Joy Harjo

Crazy Brave

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Crazy Brave Summary

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Crazy Brave by acclaimed Native American poet Joy Harjo is a lyrical memoir about her experience growing up with an abusive stepfather, having a baby as a teenager, and finding the “spirit of poetry” through her experiences with spirituality and attending a Native American arts boarding school as a girl. While iterating her varied experiences of love and family, Harjo makes it clear that breaking away from her childhood home was the key to her emotional, spiritual, and eventually artistic success. Harjo’s memoir is an inspirational story from a poet with a keen eye for language.

In Crazy Brave, Harjo offers what she believes her purpose is on earth; in her view, she was alive long before she was born, collecting the stories of the spirit realm. As a child, Harjo was drawn to storytelling and the arts; she knew she was meant to tell the tales of her ancestors and of her people. Unfortunately, like many Native Americans, Harjo grew up on a reservation that offered her little opportunity to foster these artistic passions as a young girl. Born to a half-Cherokee mother and Creek father, her family lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a desolate place that was the end of the infamous Trail of Tears.

Harjo’s father was abusive and an alcoholic. His violent temper and unpredictable behavior eventually lead her mother to flee his home to find a new life for herself and her children. After leaving Harjo’s father, her mother met another man. At first, this man seemed kind; Harjo writes that he “smiled with his eyes” and sang to her mother and the children. However, after marriage, Harjo’s stepfather became controlling and manipulative, and Harjo found herself in another abusive home.

Harjo tried to escape the pain she experienced in her family home through writing and music. Eventually, her talent for the arts earned her admission to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Harjo received her high school education there, finally escaping Oklahoma and of the ongoing trauma that came with living there. In high school, Harjo demonstrated her talents as an artist, writer, and musician. She also learned, from her other classmates and her teachers, about the ways that her culture had been colonized and suppressed by the U.S. Government and the white, European settlers who came to America. From this experience, Harjo began to understand her culture and her ancestry in a new way.

Despite this newfound consciousness, Harjo found herself pregnant as a teenager and struggled as a young single mother of a newborn baby. She struggled to make ends meet, but thankfully, through hard work and her talents as a writer and story-teller, she earned admittance to the University of New Mexico where she received a college education to help her support her child. Around this time, Harjo met her first husband. She fell in love with his poetry, and the way he opened up creative and expressive doors for her that she felt had been closed since she was a little girl.

Unfortunately for Harjo, her husband was a heavy drinker. His erratic behavior tore apart their marriage and their family, nearly wrecking Harjo. She writes about choosing to go out on her own again with her young daughter, separating once more from someone she knew as family. She writes about having to choose to either resign herself to suffering or to become “crazy brave,” in the process embracing a brand new side of her spirituality, reaffirming her purpose in the world, and connecting herself again to the language of her ancestors, whose strength fed her through that challenging time.

Joy Harjo is a preeminent Native American poet and member of the (Muscogee) Creek nation. Her poetry focuses on the traditions and stories of her ancestors and contemporary Creek storytellers. Feminist language, traditions, social justice advocacy, and poetics influence her work. She is inspired by the landscapes of the South and Southwest, where she lives and was raised, and writes frequently about the limitations of language and transcending in the face of hardship. Harjo has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, a Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and in 2017, she was awarded the Ruth Lilly Prize for Poetry. She has written ten collections of poetry, two works of children’s fiction, and the memoir Crazy Brave, which was published in 2012.