© 2018 by Undone: A Legacy of  Queer (Re)imaginings. Sponsored by Brown University's LGBTQ Center

Tel: 401-863-3062

  • Facebook - Grey Circle
  • Twitter - Grey Circle
  • Instagram - Grey Circle

Issue 1: Queering Across Borders


American Exceptionalism and Queer Utopias: Charting Queer Time and Space in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony

By John Francis         June 10, 2019

In the forty-years since Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony was published in 1977 there has been constant academic critical study of Silko's debut novel. The novel is a journey, narrated by Thought-woman Ts'its'tsi'nako, which centers Tayo as he undergoes the Ceremony, a cure meant to help him as much as the community. The narrative structure is scattered in time, in space, in medium. Poems intertwine with the prose narration. Memories often recall other memories without recognized methods of demarcation or boundary. Silko's chosen form for the novel can be read as mimicking the state of Tayo's mind. Tayo is recently home from World War II and has post-traumatic stress disorder from his time spent as a Japanese POW. However, there is a possible alternative possible way of (de)constructing meaning from Silko's text. Queer theory takes up many different theoretical approaches and subjects, but recurring subjects are time, space, orientation, and borders. Much queer theory has taught us that in the white, capitalist, heteropatriarchal society there are a few ways to succeed and a great many ways to fail. Success comes through participating within a certain narrative; to perform a role suited you by the cultural hegemony. We respect boundaries and properties, so long as they serve the grand narrative. Within the local setting of New Mexico that narrative is American exceptionalism. This narrative, or witchery, is our white inheritance from the beginning of colonization, imperialism, slavery, genocide, theft, rape, divisions, and a host of crimes. Tayo is a part of that narrative, the son of an outcast Laguna Pueblo mother and an unnamed Mexican or American father, living with his aunt's family on the reservation. The ceremony is necessary, but the ceremony does not cure him, or at least not in the way that drugs and doctors intend. Instead it heals by fostering a disoriented perspective.

It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan:


[Tayo] had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo's skull the way the/witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him. He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud; and the Army doctors would say that the indications of this end had been there all along, since his release from the mental ward at the Veterans' Hospital in Los Angeles. The white people would shake their heads, more proud than sad that it took a white man to survive in their world and that these Indians couldn't seem to make it. At home the people would blame liquor, the Army, and the war, but the blame on the whites would never match the vehemence the people would keep in their own bellies, reserving the greatest bitterness and blame for themselves, for one of themselves the could not save.[1]


Everything builds up to this ultimate resistance to the grand narrative. The ceremony teaches Tayo that to be oriented in time and space is a prison, the physics of boundaries a perverse ordering of things that cannot be so simply shrunken down into individual pieces. Through disorientation, Tayo learns to combat the witchery that insists on a narrative of American exceptionalism, which in turn provides closure to the wounds of war the Army doctors could not cure because...

What She Said:

The only cure

I know

Is a good ceremony,

That's what she said (3).


Jasbir Puar argues that "exceptionalism gestures to narratives of excellence... Discourses of American exceptionalism are embedded in the history of U.S. nation-state formation... These narratives about the centrality of exceptionalism to the formation of the United States imply that indoctrination a la exceptionalism is part of the disciplining of the American citizen."[2] Narratives are stories and stories of nations depend on internal consistency, everyone believing and following the same story. Furthermore, "exceptionalism" paradoxically signals distinction from... as well as excellence... suggesting a departure from yet mastery of linear teleologies of progress" (3). The goal is a shared vision of national exceptionalism, a future that forgets the past:

Thus, the distancing of exceptionalism from empire achieves... twofold results: the superior United States is not subject to empire's shortcomings, as the apparatus of empire is unstable and ultimately empires fall; and the United States creates the impression that empire is beyond the pale of its own morally upright behavior, such that all violences of the state are seen, in some moral, cultural, or political fashion as anything but the violence of empire.[3]


Stories that counteract the United States's mythmaking process damage the narrative of exceptionalism, perhaps none more so than stories from the interior, the stories of queer Americans, of Indigenous peoples, and those that do not fit into the narratives of American exceptionalism. Indeed, throughout Silko's novel, the second half in particular, the reader is constantly bombarded by references to a great many stories. The conflict becomes between the narrative of U.S. exceptionalism and the stories Tayo is attempting to sort through and understand in order to redirect the conclusion.

