By Abby Wargo
Dr. James Allen Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, described Natalie Diaz’s 2012 poetry collection, “When My Brother Was an Aztec” as a book that is, “forging a future I want to live in.”
On Thursday, Feb. 1 at 4:30 p.m., Diaz came to the Literary House to read from both her book and other more recent poems. “When My Brother was an Aztec” grapples with her older brother’s addiction to meth and heroin, her family, and her heritage.
Between her readings, she offered commentary about the poems, her writing process, and her life.
“I’m interested in the idea of a love poem, and how the anatomy of love and pleasure can exist with violence,” she said.
Before becoming a poet, Diaz grew up on a Mojave reservation in Needles, California. She said that Native Americans comprise less than one percent of America’s population; a statistic she is “shocked” by, calling it “impossible math.”
Diaz talked about the different measures of success that people have for themselves and others, and how being a part of a marginalized group makes success more difficult to achieve. In order to leave the reservation and be successful, she had to have a “gimmick.”
“My gimmick was basketball. I had to be the best so I would have a chance,” she said.
Diaz went on to play professional basketball in Europe.
She also uses other obstacles in her life to better her art.
She described her anxiety and the way that she “spins things” in her mind until they become larger than life, citing her fear of sharks. Her insomnia and anxiety lessen when she calls them by other names, like “desire field.”
She discussed using an “image system” to find distance when writing about difficult issues, similar to Pablo Neruda and Ada Limón. In order to write about her brother, she chose to represent him as an “Aztec” instead of writing about her brother as she knows him.
“I had to find an image system that can hold what I feel about him. I learned to love my brother through the page and let the images become other things,” she said. “The truth is unbelievable.”
Mojave heritage is integral to her self-expression and writing. Diaz discussed the connection between body and words.
“Language has a body and a history, it’s not just a font and text. Taking a language from people is violent,” she said.
Diaz is one of three people who are fully or semi-fluent in the Mojave language, and she is also fluent in Spanish. Both languages are incorporated into her poems.
“Language came about to carry our bodies…Your bodies are engaged with the poems,” she said.
On Friday, Feb. 2 at 5:30 p.m., Diaz returned to the Literary House and led a “TEXTaural” workshop.
Attendees wore blindfolds and listened to her read a poem several times. They were instructed to focus on moments their bodies reacted.
Diaz also played music while participants drew with charcoal and pastel on sketch pads and looked at calligraphy.
Madison Myers, staff writer, contributed to this report.