Readers familiar with Joy Harjo's poetry, or, better, who have experienced her live performances, will recognize a familiar cadence and overarching mythic quality in the voice she creates for her newest work, "Crazy Brave." In a memoir steeped in her Mvskoke (also known as Muscogee) worldview, Harjo relates narratives of abuse, persistence and reclamation that tap into universal human emotions. Harjo's text resonates for and with readers, whether longtime fans or not; as she asserts, "A story matrix connects all of us."
Harjo's narrative situates her individual self within far-reaching communities of past and present, communities that shift and respond as she moves through childhood and boarding school days and into motherhood, marriage and college, in that order. She constructs her memoir in four directions: East, the direction of "sunrise" and "beginnings"; North, direction of "difficult teachers" and "cold wind"; West "the direction of endings"; and South, where is found "release," "fire" and, thankfully for fans of her work, "creativity."
The life story that Harjo shares begins with memories from inside her mother's womb, a place of "transition," as she calls it, in between our own world and a timeless one. Though pre-birth narration might be off-putting for some, those unfamiliar with Harjo would do well to suspend disbelief and let her take them on the journey. The bulk of the book is linear; however, "East," the first chapter, recounts asynchronous stories of her mother and father's doomed relationship; stories of hardships and resilience from Mvskoke, Cherokee and Irish ancestors from as far back as their 1830s forced removal; and the story of her own entrance into this world, "choking and kicking, fighting for air."
One of the more interesting chapters, "North," gives readers a glimpse into Harjo's boarding school experience at the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) during the 1960s. There she finds an outlet for her creative talents in theater, music and painting. The IAIA, unlike the notorious Indian boarding schools that existed from 1879 to the mid-1960s, gives her a positive place to be with other Indian artists and also leads to the birth of her first child and subsequent marriage to the father, when she is just 16.
Harjo takes readers through the tumultuous times of the 1970s Indian rights movement, relating anecdotes about charismatic leaders and days of excessive drinking, but more than the history that surrounds her, Harjo gives readers a glimpse into her own mythic life moments: waking dreams that result in some of her most evocative and important poems. Harjo's poetry, woven throughout, makes this memoir a must-read for her fans and a fascinating door into her world for those new to her work.
Elizabeth Wilkinson is a professor of Native American literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.