Natalie Diaz on the Mojave Language and Where English Fails Us
Dahr Jamail Talks to Diaz About Building a Lexicon
I first met Natalie Diaz during the fall of 2015 when we were both in a writing residency in the high, arid desert of far west Texas. During that time in Marfa, Natalie was frenetically busy, as her remarkable book of searing poems, When My Brother Was an Aztec, had won an American Book Award, and she was already working on material that would be in her second book, Postcolonial Love Poem, which was published in 2020. That book went on to become a finalist for the National Book Award and the Forward Prize in Poetry, and won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
A Mojave and enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, Natalie was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River, a river which she is deeply connected to. While sharing meals throughout our residency discussing literature, politics, and love, Natalie’s precision and passion around language was immediately apparent.
As an accomplished athlete and former professional basketball player, she told me then she believed in the physical power of language, how words have, literally, a physical energy. The fact that she was a linguist before she became a poet underscores the visceral weight she places upon each word she chooses to use, whether it be in a personal conversation or in one of her incredible books.
In addition to teaching at Arizona State University and writing poetry, Natalie actively works to preserve the Mojave language with its last remaining speakers. For Natalie, the stories of her elders are more important than her own writing.
Hence, it is no surprise she went on to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and has received fellowships from the Lannan Literary Foundation, the Native Arts Council Foundation, and Princeton University. Natalie is a member of the board of trustees for the United States Artists, where she is an alumnus of the Ford Fellowship. She is the director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University, where she teaches in the MFA program. In 2021 Natalie was the youngest poet ever elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
We spoke with her while she was working back home on the Fort Mojave Reservation in Arizona, and began by asking Natalie to talk about grief, since it is one of the themes of her writing.
“I think a lot about the English language, and I think it exists in a state of emergency,” Natalie replied. “What I mean by that is that within the English language, many of us are forced to be in a state of emergency. Sometimes that emergency is visibility because we need to be seen. Sometimes there’s a difference between presence and visibility. And in this particular moment, we need to grieve, and the English language and lexicons we have been given for grief teach us that it’s not natural to grieve.”
She paused, looked out a window for a moment, then continued.
I think we are seeing the world itself grieve right now. I know my river grieves. I know it grieves after a flood or a storm, or when something wrong has been done to it and it’s trying to clean itself. For example, our river, the Colorado, which is the river my tribe is named for and also where I grew up at Fort Mojave, is around 1,500 miles long. It has nineteen dams along it. A lot of invasive fish were restocked in most areas for sport fishing, destroying the natural habitat. They try to build hatcheries, to return some of our traditional or native species fish; however, the river is too deep and cold now, because it’s been channeled and dammed. So the few times they’ve tried to put those fish from the hatchery back into our river, it’s like the river just grieves their absence and turns them belly up on the surface. That’s also a kind of grief because our world and our practices of living have moved so far away from literal life, which is of course very much connected to the land and to the water.
Natalie went on to discuss how this disconnect arises from how we’ve been taught that life is about what we accomplish in a day, that that is what living is.
These disconnects are the chasms we have to cross, and grief is one of those chasms. It’s something I try to find language for because in my culture we have very intensive processes of grief. They’re very ritualistic and intentional. Sometimes we think of a ritual as something that’s only done at a certain time, meaning that after the ritual is done, you can live your life however you want. Or sometimes we’ll misinterpret our practices as being rote, that we’re just doing them, going through motions. But we don’t take grief for granted and have a very intentional way with it.
For example, we don’t do it as often now, but there was a time when you never again spoke the actual name of the person we had lost. Which is an intentional way of caring for that person. You speak around their name. Rather than say their name, you would say what they had done, or you would talk about a travel they had made, or something that they had accomplished, or something that had happened to them, or even how their family was still here. I think of that as being an essential practice of grief.
She said her poem “Grief Work” is very much about those practices. Whether it is the climate or the state of emergency of the English language, Natalie thinks of these as “dislocations.” Because of this, the word migration has become extremely important to her.
The word migration has been weaponized, the English language itself is a weapon, but I have learned to reorganize what we normally consider dislocation. Both words tell of a relationship about choice, about natural conditions, and I want to imagine them both as having the possibility of return. Migration is important to how I think about grief. Migration is a very natural movement of animals, of seeds, and people. Grief is similar to that relationship of homeland. It’s not something you ever leave, but it’s something that becomes a part of you, and it becomes a part of everything else you do, wherever you are. Grief lives in a strange place.
She paused to collect her thoughts, then continued.
It’s an out of time place. Natives are timeless as a natural condition of the worlds we’ve lived, especially because America happened after us in many ways. So there’s a way that, not only in our spiritual beliefs, but in our very now American lives, we’re also out of time, working the way grief works. It’s happened, but it’s always still happening, and it’s also shaping what I do next.
Natalie went on to say that this is one of the ways she “refuses to be prophesied” by the English language and works hard to be capacious in English.
I want to imagine my own lexicon. So the lexicon of the body is paramount. I must find a language and an imagination that allows me as a Native woman, as a queer woman, as a Latina woman, to have a body. Sometimes that body is in grief. My body is its own lexicon and I also fight for a language, in Mojave and English, that helps me to hold it in the space of love. And I don’t mean love as a blanket definition. It’s as violent as any human thing, and also a storm or a river.
Copyright © 2022 by Dahr Jamail and Stan Rushworth. This excerpt originally appeared in We Are the Middle of Forever: Indigenous Voices from Turtle Island on the Changing Earth published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.