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Campus Classics

Feb-March 2009

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Derrick R. Spires shares his thoughts on teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony.

I love using Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony as the first novel when teaching courses focused on literary form and the past. From the start, Silko forces us (my students and me) to think more reflexively about what we expect from something called a novel. It's a bit like watching my students play Tetris, but with a twist. They're trying to put all of the pieces together from the start, but the pieces seem to fall at random; they twist and curve rather than fall in line. The unraveling of Tayo's narrative his war experience, his young life, his return home, his return to psychic wholeness becomes a group project. It inspires "Aha! I got it!" moments, followed by "hmmm." I usually ask students to seriously close read the opening poetry. Consider how one narrative and narrative form informs the other. Some seemingly basic structural questions begin to open a new way of reading: What happens when we let the narrative structure guide us rather than trying to impose our own order on it? How does Silko's way of guiding us into Tayo's world offer new ways of experiencing and reading our own? What are the stories that need telling in our own lives? Suddenly, the two-dimensional Tetris looks more like the spider's web, one we are not meant to unravel. Rather, Ceremony invites us to re-vision, to see where and how we fit, what stories inform our lives and why. So much is going on, that writing about the novel becomes more about exploring ideas than fulfilling an assignment most gratifying.

Derrick R. Spires
American Studies Fellow
Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities
Vanderbilt University
Course: Literature: Forms and Techniques