An interview with Natalie Diaz

Leslie Contreras Schwartz
February 8, 2017
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What seems urgent to you right now in your writing life? And as a Mojave and Pima American, how do you handle, balance, or negotiate expectations that you are always a witness to every issue in the Native community?

The body is urgent. The neuropathy in my mother’s feet, the press of my lover’s hips, the ache in my jaw after my root canal this morning, the flinch in my student’s mouth when he said his grandmother passed. The urgency is that we are all connected. Our desires to survive. The urgency is that we are all of the same energy, connected. There is a light in me that is a light in you that is the light in a deer or a jaguar—the energy of life. The beautiful urgency of light, like a thread tethered around all of our wrists, making us touch one another, hit one another, beckon one another.

You write about your family and your community, and the effects of generations of violence and oppression on their physical bodies in the form of addiction, diabetes, malnutrition, disease. How is a writing a form of solace against these experiences, or is it? What does your writing do, for you, when you try to understand, question, and define these experiences?

Writing is an extension of my body. I am seeking the body on the page, even the broken body, even the ecstatic body—even the broken and ecstatic body. I am looking for a field for the body to run in. I am looking for a field where the body might be struck down. I am looking for a field where the body might rest or hide or flee or reap or build a house or set a fire. The body doesn’t want solace—the body wants to be possible.

The page has never solved my troubles, but the page has let me know them better, let me know the body of myself better through those troubles. Maybe.

There are many parallels in the narratives of people of color, such as those you capture in your poems; our experiences with self-destruction, cycles of despair that trap us and our families, as well as an urgency for forms of survival. How are the experiences you try to grapple with singular from other people of color and particular to the Native community, or in particular the Mojave and/or Pima communities?

I don’t believe anything in me is singular. I need to be more than singular. I need to find myself in others, not as a mirror image, but as a wild thing, a thing that is in a forest beyond my self and your self. Maybe because I grew up on a reservation, or in a large family, or always on a team, or as less than 1% of the American population. Or maybe because I believe that the energy in me is the same energy in every other living thing. If I could remember this more, I might hurt people less. I might love people better.

You’ve described writing as a way to deal with a sense of hunger. What questions are you currently hungry to answer for yourself in your poems? How are these questions different from the poems in “When My Brother was An Aztec?”

I am asking myself about love—what love am I building? what love do I deserve? what love can I foster?

I don’t mean a perfect love. I mean the love that helps me get up in the morning and put food in my mouth, or the love that pulls a soapy washcloth across my thigh, or that makes me call my mother, my lover, my friend to say, “I love you.”

I am hungry for the love that is for us, unconditionally, even when we are not good.

Do you consider yourself a poet of witness? What issues emerge out of bearing witness, so to speak, to a Native experience for an audience that includes non-Native and white readers?

I think witness is sometimes a performance, sometimes a distance, so I am skeptical of what witness has become in poetry. Bearing witness is an interesting term. Most people don’t bear it at all, they just look, they just look with their eyes and write with their eyes, and go to sleep.

I don’t believe in empathy. Which might mean I don’t believe in witness right now. Definitely, I don’t believe in empathy. Empathy is selfish. We can’t have empathy for the people we drop bombs on because we aren’t afraid bombs will be dropped on us. Empathy is selfish. If a person can’t imagine (the violence or pain) happening to their body or to a body beloved to them, they can’t possibly understand it. I can go on and on for days about empathy. Lucky for us, I won’t.

You’ve been asked frequently about the relationship between basketball and writing for you, and you are currently curating an anthology of poetry about sports for Prairie Schooner. What are some of the questions that sports bring up about the body, particularly about the body of color, and the female body of color? How do you feel this is an urgent issue to address? How can poetry, like sports, be a form of reclaiming the body of color, holding it up, and honoring it?

The brown body, the non-white body, the poor body, the female body, the queer body, differently-abled body have always been measured by what they can bear, what they can endure of pain and ecstasy. But whose pain and whose ecstasy?

The spectacular brown body. How it swings from a rope. How it breaks when swung at. How long it can hold its breath or a bullet. The fearful and fascinating brown body. How close it can be to animal in its spectacle and glory, in its grief and mourning.

The performance of the brown body on a court, a field, around a track . . . all for the entertainment, financial gain, validation of the white body.

Sports is the intersection, the collision of all of these things. Sports is often the appetite of rich white men. Who owns sports teams? Who sits in the box in suit and ties while the brown bodies fly and break and sweat and glow?

Borrowing Baldwin’s term, my body was my gimmick—it is what got me off my rez. My brother’s body was also his gimmick, it is what he burned down trying to escape.

My strong body, my obedient body, my body that found its gimmick early—run and run and jump and jump. Maybe my gimmick on the page is the same—isn’t the brown body the body I come back to again and again on the page. Or maybe I’m trying to trade in that gimmick for love. Maybe I can—maybe I can’t.

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