I first learned of the poet Joy Harjo during a graduate school seminar on contemporary American poetry in which I studied writers — Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Harjo — who would become essential to understanding myself as a woman, an American, a mother, and a poet. It struck me at the time that Harjo’s poetry in particular touched something more emotional than intellect-centered academe could grasp, and I went on to write my dissertation about the ways contemporary American multicultural poetry like Harjo’s helps us bear witness to traumatic history.
Joy Harjo’s new memoir, Crazy Brave, fourteen years in the writing, continues to explore this theme, but moves from poetry to prose. She retains elements of poetry — for example, naming the four sections of the book East, North, West, and South as a respectful calling of the four directions of sacred balance — and she weaves poems and tribal myths throughout, but her memoir is Harjo’s first attempt to tell her life story from her birth in 1951 until early adulthood.
Crazy Brave actually begins before Harjo’s birth, when she “traveled far above the earth.” The first scene takes place in a car outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Harjo feels herself come alive through the music on her father’s radio and her mother’s transcendent singing.
“Every soul has a distinct song,” Harjo writes, and she says it was her mother’s song that drew her to this life, even as those songs were cut short by abusive and neglectful husbands, chaos and poverty. But Crazy Brave does not simply reenact childhood pain and suffering. Through Harjo’s insistence on the interconnectedness of all soul-stories, this memoir becomes a map, a vision, a brave compendium of what is possible in being human. In Harjo’s work, her mother’s singing lives as songs of healing and survival.
Well-known as a poet, Harjo is also an acclaimed musician who has produced several award-winning albums. I discovered her music on a solo cross-country trip during the first year of my marriage; I bought her first CD, Letters from the End of the Twentieth Century, at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. This music, and all of the music Harjo has produced since then, has become a central soundtrack for my life.
Cassie Premo Steele: In Crazy Brave, you are very careful to tell the truth of your childhood while also honoring your mother and father. Many memoirs don’t do this — out of anger, or for the sake of a dramatic telling. Why was this balance important to you?
Joy Harjo: I believe in the power of words, and that the telling — the speaker, time, place, and intention — alters what has happened. I needed to tell my story and did not want to inflict any more damage. It was tricky. In everything I write, there’s an essential template of integrity and beauty that imposes itself. I’ve noticed it, especially when I veer. I wrestled with this memoir — so much so that it took me fourteen years to write. I also believe that my parents and I came together for core reasons. I am not privy to all those reasons but I honor them despite our suffering together, and I remain close to my parents even though they have passed from this world. I was concerned about what my brothers and sister would think about my version of the story. My stepsister who suffered too at the hand of her father, our stepfather, said that I had kept an even hand [in the writing], perhaps too even. Her comment was, “It was much worse.”
But this is what writing does: tells the truth, but it also creates the truth; it gives us a memory on which to build. In the opening chapter of Crazy Brave, “East,” 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.
In the next section, “North,” Harjo recounts her mother’s remarriage to a belittling and cruel man, her mother’s subsequent disempowerment, and Harjo’s attempt to escape the abuse through school and books. Yet not all her answers could be found in the written word:
And what happened, I wondered, if you read and took in every book in every library of the world, learned the name of every seashell, every war, and could quote every line of poetry? What would you do with all that knowing? Would it be the kind of knowledge that would free you? Or would infinite knowledge bind you with the junky posturings of human beings who didn’t appear to be that wise? And who decided what knowledge was important to know and understand?
With these questions, the young Harjo turns to theater. She finds that stories, when told not just through words but also through action, and in the context of a community, become transformational. As a teen, she returned from school one day with a script under her arm. Her stepfather found the play, beat her, grounded her, and forbade her from auditioning. Soon after, Harjo, like her father, started to drink. She finally left home to study art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 1967, where there was, in addition to art, theater, music, and a growing pan-Indian consciousness, more drinking, drugs, and eventually an unintended pregnancy.
CPS: I heard you speak about the repetition of family patterns during a presentation you gave in my hometown a few years ago. Can you say more about the family patterns that we carry, and our responsibilities within those stories?
JH: When we are born we carry gifts and have tasks. A primary gift and task is caring for the ancestral line into which we are born. Every family has a story. It’s part of a person’s own story matrix. We each have to take care of our part. Every family has themes. We each spring from two family lines, unless we’re adopted, then we add two others. We also have our own soul’s story. We each carry the story forward.
