Crazy Brave: Joy Harjo Found That the Hardest Story to Tell Was Her Own

Accomplished as Joy Harjo is, she found her biggest challenge was to recount her own history, pain and redemption.

This is my heart. It is a good heart.

Weaves a membrane of mist and fire.

When we speak of love in the flower world

My heart is close enough to sing to you

In a language too clumsy

For human words.

—from “This Is My Heart” by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo’s newly released memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012), dances into hard truth.

Her fine crafting of words and deft braiding of mythic visions throughout the text almost—­almost—draw you past the truth of her personal story. That story is harsh and scary, mystical and loving, and, ultimately, triumphant and healing.

Harjo, Mvskoke (Creek), has a broad range of options from which to choose for expressing herself and her stories. The accomplished musician who has released five CDs might use her voice, her saxophone, her flutes (Native and concert) or her guitar to tell a tale. She is also a poet and a playwright, publishing 14 books of verse, children’s stories and prose.

But when it came time to write this memoir, Harjo found she resisted telling the story in any way whatsoever.

“I was horrified by it, actually, at the thought of revealing anything,” Harjo told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I knew what they wanted to hear, and yet what they wanted to hear was not what I wanted to say. That’s why it took 14 years. It was on contract 14 years.”

She knew, though, that tracking the complex path of her life, passing among the dark shadows in childhood of abuse and fear—and love—could be the story that would help this and future generations. “I finally just got out of the way and said, ‘Okay, I give up,’ and I just did the story that wanted to be written.”

She hesitated, perhaps, because while her story echoes that of other women in Indian country, it could reinforce stereotypes for outsiders. Her father’s alcohol addiction and anger, and the physical and verbal abuse of her stepfather, are good examples. But Harjo elegantly reveals the universal human truth beyond the facts, the complexity of relations—how love and fear of her father can live side by side in her heart, and how anger and shame must be released.

“It really needs to be healed. That was part of the impetus,” she said. “I think the story is the story of a lot of Native people and the story of a lot of women.”

Dysfunction within families can make it difficult to become a good parent, and Harjo found that skill later in her life: “By the time I got my grandchildren, I’d learned how to parent.” She wrote a children’s book, For a Girl Becoming, to celebrate the transition into womanhood. Her memoir shows how the arts fueled her own transition.

Harjo’s grandchildren likely will find strength in their grandmother’s memoir. The older generation of Harjo’s family, of course, knew her story. “My daughter said she was familiar with most of it.… My stepdaughter was really happy to see herself in there. My stepsister said the memoir is pretty brutal at times.” But the reality, Harjo said, was sometimes worse than she revealed.

Her story can be brutal. The conflicts with, and physical and sexual threats from, her stepfather raise true fears. But the book is also beautiful in its poetry and language and mystical in Harjo’s interludes and forays into vision and myth.

“The cool thing is that what I’m doing, nobody else is doing; it’s unique,” Harjo said of her storytelling style. She found a balance within the text and a way to express her unique ­vision—a blend of the physical and spiritual. She shifts in the book from the physical world to her internal world. “It’s like having all these materials or stones or shapes and putting them together so they’ll make an architecturally sound structure.”

Harjo has been honored over the years with dozens of awards; in 2011 she was named artist of the year in the Mvskoke Women’s Leadership Initiative Awards and in 2009 won best female artist in the Native American Music Awards. She is planning another CD and also a play.

And there will be another memoir, taking her life from early motherhood up to the present, despite the difficulty she found in writing this one. “But right now,” Harjo said, “that’s the last thing on my mind.”