Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Joy Harjo is an internationally known poet, writer, performer, and saxophone player of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation. Her many writing awards include the 2015 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets for proven mastery in the art of poetry; a Guggenheim Fellowship; the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Rasmuson United States Artist Fellowship, and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. In 2014 she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. On behalf of the judges of the Wallace Stevens Award, Academy of American Poets Chancellor Alicia Ostriker said: “Throughout her extraordinary career as poet, storyteller, musician, memoirist, playwright and activist, Joy Harjo has worked to expand our American language, culture, and soul. A Creek Indian and student of First Nation history, Harjo is rooted simultaneously in the natural world, in earth—especially the landscape of the American Southwest—and in the spirit world. Aided by these redemptive forces of nature and spirit, incorporating native traditions of prayer and myth into a powerfully contemporary idiom, her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.” She is Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the fall of 2016, she will assume the Chair of Excellence in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (from author's webpage)
Kirkus Reviews had this to say about Crazy Brave:
A lyrical, soul-stirring memoir about how an acclaimed Native American poet and musician came to embrace “the spirit of poetry.”
For Harjo, life did not begin at birth. She came into the world as an already-living spirit with the goal to release “the voices, songs, and stories” she carried with her from the “ancestor realm.” On Earth, she was the daughter of a half-Cherokee mother and a Creek father who made their home in Tulsa, Okla. Her father's alcoholism and volcanic temper eventually drove Harjo's mother and her children out of the family home. At first, the man who became the author’s stepfather “sang songs and smiled with his eyes,” but he soon revealed himself to be abusive and controlling. Harjo's primary way of escaping “the darkness that plagued the house and our family” was through drawing and music, two interests that allowed her to leave Oklahoma and pursue her high school education at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Interaction with her classmates enlightened her to the fact that modern Native American culture and history had been shaped by “colonization and dehumanization.” An education and raised consciousness, however, did not spare Harjo from the hardships of teen pregnancy, poverty and a failed first marriage, but hard work and luck gained her admittance to the University of New Mexico, where she met a man whose “poetry opened one of the doors in my heart that had been closed since childhood.” But his hard-drinking ways wrecked their marriage and nearly destroyed Harjo. Faced with the choice of submitting to despair or becoming “crazy brave,” she found the courage to reclaim a lost spirituality as well as the "intricate and metaphorical language of my ancestors.”
A unique, incandescent memoir.
From the Boston Globe
‘How the ’60s changed my life” is a long-exhausted narrative, but Joy Harjo might be the one person who could successfully — and thrillingly — revive it. “Crazy Brave” is the story of how Harjo survived abandonment and abuse, an oppressive evangelical church, the temptations of alcohol, and youthful struggles with failed marriages and single motherhood to become one of our most acclaimed Native American poets. But it is also a larger saga about the survival of spirituality and creativity in the face of generations of dispossession, racism, and familial dysfunction.
The dynamic between the individual tale and that of the group is purposeful from the book’s first pages. “We enter into a family story, and then other stories based on tribal clans, on tribal towns and nations, lands, countries, planetary systems, and universes,” writes Harjo. “Yet we each have our own individual soul story to tend.” This has been Harjo’s poetic strategy — to root the stories of native peoples in specific narratives, tales, myths, and images — and in “Crazy Brave’’ it becomes her autobiographical strategy.
Harjo’s own story is as personal as “the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money” and “my mother. holding my small hands in hers, jitterbugging me across her spotless kitchen floor, the sun streaming in on beams of yellow starbursts.” Yet it is also generational: When, at 16, in 1967, she finally escaped her stepfather’s abusive home for the Institute of American Indian Arts, she and her newfound peers “sensed we were at the opening of an enormous indigenous cultural renaissance. The energy crackled. It was enough to propel the lost children within us to start all over again.”
As an intergenerational account, “Crazy Brave” reveals the persistence of alcohol abuse and domestic violence in native communities, as Harjo finds herself, like her mother and grandmother, married to an abusive man who drowns his own pain in alcohol. But it also reveals the persistence of art, as she reaches back for inspiration to her musical mother, storytelling grandmother, and artist grandmother and aunt.
Finally, “Crazy Brave” is the chronicle of a people. As she narrates her own journey, Harjo weaves in water monsters and forced sterilization, the myths and histories that shaped her. Unfortunately, when she waxes most universal, her prose falls most flat. The life truths she declaims hover dangerously near platitudes: “Someone accompanies every soul from the other side when it enters this place. Usually it is an ancestor with whom that child shares traits and gifts.” Fortunately, such declamations are rare and brief.
Studies of resilience have found that a supportive adult usually marks the difference between those who overcome trauma and those who don’t. Many memoirs follow this pattern. But while a few adults reach out to Harjo — notably the arts institute staff — what is most striking about her story is that she repeatedly saves herself, if not always by the safest route.
Harjo’s early childhood in Tulsa was two stories at once: a bucolic domestic idyll created by her mother and the hell of her father’s violent drunken rage. When her mother finally left Harjo’s father, she married a man who also was cruelly abusive. Harjo suffered at home and escaped into nature, books, school, art, and music (but not, notably, writing). When she became a teenager and her stepfather’s attentions became as disturbing as his abuse, she turned to alcohol, but soon realized that she needed to escape for real. She contemplated running away to Haight-Ashbury, but knew that would lead her nowhere good. Instead, Harjo found her way, with the help of her mother, to “Indian school” in Santa Fe. There, “in the fires of creativity at the Institute of American Indian Arts . . . my spirit found a place to heal.”
Yet at school, there were still many stories. Harjo made friends and art, fell in love and discovered the stage, playing a leading role in a student performance that toured the Pacific Northwest. But her brilliantly creative friends cut themselves and drank too much; the townspeople of La Grande, Ore., yelled “Dirty Indians” and threw rocks at the touring students; and when the tour ended, Harjo found herself a hungry, pregnant teenager back in Oklahoma, living with her husband’s mother who was determined to get rid of her by witchcraft.
Still, her instinct for self-rescue pulled her forward. Reviving her “abandoned dreams,” she returned with her husband and children to Santa Fe and art. In Santa Fe, she went to college, studied painting, became involved in Native American activism, and met her second husband, a poet, activist, and terrible drunk. Trying to balance her life as a successful student and caring mother within an abusive marriage, she began to have panic attacks. At that point, Harjo finally discovered poetry and rescued herself once more — or, as she puts it: “It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.” The book ends a few pages later.
“Crazy Brave” tells a story of survival, but stops on the cusp of a story of poetry. If that story is anywhere near as fantastic, terrible, and beautiful as this one, we can only hope Harjo writes it soon.
The 2017-18 Common Reading Experience will culminate with Joy Harjo’s visit
to the FLC campus on February 12 & 13, 2018!
- Monday, February 12
- 7:00 p.m.
- Whalen Gymnasium
Information about other events to follow!
Read the Book & Join the Conversation!