Yesterday, as part of my quarterly Read and Write* offering, we discussed Joy Harjo's memoir Crazy Brave. A student commented on how Harjo really takes into account her own heritage, her family's ancestry, and the overall context of her father and stepfather's situations when she shows her struggles with them.
The student, though you may have already assumed this, because we are trained to do so, is white.
Before getting to how Harjo does this masterfully both in this memoir and in her poetry, I am going to address one of the more painful points white folks almost never discuss with each other, much less in regards to memoir. The white person's tendency is to romanticize the ancestry of people of color, especially Native Americans. If we have any chance of having Native American blood, even if only 1/16th, then we romanticize our own ancestry. This is not the same thing as respecting someone else's origins; this is fantasy and exoticising. This tendency comes from the lack of connection we have to our own ancestry. And that comes from the choices our ancestors made in order to be white. Maybe we haven't actively made such choices in our generation, but at some point, some of our ancestors were given the choice to continue identifying as the nation and culture they were raised in, or assimilate. And because they were what we now call "white" at least in appearance, or close enough, they did it.
We all have heritage. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. White folks, too. We all have lineage - lessons passed on to us, good and bad. We all have culture. It's just that white supremacy renders it invisible to whites. This is the price we pay so we can feel normal, and be able to overlook others, or patronize their culture or ancestry by seeming to compliment it as "genuine."
This is not a "white pride" angle. This is part of what makes white life often feel so desolate, so mechanical and unconnected. It's part of the price we've paid and continue to pay unless we actively choose to turn it around. And in this earlier post, I mentioned an ongoing conversation I have with a good friend about how this also means that in memoir, and in real life, most white folks' stories about their parents and grandparents are negative. There's very little accommodating for context, very little connection to the cause and effect that took generations to get to us. Reading, for instance, these two memoirs by Nick Flynn and Ariel Gore give you good examples of writing about parents as main subjects in memoir with some equanimity that is rare in white family story telling. However, it is without effort (seemingly) that in Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow, he is honest and clear about the faults of his parents, but lacking in the kind of egotistical judgment white memoirists tend to laud onto their parents.
Joy Harjo is a master at writing with equanimity through understanding ancestry.
Harjo had a shitty run with two fathers - her birth father and stepfather were both violent alcoholics. And she loved them. And. Not despite, not yet, but and. Not to excuse, but to understand deeply that the whole situation, from the beginning of human beings, is part of the story. That is a brilliant way to write memoir and understand life.
I leaned against my father. I adored him. And I was afraid of him. Together both of those places lived within me.Harjo spends quite a bit of time really pointing to her family's origins, the tribes and contexts, all the way back (not really that far back, in fact, but farther than most white family's legends go) to the days of colonialization:
These fathers, boyfriends, and husbands were all men we loved, and were worthy of love. As peoples we had been broken. We were still in the bloody aftermath of a violent takeover of our lands. Within a few generations we had gone from being nearly one hundred percent of the population of this continent to less than one-half of one percent. We were all haunted.In high school, at the inimitable IAIA, Harjo writes this experience about being a Native adolescent, which is so universal for anyone who grew up with difficult families - and fathers, but especially for people of color:
We continued to battle with troubled families and the history we could never leave behind. These tensions often erupted in violence provoked by alcohol, drugs, and the ordinary frustrations of being human.There are parallel versions of scenes with her father, one in which he gets home in time and they make homemade ice cream and relax on a summer day - the other where he stays out late drinking and comes home screaming to a disappointed family. Did both happen? Did one or the other? Harry is able to deliver to us all the possibilities, with her simple statement: "the story veers from here."
How can white memoirists gain this kind of perspective? We don't need to take on others' ancestry in order to understand larger context. We can feel the grief of not knowing, as many of us do not. We can get curious about the larger story of sexual abuse, alcoholism, or even the larger lineages of loving nature or art throughout generations in our families. When we approach memoir with the understanding of "wemoir", compassion becomes available to us, and we are able to start to see our whole karma.
One last thing - I am always still looking at the difference between poetry and memoir, and poetry as memoir. As Harjo primarily writes poetry (not prose), I also reviewed a lot of her poetry in preparation for this Read and Write. IN particular, her latest collection, Map of the Next World, has a combination of stories and poetry. In twins meet up with monsters in the glittering city, a long prose poem, Harjo says this about Native fathers:
Our fathers and many of the men of our indigenous nations destroyed themselves with a whirling bright power that was meant to bring new visions to the people. It is still here among us, made strong with every kind act, with the very act of our beautiful survival. Perhaps even the spirits of our fathers have fed this power because their sacrifice showed us the way.This is an amazing tone. It completely respects her fatherss manifestations, including their follies and faults.
Today is Father's Day, which is mixed for a lot of people. Aspiring for equanimity is a long journey, and not one to punish yourself over if you haven't "attained" it.
And keep reading, noticing the way people of all backgrounds write about family, especially their parents. Know there is never one version, and never one person at fault. Ever. Go deeper.
*Every quarter we read a book, usually memoir, to explore its structure, writing style, and get immersed in its language. Next book is Life Work by Donald Hall and we will meet to discuss it September 16.