U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is giving a virtual talk at Connecticut College on September 14 to discuss her memoir, Crazy Brave.
Connecticut College is hosting Harjo as part of a partnership with “One Book: One Region,” a program that was formed to bring together communities in eastern Connecticut to discuss literature.
Jefferson Singer, dean of the college, said the partnership was an effort to create ties between the college and the local community.
Laurie Wolfley, a professor of English at UConn, and a member of the committee responsible for choosing the book, said that Harjo’s memoir was a timely choice. Harjo, as a woman and as the first Native American to be named Poet Laureate of the U.S., said Wolfley, “represents a tremendously marginalized community.”
Wolfley believes that reading Harjo’s memoir will help make people aware of the struggles that Native American communities face. These include problems of drug and alcohol abuse, but also the barriers they have to overcome in order to vote, a particularly relevant issue during an election year.
Connecticut College required all of its 440 first-year students to read the book, which they will then discuss in their first year seminar classes. Singer said he hopes the book will help students gain an appreciation for Native American culture, and recognize the value of art as a way of overcoming hardships and gaining resilience.
Andrew Lopez, a research librarian at Connecticut College and member of the book selection committee, said that he thinks Harjo’s book will make people reflect on their own origins and identities. Lopez said it challenged his own preconceptions about what it means to be American.
“You kind of have to break down all of the stereotypes and the barriers in order to hear her,” he said.
Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She has written nine books of poetry. Her memoir is split into four parts, each named for one of the four directions. In a mix of straight memoir and imaginative, free-form storytelling, she recounts her life experiences: escaping from an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, attending an arts academy for Native Americans, facing teenage pregnancy and living in poverty, and her involvement with the 1960s Native Rights Movement while at the University of New Mexico.
Jessica Franco, librarian at Groton Public Library, also said she thought the book would resonate with the larger community. New London County has the largest Native American population in Connecticut, and is home to three tribal nations: the Mashantucket Pequots, the Eastern Pequots and the Mohegans.
John McKnight, the dean of diversity and inclusion at Connecticut College, is part of a coalition between local tribal leaders and individuals affiliated with the college. He said he received a great deal of support for the project from the leaders of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, where Harjo’s talk was originally supposed to take place, before the pandemic forced it online.
McKnight says that people often leave Native Americans on the pages of history books, forgetting that they are a living, breathing community that exists today. And he says that while Harjo’s story shouldn’t be interpreted as the experience of all Native Americans, he says that there are universal lessons that can be taken from it — for instance, the resolve to survive and the desire to create something beautiful.
This year, in addition to Harjo’s talk, “One Book: One Region” has created five “poetry walks” printing Harjo’s poems on yard signs and placing them at various points along nature trails as a way of encouraging people to get outside.
They also created the “Life in One Line” project, which asks New London County residents to write their own one-sentence memoir. Franco said she has already received some powerful submissions.
“YOU GIVE UP OR FIGHT HARDER,” reads one submission, from 85-year-old L. Hardie. Another, from 26-year-old Erik Caswell in Mystic/Noank: “The closet is empty and I am fully accessorized.” A third, submitted anonymously by a 28-year-old to the library in East Lyme: “As I help you acquire your dreams, I am slowly losing mine.”
Last year, 2,000 people participated in the program, with 800 people attending the author talk. Lopez said he always looks forward to the conversations that come out of reading any one of these books. In his opinion, they are what bring the book to life.
Wolfley believes that Harjo’s ability to be successful despite the difficulties she faced could be an inspiration for high school and college students looking ahead to their own futures. Although she said Harjo’s memoir wasn’t the best book she’d ever read, Wolfley was struck by the authenticity of the narrative.
“She’s a very real person,” said Wolfley. “She makes the same mistake her parents have made, and, as a reader, you want her to do better.”
Harjo’s talk will take place at 7 p.m. on September 14.
Registration is online.