I ’ve been taught bloodstones can cure a snakebite, / can stop the bleeding—most people forgot this / when the war ended,” Natalie Diaz begins the title effort of Postcolonial Love Poem, her Pulitzer Prize–winning 2020 collection of poetry. “The war ended / depending on which war you mean: those we started, / before those, millennia ago and onward, / those which started me, which I lost and won.” There’s a history in those words, a history and a heritage, a reckoning with both erasure and identity. How, given the shameful legacies of colonialism and empire, could it be otherwise?
Diaz, who was raised in Needles, California, in the Fort Mojave Indian Village, is Mojave and a member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. She writes, then, out of what we might call a double vision: individual and communitarian. Occupying the center of this extraordinary collection is nothing less than the intention to reframe the way we imagine colonial and postcolonial experiences. That this is necessary should go without saying; that it is difficult is also the case.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Diaz understands that language is equally a tool of expression and of oppression, especially when one is writing (or speaking) in the colonizer’s tongue. Her position recalls that of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who chose to work in English despite recognizing that “for an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life.” It also brings to mind Franz Kafka, who once suggested that German-speaking Jewish writers “live beset by three impossibilities: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German and the impossibility of writing differently, and we could add a fourth impossibility: the impossibility of writing at all.”
And yet, like Achebe and Kafka, Diaz has no other option but to persevere. What she has to tell us is too important to remain unsaid. “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then,” she writes in “From the Desire Field.” “Let me call it, a garden. // Maybe this is what Lorca meant / when he said, verde que te quiero verde— // because when the shade of night comes, / I am a field of it, of any worry ready to flower in my chest.” For Diaz, the key is to reclaim language, to reinhabit it, to reappropriate it in every sense of the word. In the process, she creates a space for liberation by turning the vernacular of oppression inside out. “What threatens white people is often dismissed as myth,” Diaz observes in “The First Water Is the Body.” “I have never been true in America. America is my myth.” The result is an ongoing engagement with her status as outsider, not least because she knows that it has been imposed.•