After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia, Native American poet Natalie Diaz went on to receive an MFA in creative writing at Old Dominion University. Her first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec deals with a brother’s drug addiction, life on the reservation, and love and sexuality with brutal yet beautiful language. She has received several awards, including a Lannan Residency, and has appeared in numerous journals and magazines.
Diaz’s mother is Mojave and Pima and her father is Spanish. Many of her poems represent her different identities. She recently returned to Mohave Valley, Arizona where she directs a language revitalization program at Fort Mojave, her home reservation. There she works with the last Elder speakers of the Mojave language. She spoke to NBC Latino about community, identity, and what is means to be an artist.
1. How do you navigate your mixed ethnicity? Do you ever feel like your identities battle against each other? How does that shape you as an artist?
In my house, there is enough room for all of those cultures, for all of our religious beliefs, for all of our different kinds of expressions of faith, and so for me that’s exactly the way I write. I can mix images from my reservation with images from my Catholic faith, with words in Spanish, with words in my Mojave language and other influences. It’s given me the okay to go anywhere I want to and to consume whatever I need to along the way to get to what it is that I’m questioning.
2. Some believe that in order to accurately represent your community through art, you must first leave it to gain perspective. Do you think this is true? How has your time away informed the way you perceive your origins?
I don’t think it’s true. I think that there are plenty of artists who have stayed within their community who have done a great job representing it. But for me, moving away from my reservation, moving away from my landscape, that did shape the way I wrote things. It gave me the space I needed to figure out what some of those things meant to me. When I left and came back home is when I realized what my land and my river means to me and my people. I don’t think you have to leave to write accurately or passionately about the place you’re from, but I do think it gives you another path.
3. You played professional basketball for several years. It’s unusual to hear about an athlete turned artist. Have you always written poetry? When did you decide to pursue a writing career?
My final year of playing professional basketball is when I started writing poetry, but I had always journaled. It was a difficult jump at first because I was used to the physicality of basketball. It thought I wouldn’t be able to fill that hole, but what I started realizing is that I could also very physical in writing. I did that with language, but I didn’t realize that connection at first. It was hard for me to take seriously when I was playing basketball because it took up so much of my time and it was strenuous mentally and physically. When I injured my knee, I thought I should possibly pursue something else and that’s when I decided to give myself the space and time to write through an MFA program.
4. So much of When My Brother Was an Aztec deals with self-destruction and despair. Some of the grotesque imagery is described with such beautiful language. How do you perceive beauty?
It’s naive if you think you can shut your eyes to what’s ugly. The only way we can move forward is to find something beautiful, even if that it means we’re just waiting for the next day to come. The only way any of us have survived anything — pain, trauma, hurt — is that we’re able to find something beautiful in it. And even dealing with my brother — sometimes I want to punish him for what he’s put our family through, but then at the same time I see a beautiful boy. He’s my brother and I love him. Even if something is ugly, language is so beautiful that if you’re going to use language to express something, it becomes beautiful.
5. What’s next for you?
I have another manuscript I’m working on. I also have a Lannan residency in Marfa, Texas and I’m hoping that’s going to give me some time to focus on some of those poems. In the next few weeks, I’ll be launching the first part of our Mojave dictionary. I’m also finishing a short story collection and have some poetry readings coming up.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor for The Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Mamiverse. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jezebel, Ms. Magazine, and American Public Media. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or erikalsanchez.com.