Book Review: Joy Harjo’s “Crazy Brave”

Native American poet Joy Harjo declares, “I was not brave.” But her memoir is a gift that urges us to enlist our own bravery to step through the doorways in our lives.

Poet Joy Harjo.

Photo by Paul Abdoo/Stringer/Getty Images

Recalling the vision of her birth, the acclaimed poet and performer Joy Harjo declares, “I was not brave.” Born in Oklahoma of uprooted tribes and European wanderers, oil money and hard times, the fire spirit of her mother and water spirit of her father, she had to navigate the dualities of her life. At once self-assured and faltering, she deeply loved those whom she also feared.

But she was conscious of her gift. “I was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration. These were my responsibility.”

Harjo honors this responsibility in her new memoir, Crazy Brave, relating memories, dreams and visions along her journey to find her creative voice and fulfill her destiny. Understated yet forceful, her narrative starts with her childhood, reaches back to the struggles of her Mvskoke/Creek ancestors, and onward to the hope she at last gains through poetry.

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Harjo recounts the shadowy realms of her history and the sparks that illuminated her journey. Her white stepfather’s violent dominance of the family tormented Harjo through adolescence, but she found refuge in books, art, and theater at school, and in the rare peaceful moments she shared with her mother and young siblings. An Indian arts boarding school in Santa Fe allowed Harjo to explore her creativity and escape brutality at home. Surrounded by other artistic classmates from tribes across the nation, she bonded with peers over common hardships that were the enduring results of oppression.

While still a teenager, Harjo gave birth to her first child alone. Scraping by as a single mother and enduring abusive relationships, she strayed far from her gift. Even as she found liberation in the fight for peace and justice for her people, abandoning her voice left her disoriented. After years of living apart from her dreams, Harjo felt she was at the edge of death, caught between panic and love.

Finally finding the strength to pull away from fear and trust the visionary spirituality she calls “the knowing,” Harjo walked through a doorway into a new phase of her life. It was the psychological and emotional breakthrough she needed to focus intently on her creative work.

Harjo’s memoir is a gift that urges us to enlist our own crazy bravery to step through the doorways in our lives, following the knowing that exists within us all.