Joy Harjo is a Mvskoke poet, musician and activist. She is a strong defender of women’s equality and is an active member of the Muscogee tribe. She uses her poetry as a “voice of the indigenous people.” I first encountered Harjo through her poetry and I’ve been hooked ever since. Harjo’s works blend the physical world with the spiritual world. She is almost a mystic, a shaman, a seer. In both her memoir and her poetry she speaks of visions and stories as though they are a part of her life and the spirits of her ancestors.
Harjo’s memoir chronicles her life from before she was born, to when she was fighting in the womb and had to be pulled into this world, to how she finally was able to envision herself above panic and poverty and eventually follow the spirit of poetry. Her storytelling in enchanting and brutally honest. The lesson that Harjo lived and relived is that through the casual abuse, rape, negligence, and fear there is still the ability to transcend beyond that, to let yourself be healed, and to bring healing to others.
While most Native literature is suffused with magical realism (for lack of a better term), Harjo is one of the few who actively sees visions. While other authors create characters like the wise grandmother or the magical elder in their works, Harjo is that character. She is the one who sees into the past of her ancestors. She’s the one who relives the life of her great-grandfather through a vision. As a reader, it is not hard to suspend my disbelief; because I want to believe. I am fascinated by the idea of being able to dream the life of your great-grandmother. I am enthralled at the thought of having sickness being eaten away by an alligator in a dream. I find it mystical and wonderful. Can I honestly say that I believe it without a doubt? Probably not. However, I want to believe; and I think it is the believing that makes it beautiful.
I’ve chosen to pair this with Black Grouse, a smokey-sweet whiskey that finishes with hints of peat and a gentle smokiness. Throughout her childhood, Harjo lived in Oklahoma and everybody seemed to have smoked. She also believed that “all of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potential healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering.” So pour yourself a finger of whiskey, light a cigarette and enjoy this memoir.
“In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, the others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music.”
“I felt the presence of the sacred, a force as real and apparent as anything else in the world, present and alive, as if it were breathing. I wanted to catch hold, to remember and never forget. But the current hard reality reasserted itself. I had to have the house cleaned just right or my stepfather would punish me. So I continued on my path to forgetfulness.”