Words have always been a powerful force in Natalie Diaz’s life.
Her storyteller great-grandmother passed on to her the gift of using words so that when Diaz grew up she would be able to express what it was like to love an old diabetic woman with no legs, how it felt to curl up at the foot of the bed where her legs had been and listen to her stories.
“When you are on the playground, or in the gym, run extra hard,” the Mojave/Pima poet wrote in “How to Love a Woman With No Legs.” “Smash your beautiful feet into the ground to punish yourself. People will admire how fast and sure you move. They’ll say you run like you are chasing someone. They’ll say you run like someone is chasing you. Run harder. Soon, they’ll offer you trophies and scholarships. Feel guiltier, because the way you’ve punished yourself for having legs has only made you better.”
After playing basketball for Old Dominion University, where she averaged 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game as a CAA Tournament MVP guard for the Lady Monarchs, Diaz described the experience in “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball”:
“We know how to block shots, how to stuff them down your throat, because when you say, ‘Shoot,’ we hear howitzer and Hotchkiss and Springfield Model 1873.” She described the ball as “a slick, bright bullet we can sling from the 3-point arc with 5 seconds left on a clock in the year 1492, and as it rips down through the net, our enemies will fall to their wounded knees, with torn ACLs.”
Diaz played professional basketball in Europe for four years and returned to Old Dominion to earn an MFA. She found the words to describe her family’s experience in dealing with—or rather, not dealing with—her meth-addicted brother back on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation.
“As a consequence of my brother stealing all the lightbulbs,
my parents live without light, groping.…
“One says rosaries to become a candle.
The other tries hard to be a Coleman fishing lantern
on the bank of a river twenty years away, watching
a boy he loves stab a hook through a worm.”
In another poem:
“No one is surprised when my brother is arrested again.
The guy fell on my knife was his one-phone-call explanation.
(He stabbed a man five times in the back is the official accusation.)”
Diaz, 34, was first published in the North American Review in 2006. Her work was selected by Natasha Trethewey for inclusion in the anthology Best New Poets 2007 (Samovar Press). She received the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. In March 2013, she received a $20,000 Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Artist Fellowship; she is exploring using the money to fund workshops for writers of color.
Though Diaz has always had an appreciation for words, it wasn’t until she attended Old Dominion on an athletic scholarship that she saw them merge with athleticism and saw she could be both an athlete and a poet. Watching her professor, Tim Seibles—whose book Fast Animal was a National Book Award finalist in 2012—read poetry in class was a turning point.
“The way he moved his hands and his body when he read, it was the embodiment of the athleticism of poetry,” she said. “A whole world opened up to me.”
Now Diaz is back at Fort Mojave, working with elders to develop a dictionary of the Mojave language, and words are again revealing their power. Elders are teaching teenagers the language, giving them Mojave names, teaching them the Mojave names for the places and living things with which they share their environment, and the students are going home and passing the teachings on to their families. “It’s bridging gaps between youth and their parents,” she said.
It is a powerful experience, just as Diaz’s debut book, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), was a powerful catalyst for opening up discussion in her family, gave voice to characters in her book and compelled a Mojave language learner to consider whether she, too, could write.
The gnawing pain of which Diaz writes—addiction, bigotry, hunger and “the dark corners of the heart”—resonates with those readers who know or see that darkness every day. This shared identification is what makes her poetry so compelling; she confronts this hard truth and, as she says, “reduces it to something bearable.”
“Our elders have taught us not to be ashamed of our lives, not to hide in drugs or alcohol,” she said. “See the thing. Look it in the eye. Know that you are still here, that you are strong enough.”
Reaction at home to her book was as conflicted as the characters she writes about. When she received the first two copies, she gave one to her family.
“The next day, my mom and sister came over, and I could tell my mom was bothered,” Diaz said. “She said, ‘It just didn’t really happen that way,’ and my sister said, ‘What are you talking about? It did happen that way.’ ”
The truth, Diaz said, falls somewhere in the middle.
“It did happen that way, and it didn’t,” she told ICTMN. “There are many paths to truth. My mom’s truth is the love for a son, the willingness to do anything if it could save him. My sister’s truth was that of a sister and daughter—the frustration of watching a brother give up, the panic at watching a mother be eroded by grief. Both truths are important. I didn’t try to value one over the other, didn’t try to name either as right or wrong. I just chased down images that could lead me toward both.”
Now that she is working with the elders at the language preservation program at Fort Mojave, her life’s pace resembles more a warm day on the river than a drive to the net. “I’ve slowed down,” she said. “When you work with elders, you’re working with people who are not in a hurry. And they talk straight; there’s no b.s. with them.”
It has been quite a journey from home to college to basketball to Europe and back again.
“I spent a lot of time leaving home, so the fact I’m home again is surprising to me,” Diaz said. “But when l think about the work I’m doing, it’s not surprising.”