Former Lady Monarch's Pen is as Mighty as Her Jump Shot
Oct. 8, 2010
Natalie Diaz is worried about her voice.
Not long after arriving in Norfolk this week from her home in Arizona's Mojave Valley, she felt a cold coming on. Now her throat is feeling raw. She's developed a cough.
Ordinarily, this would be trivial. But Diaz, at Old Dominion for the 33rd annual Literary Festival, was anxiously anticipating her appearance at 4 p.m. Friday at the Village bookstore. There, she read read poetry from her forthcoming first collection.
Turning her head to cough, she said, "This isn't good timing. I hope it doesn't get worse."
Naturally, she wants to be on her best game for her return to ODU, where she's remembered as an outstanding leader and all-conference guard on the Lady Monarchs basketball teams of the late '90s.
Serious poetry came later, after graduation and four seasons of pro basketball in Europe. Now the young woman of Native American ancestry, who was raised on a Mojave reservation in California, says she writes free verse and short stories about "the things that keep me up at night."
Most of the people she recognizes who have seen her around campus during this visit "don't even know I write," she said. Former ODU teammates "were kind of shocked" to learn what she's doing now. Whereas "in the writing world," she added, "nobody knows me as a basketball player."
In 2004, she was between pro seasons, having already signed a contract to play in Israel, when she shredded her knee in a pickup game at ODU. That resulted in some deep reflection, which led to her enrolling in ODU's Master of Fine Arts program. For the first time, she was "fully into" being a student, "instead of just, 'I'm here for the basketball.'"
But her undergrad years weren't all parties and hoops. One of the classes that engaged her was a creative writing course taught by Tim Seibles, who before becoming a professor and the author of five books of poetry, had played football at Southern Methodist.
"He wasn't just a writer," Diaz said. "He was a normal person. He played pickup ball with us at lunch time."
The seed was planted, but wouldn't take root until her basketball career was played out.
"From the beginning, she had an exceptional imagination," Seibles said. "To have such an interesting mind residing in the body of such a good jock; that's not a normal combination."
In subtle ways, Diaz said, she finds connections between basketball and her poetry. "I'm able to pour myself into writing like I did with basketball," she said. "Like with basketball, you have routines. You have to write when you don't want to. And writing can be pretty physical. When I write, I sweat."
Many of Diaz's writing themes are pulled from her experiences of growing up on the reservation in a two-bedroom house with her parents and eight siblings. One brother battles a drug addiction. Another served in the Army in Afghanistan. Two more are tribal police officers.
"The reservation is very similar to the inner city," she said. "A lot of the same problems - violence, alcohol, drugs, gangs."
As a child, basketball allowed Diaz to "slide back and forth" between the reservation and the outside world.
Basketball would eventually take her to Turkey, Sweden, Austria, Portugal and Spain, and would give her a second home for several years in Hampton Roads.
But recently, feeling the tug of her heritage, she returned to the reservation. For nine months she's been living in a house just outside of Fort Mojave, where she works for the tribal council to document and preserve the native culture and language.
The Mojave culture is "close to dying," said Diaz, who has been trying to learn as much as she can from the handful of elders on the reservation who still speak the language.
"You realize," she said, "that there are so many things you've been missing because you don't know the language."
Diaz's latest passion adds another twist to her unconventional route into the literary world.
"People find it odd that I'm from the reservation and that I've played basketball," she said. "Sometimes it kind of overshadows the poetry, but that's OK."
After apologizing for a short coughing jag, Diaz described her writing, "Me making sense of things or me giving in to the fact that I can't make sense of things."
As a young artist, she's finding her voice.
She doesn't want to lose it today.