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Conversation: Poet Natalie Diaz

Natalie Diaz grew up on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation on the border of California, Arizona and Nevada. She left the reservation to play basketball for Old Dominion University in Virginia and later for professional leagues in Asia and Europe.

While she was in college, she also began to write poetry. Her first collection of poems, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” has just been published. Many of Diaz’s poems deal with the harsh realities of reservation life: poverty, teen pregnancy and meth-amphetamine drug addiction.

Two years ago, Diaz felt a calling to return to the reservation to help preserve the Mojave language, which is rapidly being lost. A profile of Diaz and her language preservation work will air on the NewsHour soon, but here above is sneak peek of our interview with the 33-year-old writer, conducted along the banks of the Colorado River.

You can read some of Diaz’s work here, here and here.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natalie Diaz, welcome, by the banks of the Colorado River.

NATALIE DIAZ: Thanks, welcome to our home.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you grow up with a sense of identity as a Mohave, with a sense of the culture?

NATALIE DIAZ: My father is also Spanish, so we grew up with his grandparents — or with my grandparents, his parents — so we had you a lot of different cultures in my household. So I was exposed to Spanish, exposed to our Mohave culture, and I’m also Pima, from outside the Phoenix area, so we had a little bit of everything in our house.

JEFFREY BROWN: For you, basketball was your passion, and in a sense even, I don’t know, is escape too strong a word? What was it for you?

NATALIE DIAZ: Yeah, I think escape would be a good word, and passion and a lot of other things. It was one way I was able to kind of quiet my life a little bit. Basketball is really big on most reservations, but ours especially. And I think it was kind of my way to navigate between the different cultures on the reservation. If you were good at basketball, you could do anything, you know, you could fit into any group.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we are talking about poetry. Now where does that fit in to among the passions or drive?

NATALIE DIAZ: When I think of writing, to me, I think of a sense of hunger in me. Writing doesn’t ever fully satisfy me, and that’s why I do it. When you feel like you’ve completed something or you really know something, it almost seems like you don’t really need to do anymore, but for me writing is kind of a way for me to explore why I want things and why I’m afraid of things and why I worry about things. And for me, all of those things represent a kind of hunger that comes with being raised in a place like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And many of the poems, of course, in this volume do look at life here.

NATALIE DIAZ: A lot of the images that I’ve grown up with, that’s kind of how I filter the world, through those images, and images carry meaning for me. A lot of the words I use — that’s the way we talk here, that’s the way I’ve learned to express myself or at least to try to express myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there’s good things and there’s bad things, right? There’s humor and then there’s one running theme about a brother who has a serious drug problem.

NATALIE DIAZ: In this community, addiction — it’s almost become something normalized in an area like this, but what I deal with my brother is kind of how he’s affected our family and how that’s changed or altered or wrecked our family structure. I think we just in general in the community I come from, you know, Mohaves are very humorous people and they’ve managed to find a balance between humor even in the face of some of the tragedies and some of the darkness that we live with, and it’s just a way, I think, of surviving. I can’t fix some of the things in my life. I can’t change my brother at this point, but at least I’m able to kind of wrestle with that with words.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about the work you’re doing now to preserve the language. I wonder what is the goal. I mean, it’s not a fluency — I don’t think you’re expecting everyone to speak Mohave to each other in their daily lives, or are you? Or is it more about identity, generally?

NATALIE DIAZ: Well, I think there’s a lot of layers for it. I think the goal in any revitalization program always has to be that we will again speak Mohave at Fort Mohave. That our kids will learn Mohave in their homes. That the babies will hear that as a fist language. And that always has to be the goal. However, in between that, because we know that’s a very lofty goal, and our elders will tell you that and they’re constantly reminding us of the time crunch — we have this many years and we’re supposed to do this, this and this — how are we going to get there, but —

JEFFREY BROWN: It is a race against time in a sense.

NATALIE DIAZ: It definitely is, but in the meantime we have to hit all of those smaller goals, which like for us, working with the high school students. Letting them know that being Mohave is something they carry with them, because for use the most important thing is that when our kids leave, that one, they feel like they can come back, but also that when they leave they’re carrying part of themselves as Mohave, carrying those values with them, and then representing the tribe also when they leave.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Natalie Diaz, nice to talk to you.

NATALIE DIAZ: Thanks, Jeff.

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