High Tide: Transcontinental, Transgressive, and Transcendental Drug Use in Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (ALA, 2002)

American Literature Association, Palm Beach, CA – 2002

Leslie Marmon Silko in Almanac of the Dead (1991) is quite purposeful in the choices her characters make about the particular drugs that they use and the ways in which they use them. Focusing on cocaine and opiates, I argue that the races of the characters using and utilizing drugs, the historical and pharmaceutical origins of those drugs, and their transcontinental movement form a web of exchange that both reenacts and begins to subvert the colonial project.

In Ann Fallwell Stanford’s exploration of the trade in body parts in Almanac she includes discussions of the role of medicine in Silko’s vision, without directly addressing the many roles that drugs play. Expanding on her definition of medicine to include these roles, I argue that in Almanac users and non-users wield drugs as a weapon in the war over the land with varying degrees of success. Silko suggests that colonizers–believing that drug addicts cannot be agitators–distill coca into cocaine and reintroduce it to the western hemisphere to undermine revolutionary tendencies in the people. The revolutionaries, however, smuggle drugs over colonial borders and direct the financial proceeds from drug sales to finance their war for the land. Drug use also performs a number of perception altering functions when used by both revolutionaries and colonizers. Using psychopharmacological resource texts, I explore the extent to which these portrayals of drug experiences reflect a medical reality. As characters make choices about which drugs to use and when to use them, psychotropic effects, long-term ramifications, availability, social pressure, and the politics surrounding the drug all motivate their choices. In many of these cases, using drugs as a means to an end has unintended consequences. I argue, finally, that these diverse motivations of drug use and crisscrossing movements of the drug trade combine in Silko’s vision in Almanac to create the final wave of revolution.