By Puar's definition of proper subjecthood "whereby subjects (the ethnic, the homonormative) orient themselves as subjects through their disassociation or disidentification from others disenfranchised in similar ways in favor of consolidation with axes of privilege."[4] Tayo, as an already racialized other within his Native community, demonstrates a failure to adhere to the process of adapting "proper subjecthood." First of all, Rocky convinces Tayo to enlist alongside him by calling him brother and "it was the first time in all the years that Tayo had lived with him that Rocky ever called him 'brother.' Auntie had always been careful that Rocky didn't call Tayo 'brother'" (60). Tayo enlists for the sake of his family and not out of support for the political hegemony. On the other hand, Rocky is quick to adapt to the white hegemony surrounding them. At the boarding school in Albuquerque

[Rocky] was an A-student and all-state in football and track. He had to win; he said he was always going to win. So, he listened to his teachers, and he listened to the coach... Rocky understood what he had to do to win in the white outside would. After their first year at boarding school... Tayo saw how Rocky deliberately avoided the old-time ways." (47).


Meanwhile, Tayo is screwed up from seeing Uncle Josiah in the Japanese soldiers that they were ordered to execute. Straight from the American imperialist history is the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." No matter how well Rocky attempts to align himself with those "axes of privilege" he fails and does not come home at all, dying in Pacific Island mud on the Bataan Death March.

Failure and success categorize Tayo's role in the novel. Both he and Uncle Josiah are considered failures as they are tainted by a willingness to adapt and foster change. Both sleep with Night Swan who in turns convinces Josiah to invest in a hybrid breed of cattle that are smarter and more resistant to drought. Failure, according to Jack Halberstam, is a "queer art... [that] turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.”[5] Failure can be one of the “'weapons of the weak' [that] can be used to recategorize what looks like inaction, passivity, and lack of resistance in terms of the practice of stalling the business of the dominant.”[6] Failure opens up the options for success outside of hegemonic paradigm that qualifies success with attributes relating to material and political gains. The queer art of failure is a counter-ideology to American exceptionalism and an escape from the web of hegemonic conformity, which is so necessary for Tayo. When Tayo choose to leave Harley and Leroy to their torturous fate at the hands of Emo and Pinkie it qualifies his ceremony as a success. However, within a heteronormative consideration of common sense, Tayo's ethics are questionable. Already he had nearly killed Emo over his Japanese teeth war trophy, and he could clearly have jumped in and saved Harley. Heteronormative common sense demands that Tayo both intercedes successfully and still complete the ceremony; it is greedy like that.

Tayo's disorientation is revealed within the very first prose paragraph of the narrative:

Tonight the singing had come first... a man singing in Spanish... two words again and again, 'Y volvere.' Sometimes the Japanese voices came first, angry and loud, pushing the song far away, and then he could hear the shift in his dreaming, like a slight afternoon wind changing its direction, coming less and less from the south, moving into the west, and the voices would become Laguna voices, and he could hear Uncle Josiah... but before Josiah could come, the fever voices would drift and whirl and emerge again—Japanese soldiers shouting orders to him, suffocating damp voices that drifted out in the jungle steam, and he heard the women's voices then; they faded in and out until he was frantic because he thought the Laguna words were his mother's, but when he was about to make out the meaning of the words, the voice suddenly broke into a language he could not understand; and it was then that all the voices were drowned by the music—loud, loud music from a big juke box, its flashing red and blue lights pulling the darkness closer (5).

