hybridly human beyond the category of Man, this essay points to epistemic pathways of decoloniality not predicated on anger.

Stories in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977) are words made flesh. They exist not in a realm separate from the fictional reality of the novel but constitute and actively shape this reality. Worlds are set in motion through words, just as the mythical figure of Thought-Woman creates the universe imaginatively on the novel’s opening page. Intertwining traditional Pueblo mythology and (post)modern prose, Ceremony depicts the return of its protagonist Tayo as a World War II veteran of the US Army to his native Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. There, he faces a world of colonial trauma, which is compounded by his own experiences in the war that continue to haunt him. The novel traces Tayo’s path to complete the ceremonial healing of his tribe and of his own trauma. His journey leads him first to the traditional healer Ku’oosh, whose methods fail to heal Tayo’s emotional and psychological ills, and then to the more adaptive Navajo medicine man Betonie. The ritual that Betonie performs on Tayo exposes the protagonist to the generative potential of stories—be they the constructive mythological tales of Thought-Woman or those attributed by Betonie to the evil counterforce in this fictional universe, witchery. Only once Tayo realizes the generative potential of all stories, rejects the destructive narratives of witchery, hate, and anger, and embraces his own agency in the mythical tale of his people can the ceremony be completed.

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