My book For a Girl Becoming (2009) came directly out of my need to heal the cycle of teenage mothers. It is a blessing poem for my oldest grandchild, a granddaughter, who, at the time I wrote the poem, was coming of age. She just graduated from college and did not become a teenage mother.
Words can heal even as they can destroy. And ceremony is a way to invoke healing. They can be simple and direct. We are in a ceremony daily with the sun’s cycle. Many cultures have coming of age ceremonies. Becoming a man or a woman is a powerful doorway. Our children need assistance in making it through this door. For my granddaughter we took her out, as a family, to present her to the sun. We prayed for her. I read the poem for her. We each spoke to her, from elderly tribal relative to the youngest child, giving her words of guidance and love. Then she spoke. We did a giveaway. She presented a gift to each person. Then we had a meal of her favorite foods. Simple. But it made a difference.
In the third section of the book, “West,” a young and pregnant Harjo follows her baby’s father to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where they live near a resentful and unpredictable mother-in-law, and Harjo raises her new son in severe poverty.
As I was reading this section of the book, the lines from Joy Harjo’s song “Equinox” came back to me:
I must keep from breaking into the story by force
for if I do I will find myself with a war club in my hand
I keep walking away though it has been an eternity
and from each drop of blood
springs up sons and daughters, trees
CPS: Has motherhood helped you to heal and learn from your difficult past?
JH: Ahhh, motherhood. I have the most difficulty embracing the story of my own parenting. It is flawed and uneven. Writing Crazy Brave helped me understand the nature of the weave. I am still hard on myself about my parenting. Growing up, I always stated, “I don’t want children and I want to be an artist.” I saw what happened to women who carried creative gifts, women like my mother. I also saw how my mother was conflicted about having children. In all cultures in the world, motherhood is the end goal for women. Our mother loved us, but she didn’t know quite what to do with us. She was born of a mother who in her anger would bring out a shotgun and shoot at her children. Suddenly she had four children and no place for her spirit to thrive.
My son was born when I was a teenager. I made the choice to carry the pregnancy forward. And I did the best by him I could. But as with my mother, battling my own demons often took priority. And unlike my mother, I pursued my art, often at the expense of mothering. My daughter came a few years later. I told her that if she wanted to be born she was going to have to hold on tight because I was who I was, in the midst of creating an art that could assist in growing the spirit of my generation.
My children came through it as fine human beings with integrity, and their own gifts of artistic expression.
In the fourth section of the memoir, “South,” (which Harjo calls “a direction of release”), she leaves her son’s father, enrolls at a university, and comes of age on the “wave of a giant waking consciousness, inspired by the civil right movement.” Native people, women, students: “We were waking up all over the country,” Harjo writes. She falls in love, this time with a Native poet, and they have a daughter. Again, he is a man who drinks and beats her.
She does not leave him immediately, but Harjo’s heart begins to expand and she embraces the art of poetry. One night, as she draws a portrait of her father’s mother, Naomi Harjo Foster, Harjo realizes:
She exists in me now, just as I will and already do within my grandchildren. No one ever truly dies. The desires of our hearts make a path. We create legacy with our thoughts and dreams. This legacy either will give those who follow us joy on their road or sorrow.
Soon after this, while her daughter’s father is away, she watches a Pacific Island shaman on television. He dances and chants to heal and “as he danced, he became the poem he was singing.” Harjo writes:
I knew this is what I was put here to do: I must become the poem, the music, and the dancer. I would not truly understand how for a long, long time. This was when I began to write poetry.
Harjo’s memoir ends at this point of initiation, with the birth of her career as a poet and mother-writer, and with the words, “I followed poetry.”
CPS: Can you continue the story a little further for us? What difficulties did you face in becoming a writer? What advice can you offer Literary Mama readers, many of whom are also mother-writers?
JH: It is most difficult for mothers to take up the writing road. We have little support. Our energy is often the center of the home, the family. So many and so much depends on us that we often have difficulty making time for ourselves. Yet, it’s crucial to our own development as humans. It’s important to have a place everyday to call our own. We have to make it ourselves, no one is going to give it to us. In that place we dream, read, meditate and write. It’s important that it is a daily task. It might be fifteen minutes, a half an hour or an hour, and you may have to do it at 4 AM, like Sylvia Plath, or at midnight. But that place is important to cultivate, to keep.
CPS: What message would you like to leave with LM readers?
JH: We are in a dynamic story field, a field of dreaming. Move as if all things are possible.