There is a complete lack of grounding, of orientation. He is pulled from place to place, from time to time, from language to language, and person to person. It is almost as if Tayo does not exist outside the mangling disorder of senses. Sara Ahmed asks, "What does it mean to be oriented…? If we know where we are, when we turn this way or that, then we are oriented. We have our bearings. We know what to do to get to this place or to that. To be oriented is also to be oriented toward certain objects, those that help us find our way.”[7] To be oriented is also to have "that lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion... depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, or routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition."[8] Tayo is anything but oriented because "orientation" does not work for him. Ahmed similar describes affective disorientation as “affect aliens,” “the one who converts good feelings into bad.”[9] In effect, there are two particular orientations within Ceremony, the bars along Route 66 and Gallup, and the empty spaces in between places. Tayo's drunken journeys with Harley and the boys--which are filled with familiar faces, places, and stories--only worsen Tayo's sickness. Stories appear to orient Tayo. When he sets out to find the Mexican cattle Uncle Josiah purchased he magically navigates by way of a poem about Kaup'a'ta who captured the stormclouds. The journey starts by following "the wagon road to Laguna, going by memory and the edges of old ruts... there were transitions that had to be made in order to become whole again, in order to be the people our Mother would remember" (157). "Transitions" is such an odd term, so deeply rooted in storytelling. Tayo arrives by means of a poetic transition, a story that allows him to jump from point "A" to point "B." He arrives at the place where he will find Old Betonie's stars. Furthermore, memories of Josiah and Rocky guide him to the cattle. Ahmed would perhaps call this a queer phenomenological moment; "a queer phenomenology might involve an orientation toward what slips, which allows what slips to pass, in the unknowable length of its duration... a queer phenomenology would function as a disorientation device."[10] Things that slip, that are slippery, are memories, the stories that are not written down and repeated verbatim, but those that evolve and change with each new act of remembering. Growing up, "from childhood to young adulthood, Tayo and Rocky are distinguished by the things... given them out of which to construct their respective places in the larger social world," as Mullins writes. (Mullins 38). Rocky is given things that allow for him to orient himself along American exceptionalism, while Tayo is denied those objects and must orient himself manually, which is why transitions, stories, and poems are so necessary to his orientation.


Tayo is in many ways not a person. Noizumi Irei describes Tayo's progress through the novel as "not the story of Tayo's search for identity... [but] his process of becoming.”[11] Matthew Mullins says something similar:


Ceremony reveals whiteness, Nativeness, and Americanness as in-process markers of individual and collective identity, as Tayo builds his identity out of the materials he encounters throughout the novel. But it is noteworthy that Tayo's construction of the social is also represented as an expansion of the ongoing construction of identities that has been in process for generations.[12]


Both scholars point to Tayo's act of becoming, which Mullins more effectively pushes to symbolize Tayo's becoming as part of a larger account of becoming. Becoming runs counters to identity, speaking to an unending process that only exists from moment to moment. Identity is more of a claim of a stable nature, of something that is unchanging and unyielding. Time is a factor in both becoming and orientation, "[it] reminds us that orientations are effects of what we tend toward, where 'toward' marks a space and time that is almost, but not quite, available in the present... we can see the path as a trace of past journey.”[13] What is more E. L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen argue

Queer theory's involvement with time signals its persistent speculation in questions of becoming as the processes of unforeseeable change. With the notion of queerness strategically and critically posited not as an identity or a substantive mode of being but as a way of becoming, temporality is necessarily already bound up in the queer. This temporality... is not that of chronos, of linear time... rather, the contingencies of the queer might be closer to the time of kairos, the moment of opportunity" (8-9).[14]


Queer time is about living out of sync from straight time; for recognizing all that straight time entails. Tayo cries, "the relief he felt at finally seeing the patter, the way all the stories fit together—the old stories, the war stories, their stories—to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distances and time" (229; emphasis added). The reason Tayo has to find Josiah's cattle is because they wander from place to place for water. They are difficult to contain, to fence in, to capture. The cattle symbolize the free-range and opportunistic nature of queer time, ignoring boundaries, borders, and ownership. But this is the moment. Tayo has spent the entire novel believing in his own insanity on the basis of a set of rules made to suppress queerness, but he sees it and recognizes the process of becoming is not just an act of the individual, but a collective one. "From that time on, human beings were one clan, again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them... united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away" (228). The atomic bomb has reunited all humans into one clan; we all share the same fate when faced with such massive destruction that Tayo sees at the atomic testing site. In the post-nuclear society, everything and everyone is much closer.

Tayo locates Uncle Josiah’s cattle based on the fence:

“He rode miles across dry lake flats and over rocky cerros until he came to a high fence of heavy-gauge steel mesh with three strands of barbed wire across the top. It was a fence that could hold the spotted cattle… and the people knew what the fence was for: a thousand dollars a mile to keep Indians and Mexicans out; a thousand dollars a mile to lock the mountain in steel wire, to make the land his” (174).


