In addition to being a poet, Joy Harjo is a playwright, artist and musician. She is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and of Cherokee descent. (She’s also an alumna and former faculty member of the University of New Mexico. Rad.) Her memoir, Crazy Brave, is full of beautifully constructed vignettes that weave together the visions, memories, imagination and history of a Native girl growing up in the Southwest in the 1960s. It is the story of a woman, and of strength and how “the spirit of poetry” came to her.
With equal concern for the natural and spiritual realms, Harjo shows us her world by way of the four directions— East, West, North, South—marking each section of the memoir. Although the book follows a fairly linear time frame—it begins before her childhood and traces her life through her early 20s—Harjo transitions between time and space with a delicate ease. It was one of the first things that impressed me about the book. Several of Harjo’s poems, songs and excerpts from her short stories are sprinkled throughout Crazy Brave. They enhance the already-existing narrative with rich, vivid imagery.
In “The Flood,” a short fictional story about a water monster living at the bottom of a lake, Harjo moves seamlessly from describing a late, dark night spent with her mother waiting out Hurricane Carla:
Then my stepfather drove up, and my mother didn’t have to remind me to hurry to my room. We would both have been in trouble if I had been up past bedtime. And he did not like us spending time together.
to the stirrings of abuse that eventually drove her out of her parents’ house as a teenager:
My stepfather was paying more and more attention to me as I grew into womanhood. I did everything I could to stay out of his way. I did not want his eyes on me.
Joy Harjo possesses an unusual ability to describe stark, often disturbing, details with an understated dignity, but she captures awe and beauty just as skillfully. She is “haunted by a paradox: if there was such beauty, then why are we suffering?” While speaking at the Chicago Humanities Festival several years ago, Harjo discussed the impact a mentor had upon her when she was a fledgling poet. The mentor commented that she felt her own writing style “was too beautiful - because she was talking about difficult things...” Harjo said she didn’t know how to reply to the woman at the time, “because [I knew] she was writing her soul language...and I always remembered that.”
Paradox or not, judging from Crazy Brave, Harjo’s memory rings true; she understands perfectly how well pain and beauty coexist, particularly on paper. She has embraced her own soul language. Crazy Brave comes out in paperback on July 29.
Shawna Cory is a lover of books, art and creatures. Oh, and a freelance reporter for the Alibi occasionally!