Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press. Her second book will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016. She is a 2012 Lannan Literary Fellow and a 2012 Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow. In 2104, she was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship, as well as the Holmes National Poetry Prize and a Hodder Fellowship, both from Princeton University, a Civatella Ranieri Foundation Residency, and a US Artists Ford Fellowship.
Diaz teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Rez MFA program and lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she directs the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program, working with the last remaining speakers at Fort Mojave to teach and revitalize the Mojave language. We talked about the beautiful places she enjoys meals, dreams of meat, and how a snake might be the reason she’s a poet.
On her all-time favorite meal:
I’m a sucker for a barbacoa, especially since we live in a hot place, so hot it’s too hot to cook in a kitchen on some days, too hot for the stove or the oven. Enough hot that we grill out and deep pit often—nothing like a cabeza pulled up from layers of earth and hot coals. Carne asada. Chicken fried in the disc—I think my brother cooked meth in my dad’s disc, so we had to weld a new one. The best meat I had was in a cave restaurant in Spain, and it was called solomillo and cooked on a stone with one side salted and seared. I remember that part of the night, and the cave, and the headlights of some of the other diners, and being very full, and then I woke up in Burgos, even though I could have sworn the cave was outside of Valladolid. Maybe I dreamed the solomillo.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
I like a late meal, when the light is actually gaged by how unlight it is, meaning you find yourself almost reaching into the depths of silhouettes of trees or mountains to figure out where you are, what distance you are from them or they from you. In the desert night, light and sky are gaged by darkness—you can see the light of stars best when there are no lights. I like that hour that erases the body of a thing, where you can’t tell the details of a thing, just the emotions it pulls out of you. Like how splayed the mountain line is, or how the mesquite trees bend beneath the weight of so many bone-colored beans, when a jackrabbit in the road is mistaken for a man, a wild boar struck down by a truck looks like a woman with beautiful hair lying on her side. And you begin to feel like those things—tired, blurry, wide-open with your life. You know that time when you can’t find a color that describes the dark? Not blue, not black. Desert darkness. Where the only light is in my brothers’ beer cans and teeth as they open their mouths and laugh, or in the whitened coals of the late night barbecue, or the white white smoke that burns and burns up into the passing hours.
On oranges and chocolate:
Oranges. I crave oranges. Sometimes I eat oranges and oranges and oranges all day. Seven times oranges. They are like drinking from the sweetest brightest coolest river. So orange they are flame blue. Or chocolate. Always chocolate. It’s hard to find good chocolate, so I have to eat a lot of it, to find the good stuff—it’s like work.
On childhood meals:
We always had one or two picnic tables put together, because there were so many of us. We came and went at the table. Said grace: GodisgoodgodisgreatthankyouforourfoodtodayAmendigin. The dreaded days were toward the ends of the months when we would come home from school and smell the beans cooking from the end of the block, and sure enough, when we walked in the house, we were overcome by the humidity of the boil of the biggest, black-bluest, most speckled pot of beans anyone has ever seen. Do you know those black-blue speckled pots? They are like deep space pots. Like the beginning of a universe pots–swirling, hot, gaseous, swelling pinto beans. Infinity frijoles is what my brother called them, because we could eat and eat them, and there were still more. He also said they gave him infinity pedos, which was pretty gross.
My uncle Facundo used to cook out a lot, in our back yard. Once he threw a rattlesnake in the disc. I ate it with him–but all I tasted and heard was bones. He was Mexican. Mojaves are not supposed to kill snakes, and definitely not eat them. I’m sure eating that snake let loose some shadow in me. Maybe that snake is the reason I am a poet.
My favorite thing my tio made was tripas. I had the record in my family for eating the most strips of them. I liked to eat them still sizzling. Then, when I was fourteen, I translated the word into English in my head. I haven’t eaten them since.
On her food quirks:
I only eat the orange and green Skittles. I only eat my mom’s and dad’s menudo and only my mom’s enchiladas. I’m not a vegetarian, but I keep dating them.
On her last meal:
I will be eating with my family, on a sprawling, chaotic, disastrous, magnificent table. We will all be fighting and filled with love for one another. There will be no dirty dishes. And the wine will be served in ceramic chickens that refill, and we will keep passing them back and forth and filling our crystal and gold goblets and blue Solo cups. And there will be my mom’s enchiladas and all of our ghosts will be there. All our old dogs will be lying beneath the table. And out the back sliding glass window will be a group of pilgrims, with their white faces pressed against the glass, asking for food, gesturing to their bellies with their hands, but we will ignore them this time.