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Crazy Brave

by Joy Harjo

Hardcover, 169 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $24.95 |


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Book Summary

This memoir from the Native American poet and author of She Had Some Horses describes her youth with an abusive stepfather, becoming a single teen mom and how she struggled to finally find inner peace and her creative voice.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Crazy Brave


East is the direction of beginnings. It is sunrise. When beloved Sun rises, it is an entrance, a door to fresh knowledge. Breathe the light in. Call upon the assistance you need for the day. Give thanks.

East is how the plants, animals, and other beings orient themselves for beginnings, to open and blossom. The spirit of the day emerges from the sunrise point. East is also the direction of Oklahoma, where I was born, the direction of the Creek Nation.

Once I was so small I could barely see over the top of the back seat of the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money. He polished and tuned his car daily. I wanted to see everything.

This was around the time I acquired language, when something happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world. It changed even the way I looked at the sun.

This suspended integer of time probably escaped ordinary notice in my parents' universe, which informed most of my vision in the ordinary world. They were still omnipresent gods.

We were driving somewhere in Tulsa, the northern border of the Creek Nation. I don't know where we were going or where we had been, but I know the sun was boiling the asphalt, the car windows were open for any breeze as I stood on tiptoes on the floorboard behind my father, a handsome god who smelled of Old Spice, whose slick black hair was always impeccably groomed, his clothes perfectly creased and ironed. The radio was on. Even then I loved the radio, jukeboxes, or any magic thing containing music.

I wonder what signaled this moment, a loop of time that on first glance could be any place in time. I became acutely aware of the line the jazz trumpeter was playing (a sound I later associated with Miles Davis). I didn't know the words jazz or trumpet. I don't know how to say it, with what sounds or words, but in that confluence of hot southern afternoon, in the breeze of aftershave and humidity, I followed that sound to the beginning, to the birth of sound. I was suspended in whirling stars. I grieved my parents' failings, my own life, which I saw stretching the length of that rhapsody.

My rite of passage into the world of humanity occurred then, through jazz. The music was a startling bridge between familiar and strange lands. I heard stomp-dance shells, singing. I saw suits, satin, fine hats. I heard workers singing in the fields. It was a way to speak beyond the confines of ordinary language.

I still hear it.

— Over and over and over.

When you gonna come back, baby?

— Over and over and over.

Why did you leave me?

The god of all things reached

Behind the counter, pulled up a sour dishrag and

Cleaned off the mess.

— We all went tumbling down.

I said, over and over and over.

— We all went tumbling down.

My mother's singing attracted me to her road in this world. It is her song that lit my attention as I listened in the ancestor realm. Secret longing rose up in her heart as she sang along with the radio. The music threading the atmosphere in what was known as Tulsa, Oklahoma, or "T-Town," in 1951 was songs for falling in love, songs for falling out of love, songs to endure the purgatory of longing, or improvisational swing jazz, country, or songs just for the sake of kicking it.

Tulsa was a Creek Indian town established on the Arkansas River, after my father's people were forcibly removed from their homes in the South in the mid-1800s. When they arrived in these new lands, they brought sacred fire. They brought what they could carry. Some African people came with them as family members, others as slaves. Other African people arrived independently, established their own towns. European and American settlers soon took over the lands that were established for settlement of eastern tribes in what became known as Indian Territory. The Christian god gave them authority. Yet everyone wanted the same thing: land, peace, a place to make a home, cook, fall in love, make children and music.

Every soul has a distinct song. Even the place called Tulsa has a song that rises up from the Arkansas River around sundown.

I heard the soul that was to be my mother call out in a heartbreak ballad. I saw her walking the floor after midnight. Though she was crazy in love with my father, she sensed the hard road ahead of them. I heard Cherokee stomp dancers in the distance. They were her mother's people. They danced under the stars until the light of dawn. I saw a young Irishman cross over waters, forced by politics and poverty. He married into the Cherokee people. He is one of her ancestors. Over in the east I saw a hill above the river. There was my mother's dream house. She had four children, two boys and two girls. Everyone had a bed and shoes. No one ever went hungry.

Because music is a language that lives in the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands. Music can help raise a people up or call them to gather for war. The song my mother-to-be was singing will make my father love her, forever, but it will not keep him out of the arms of other women. I will find my way to earth by her voice.

From Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo. Copyright 2012 by Joy Harjo. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.