by John Coward
“I have only one golden rule: I try to read as widely as possible, so rather than staying in the same mental comfort zone year after year, I like to travel across disciplines and genres and cultures.”
—Novelist Elif Shafak, New York Times Book Review, December 26, 2019
I decided to take Shafak’s advice even before I read the passage above. My idea, hatched some months ago, was simple: to learn more about the lives of others by reading about people very different from me. That notion led me to consider the books of indigenous writers, including Native women, writers who have long been overlooked in the literary landscape.
Native women have made their voices heard, enriching mainstream culture with their storytelling abilities and their original perspectives. One of the most prominent of these voices is poet and performer Joy Harjo, a Tulsa native of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation who was recently named U.S. Poet Laureate, the first indigenous person to hold that honor. Beginning in the 1970s, Harjo has published numerous volumes of poetry (She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War), as well as a one-woman play (Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light), and has recorded several albums (she plays the saxophone and flute).
In 2012, Harjo also published a memoir called Crazy Brave. It’s a unique memoir in many ways, filled with poems, dreams, and visions. It is also unusual because Harjo builds her memoir around the four cardinal directions, starting with East: “East is the direction of beginnings. It is sunrise.” Harjo moves North next: “North is the direction where difficult teachers live. . . . It is the direction marked by the full moon showing the way through. It is prophecy.”Then there’s West: “West is the direction of endings. It is the doorway to the ancestors, the direction of tests.”Harjo’s concluding section is South: “South is the direction of release. . . . It is the tails of two snakes making a spiral, looping over and over, and eternal transformation.”
Within these sections, Harjo tells the story of her childhood in Oklahoma, a time of struggle and family troubles but also of simple joys and her budding imagination. She recalls, for example, playing with bees in a patch of clover when her mother visited with a neighbor. Harjo transformed the bees in her imagination:
They became people in my stories. I set them down on the ground as I imagined a house and the rooms of a house and the stories going on in the house. I moved them as I talked a story for them. One was the father, one the mother. The others were children, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren.
Less happily, Harjo recalls her complicated relationship with her father, who she loved and who loved her, but who later abandoned her and her mother. Then there was her stepfather, an angry man who took out his frustrations—sometimes violently—on her.
There’s much more in Crazy Brave, ample evidence of Harjo’s spiritual and literary gifts. There’s also much in her memoir to educate a reader like me, a white male whose middle-class background in Mississippi and Tennessee is pretty different from Harjo’s. Yet those differences are a compelling reason to read Crazy Brave. Harjo’s life and experiences are unlike my own in myriad ways, but people like me—a person who has benefitted from white privilege all his life—need to hear her voice and consider her perspectives and experiences. The American conversation, which has long been dominated by white males, living and dead, suffers when it ignores such voices at Harjo’s and those of other Native women.
The voices of Native women fill the gaps in the literary imagination, telling stories the rest of us need to hear. More than that, these voices also give us a reason to read. Poems and stories by Native women give us new ways to experience and appreciate the world. They enlarge our own understandings of the human heart and the human condition.
This is a journey worth taking. Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave was my first step; other books by Native women will follow. On my list: Heart Berries, a memoir by Terese Maria Mailhot, a member of the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest, and Bad Indians, a tribal memoir by Deborah A. Miranda, a member of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation in California.
If you’ve never heard of these writers or their work, that’s precisely the reason to find their books and read them.
John Coward is professor emeritus of media studies at The University of Tulsa and a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board. His most recent book is Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press, published in 2016 by the University of Illinois Press.