The land is claimed, segmented, and protected by border fences. So Tayo cuts through the fence. With a simple pair of wire cutters Tayo cuts through the thousand-dollar fence set up by the white man, a symbol of American exceptional prosperity, and penetrates the rancher’s private lands. This act reveals the truth of the land, the borders are unnatural, the fence a perversion of control over the natural pathways of unending earth. Karen Piper argues, “White culture appropriates territory… A parcel of land… is considered empty before it has building on it – it is valuable only for the possible things and events that may occur upon it.”[15] Land use value signals the capitalist worth of empty spaces, needless to say, this is the reason so many vast stretches of deserts and deserted islands hosted nuclear weapon tests; the U.S. Government decided that was the only value such land had. Piper goes on to claim that “in the Laguna understand, the landscape is a character, or characters – and to eliminate the land is to eliminate the story itself.”[16] In such an estimation of Laguna belief, the fence that Tayo cuts through frees more than just the Mexican cattle, but the land itself. Piper concludes

 “[Tayo’s] walk… strips governmental designations and embraces the patterns and land perceptions of the old people. Walking… functions as its own form of writing, a geographical inscription in which a dialectic between land and feet sets the terms. Tayo’s walk is a remembering, a self-remembering and a place-remembering, which is necessarily a violation of white legal landscapes” (494-495).[17]


Just as Silko’s text, the story told by Thought-woman, ignores the normative structure of novel writing, Tayo penetrates boundaries and territories to demonstrate how artificial they are, a challenge to the logic of capitalist notions of private property and land ownership.

Kevin Concannon describes Ceremony as “Silko’s refusal of this utopian vision of postcoloniality—symbolized by the recovery of a long-ago, precolonial past—that leads her to conceive… of the ‘state’ of the postcolonial as more uncertain… it is a ‘state’ that offers the possibility of short-term improvements—avenues of self-determination or increased mobility… but… these improvements are constrained by the creation of even more broad-ranging means of surveillance and control.”[18] I believe, however, that Silko does offer, through Tayo’s journey, a glimpse of some utopian dream. In Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz defines queerness as “an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.”[19] Here everything comes full circle. Ceremony gives voice to certain aspects of queerness. Tayo’s combat with witchery is done for more than just his sake or his tribe’s sake, but for all of us. What leads him that fateful night to abandon Harley to his fate is a utopian dream assembled from fragments of his past, the land’s past, and his people’s past. He hoists himself out of the negative Native narrative imposed by the witchery of hegemony and he imagines a future, a past, and a present, all of time coalescing within every experienced moment:


The ride into the mountain had branched into all directions of time. He knew then why the oldtimers could only speak of yesterday and tomorrow in terms of the present moment: the only certainty; and this present sense of being was qualified with bare hints of yesterday or tomorrow… The ck’o’yo Kaup’a’ta somewhere is stacking his gambling sticks and waiting for a visitor; Rocky and I are walking across the ridge in the moonlight; Josiah and Robert are waiting for us. This night is a single night; and there has never been any other (179).


Not even distances are able to withstand Tayo’s powerful unbecoming as he realizes that “the mountain outdistanced their destruction just as love had outdistanced death. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones” (204). Despite all the white doctors with their white medicines telling Tayo he is mad, it is this precise disorientation that allows for Tayo and us to see the artificiality of a logic derived from an embrace of imperial capitalist witchery. The next step is finding our own way out of the narrative of exceptionalism that traps us.


[1] Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 235. Future citations for this work will be given parenthetically.

[2] Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 5.

[3] Ibid, 8.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] J. Jack. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 88.

[6] Ibid, 88.

[7] Sara Ahmed, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology” in GLQ, vol. 12, no. 4 (2006), 543.

[8] Ibid, 555.

[9] Sara Admed, The Promise of Happiness, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 49.

[10] Ahmed, “Orientations,” 566.

[11] Nozomi Irei, “Storytelling and Writing in ‘Our Time’” from Symploke, vol. 25, no. 1-2, (2017), 273.

[12] Matthew Mullins. “Material Foundations: Retheorizing Native Writing and Social Construction in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony” from The Arizona Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 3, (2014), 37.

[13] Ahmed, “Orientations," 554.

[14] Queer Times, Queer Becomings, ed. McCallum, E. L. and Mikko Tuhkanen (New York: SUNY Press, 2011), 8-9.

[15] Karen Piper, “Territory and Identity in Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony”’ in American Indian Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3, (1997), 486.

[16] Ibid, 486.

[17] Ibid, 494-495.

[18] Kevin Concannon. “Deer-hoof Clackers and Coke Bottles: The Construction of the Postcolonial Nation in Leslie Marmon Silko’s ceremony.” Ariel, vol. 35, no. 3-4 (2004), 184.

[19] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1. 

John writes queer speculative short fiction in their spare time in addition to queer oriented research. A recent graduate of Monmouth University's English Literature Masters program, they hold a previous graduate degree in Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London.