'Manhattan Is A Lenape Word,' And Other Poems Looking At Native Americans' Struggles NPR's Leila Fadel talks with author and poet Natalie Diaz about her new book, Postcolonial Love Poems.

'Manhattan Is A Lenape Word,' And Other Poems Looking At Native Americans' Struggles

'Manhattan Is A Lenape Word,' And Other Poems Looking At Native Americans' Struggles

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NPR's Leila Fadel talks with author and poet Natalie Diaz about her new book, Postcolonial Love Poems.


Natalie Diaz is a former basketball player, a member of the Gila River Indian tribe and a poet.

NATALIE DIAZ: (Reading) Native Americans make up less than 1% of the population of America, 0.8% of 100%. Oh, mine efficient country.

FADEL: In her latest collection, "Postcolonial Love Poem," Natalie writes about what it's like to live in a land that holds the legacy of her tribe's near genocide. Here's the rest of one of those poems. It's called "American Arithmetic."

DIAZ: (Reading) I do not remember the days before America. I do not remember the days when we were all here. Police kill Native Americans more than any other race. Race is a funny word. Race implies someone will win, implies I have as good a chance of winning as who wins the race that isn't a race. Native Americans make up 1.9% of all police killings, higher per capita than any race. Sometimes race means run.

I'm not good at math. Can you blame me? I've had an American education. We are Americans, and we are less than 1% of Americans. We do a better job of dying by police than we do existing. When we are dying, who should we call, the police or our senator? Please, someone call my mother.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, 68% of the collection is from the United States. I am doing my best to not become a museum of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. I am begging, let me be lonely, but not invisible. But in an American room of 100 people, I am Native American, less than one, less than whole. I am less than myself, only a fraction of a body. Let's say I am only a hand. And when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover, I disappear completely.

FADEL: Natalie Diaz, tell us about this poem. You end on the words, I disappear completely.

DIAZ: One of the questions I'm asking in this poem - it has a lot to do with visibility and invisibility. And that last line there is my question about, can I possibly subvert my invisibility? So for example, love, tenderness, pleasure, sexuality - those are some of the more intimate ways that I might be able to subvert the gaze of America or the Western gaze that's often placed on Indigenous or native peoples. And so what does it mean to be visible through pleasure, but also, what are the ways that I can stay private and intimate and whole in ways that America can't necessarily surveil me?

FADEL: I mean, and the numbers you're using here are so stark in the way that you're using them, too, to almost talk about being less than a person.

DIAZ: It's one of those paradoxes, you know, how we've been fractioned or divided by country or nation. I really was questioning, can I use those statistics in a way that doesn't always make me less than, or can I find another side of those statistics to be present in a way that's unexpected?

FADEL: So you're Mojave, a registered member of the Gila River Indian tribe. You're also Latina, and you grew up along the Colorado River. So much of your identity, all these parts of your identity, are woven into the poetry. What were the themes that you wanted to convey?

DIAZ: The largest theme or question or inquiry I was making was, you know, in Mojave, body and land are the same, you know, (speaking non-English language). When we're talking about either in our language, we say the word (speaking non-English language). And so it's a different way of carrying oneself when you know that you're connected to something much larger than you.

I wanted to kind of bring those questions. What does it mean to think of loving every body that I come in contact with? - the body of a beloved, the body of land in general, you know, my river as a body. And I think primarily who I wanted to love the most was my own. And the way that I did that was to let me be all of the things I am.

FADEL: There's also within your book a lot that you write about water and the connection of body and water. One of those poems, "The First Water Is The Body" - I was wondering if you could read a passage from it.

DIAZ: (Reading) If I was created to hold the Colorado River, to carry its rushing inside me, if the very shape of my throat, of my thighs is for wetness, how can I say who I am if the river is gone? What does (speaking non-English language) mean if the river is empty to the skeleton of its fish and the miniature sand dunes of its dry silten (ph) beds? If the river is a ghost, am I? Unsoothable (ph) thirst is one type of haunting.

FADEL: In this poem, you describe to us how deep the connection is between the physical river and the body. And the Colorado River is drying up. For so long, people who don't live off the land - you know, they haven't really understood, maybe, that connection. And I just wonder now that climate change and water and the Earth is part of this daily conversation in politics, what is it like to see it go mainstream?

DIAZ: I mean, it's frustrating, right? You want to say, like, finally. However, I also think there's something in it that has always been in many native communities. I know it's definitely been in the community I was raised in, in that we have always seen the connection. And for me, I know that I'm a part of something. I'm responsible for something in the same way that life, that earth, that water is also responsible for me.

I feel so lucky, one, to be working with my elders and my teacher, in particular Hubert McCord - or Ahmoch Chumee Mahakev (ph) is his Mojave name - because I feel like if they spent a few hours with him and could hear him talk about what the Colorado River means to us - that it's running through our body, that we are made of it, that it belongs to us as much as we belong to it - I feel like they would never look at a river the same way again. I feel like they would never think that the river is not something that they must take care of.

FADEL: Is that what you're trying to do with this poetry - is to share all that you have in that way?

DIAZ: I wish I could take a little more credit for the trying part. I think it's all I actually have to offer. And I think, you know, the way I was taught is that you try to dream what you have to dream. I mean, we say that. We say (speaking non-English language). And it means that - you know, it means to dream well, but it doesn't mean, like, to go to bed at night and sleep. It means that there are things waiting for you that you will arrive at. And you must do them, you know, because they've been dreamed for you. There's an energy there.

I don't know where the gift of poetry came from, but I do know it's in me and it's mine. And I don't know that I have a lot of, you know, hopes or necessarily intentions other than to say these are the things that are in me that I'm thinking about or wondering about. And if I let them out, somehow they might connect with someone else's energies. And maybe we can all have, like, a better tomorrow at some point.

FADEL: Natalie Diaz is a poet and author of "Postcolonial Love Poem." She spoke to us from member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Ariz.

Thank you for sharing your poems with us.

DIAZ: Yeah. (Speaking Spanish) for your time.

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