Joy Harjo is a Native American (Creek) poet and musician. I’ve encountered her poetry in a couple of different contexts, and it’s always tough and interesting, so I wasn’t surprised when her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave, was not your usual memoir.
For one thing. Harjo begins before she is even born, “traveling high above the earth,” in a scene when she comes alive through her mother’s transcendent singing. She honors the path she takes from her ancestors to her current life, her own stubbornness, her act of choice, the voices that have always surrounded her. This sense of knowing — knowing her past, knowing her way, knowing more than she has any right to know — suffuses Harjo’s memories. When she ignores that cloud of witness, she suffers; when she listens, she goes according to the way her spirit needs to go, and — sometimes she still suffers. But it’s better.
Harjo tells the story of her early childhood with her beautiful Creek mother, who introduced her to all kinds of music and to singing, and her alcoholic, Irish father, who showed her an unpredictable, angry love and then left her. In one chapter, Harjo describes her last memories of her father. There are two versions. In one, her father makes peach ice cream, and the family “ate of the sweetness until we could eat no more.” In another, her father drank until he became angry, because of his mother’s death when he was a baby, because of his father’s violence against him, and because “he was treated like an Indian man in lands that were stolen away along with everything else.” Which story is true? Both. Harjo never simply recounts childhood suffering. She shows the way every soul is connected to every other — including the deep history of this country and those ancestors — and lets the suffering mean something.
Later comes the story of her abusive stepfather, who stifled her creativity for years into her adolescence, and how she finally escaped him by going to study art at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. There she learned about the power of theater to make literature come alive, and the way story in action can be transformational. She became pregnant, and followed her baby’s father to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to raise the baby in extreme poverty. The rise of Native American civil rights shook her out of a daze, and she left that man for another — one who beat her. She couldn’t find the courage to get free until, as she says, she “embraced poetry,” following her understanding that her depthless panic attacks would never stop until she learned to express what was in her heart.
The memoir is divided into four parts, East, North, West, and South, as a calling of the directions of sacred balance. There are poems, stories, and tribal myths woven throughout it, so seamlessly that if you’re a person who really likes to know exactly what you’re reading at any given point, you will be a little bewildered. But this tapestry is a rich one. This book has so much to say in only about 150 pages that I was sorry, and surprised, to find it ending. Read Crazy Brave, or some of Harjo’s poetry — or, better, both.