“Land, like poetry, exists out of time, beyond time, though we are always trying to measure it or read it like a clock,” says Natalie Diaz in this conversation with Nathalie Handal. During the last decade of their friendship—from Arizona to New Jersey to Palestine and beyond—these poets have reflected on language and borders, which are at the core of their latest collections. Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf, 2020) was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award, and Handal’s Life in a Country Album (University of Pittsburgh, 2019; flipped eye publishing, 2020) is a finalist for the Palestine Book Award.
In this exchange, they consider where borders begin. What does freedom mean in the United States, and in its numerous war zones? What does freedom mean on a Native reservation or in Palestine? How do we tend or subvert the borders in our body, or on our pages? These two important voices consider these questions as well as desire, translation, and language as “destruction and divinity.”
Handal: In your new poetry collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, you sing bodies unsung, and carry us through the body of the river and the desert, to that of the stars and the spirits. I keep returning to “the first water is the body” for breath, keep reaching out for the line “to read a body is to break that body a little” as if it’s a raft. In the first stanza of “These Hands, If Not Gods,” you write:
Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like glory, like light
over the seven days of your body.
Where are the borders in your body? Have you crossed them? Can you recreate your body borderless?
Diaz: Many of us are born toward or against a border. Our own bodies have become both borders and bordered. I was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village, which is Mojave reservation land—the Colorado River borders one side and the desert railroad town of Needles, California borders its other side. Our land and our bodies were re-drawn as physical borders designated and imposed by the United States—not to mention the myriad affective borders resulting from my existence as a Native in this country.
I cross borders hourly, daily—I must in order to exist. When the government first mapped reservation boundaries and ordered my people within those lines, those lines became the difference between life and death. The Native body became a line between life and death, savage and citizen, who was American and who was America’s feast. For me, one of the most dangerous things about borders has always been how quickly I have learned the line prescribed to me and across me—I have shaped myself against that line, toward it, for it, with it in mind, and it is always shameful to look back and realize I freed myself from one border by replicating it somehow, either beside me or in front of me.
In your latest collection Life in a Country Album, you seem to be moving differently than I have moved in my life, in relation to borders. You seem to become them while also remaining illegible to them. There is something not only defiant but also improvisational in the ways you enact language and land on the page—you submit each to desire while you are simultaneously submitting to desire. I’m thinking about an older iteration of the word “submit,” in which it means both to surrender or crush, and also to elevate or allow to grow.
Are there conditions of the border that the border itself does not know? Are there certain intimacies that those who are bordered develop—which can be exercised, either publicly or privately—that can change the border itself? If so, how do you imagine this occurring on your page, in your lines and languages?
Handal: I didn’t exist—first because I was Palestinian, and later because I was too multiple to belong anywhere specific. The divides between fact and fabrication, ambiguity and allusion, fluency and translation never cease when we are made of borders—physical and psychological.
I am from the sister-cities of Bethlehem–Jerusalem, divided by a wall. I was born in the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, and lived on both sides of the tense border—Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I grew up with the turbulence of relatives at the Mexico–US border, as a large part of my family is Mexican. I cross the borders of languages every second, hour. My native tongue is a mélange of different localized and/or indigenized varieties of English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, and Creole. My citizenships—French and American—allow me to cross borders to see my family scattered globally, yet separate me from them, as I am allowed into spaces they are not. And it’s increasingly onerous to explain that though my body crosses, my heart never crossed. I stand at the legal-illegal line—a part, and apart.
Writing allows me to oppose this form of confinement. As authors, our writings give the borderland a centrality. Every time I cross language, the border loses some of its power. Every time I allow myself to desire, to partake in pleasure, I claim existence. Eroticism is an act of resistance. Otherwise, we remain an-other, seen as a-long-distance.
The first section of Postcolonial Love Poem begins with a Mahmoud Darwish quote: “We admitted that we were human beings and melted for love in this desert.” The land is loud inside of you. I even hear its hush. I see scorpions, shadows, and stars. Tell me more about the intimate and infinite landscape in this book.
Diaz: Our days in Ramallah reminded me of the connection our lands have to one another, and the ways they offer us—the lands’ imaginations and fleshly creations—connections, if we want to acknowledge this generosity our lands are offering us.
I relate to land and water in a way similar to how I relate to poetry. Land, like poetry, exists out of time, beyond time, though we are always trying to measure it or read it like a clock—we project ourselves onto it, insist on reading it like a text, because we only want to read the story of our human existence. We are enamored with the ways we have conquered the land, without realizing we are conquering our human bodies at the same time. In the grand poems of our land and water, of the lands’ and waters’ lives, we are maybe a single line. And though we both destroy land and use land to destroy one another, the land doesn’t need us. Land is its own telling—land is a first story. We cannot quiet it or own it, not even with a border. The land tells itself even without us.
To be a guest in Palestine was in some ways to be a guest in my own life—the generosity of Palestinian land and the Palestinian people returned me to the story of my own land and ancestors, and it also returned me to my own future. The land’s imagination—I believe I am an imagining of the land—is so much stronger than the imagination of Empire, of global capitalism, of the armies and machines of Occupation. Palestine and my desert make me realize that I must imagine better, ceaselessly, and with love, to live. Not survive. But to live! Not against the state but through it, beyond it. When we climbed the hills of Ramallah, when we navigated the stones of the path, helped one another down the tiers, and then stood together looking out over what has always been Palestine’s strongest imagination—its land, its olive trees, its people—I felt like I was beginning again, and also that the moment had been in the making for a long time.
Handal: I remember on our trip to Palestine together, we watched a woman waiting to cross the checkpoint. We felt time turn, at different speeds for each of us—minutes or hours, a lifetime or a century. We looked and saw each other as if we hadn’t seen one another in decades. We crossed into Jerusalem while the woman remained waiting in Bethlehem. There are borders on the land and borders in the heart—from which side do we resist, on which side are we confined? We understand crossing is far from arriving.
Diaz: The last time I was in Palestine, I went to Haifa to speak with a group of young people who were fighting to save their Native language, the same way I am fighting to save my Native language. I do not know the official statistics, but I was told less than 10 percent of the inhabitants of Haifa speak Arabic, while Hebrew, the language of occupation, blooms. I should not use the word “bloom” in this circumstance. I should say that Hebrew is deployed in Haifa because it is a structural, systematic, and violent act by Israel to silence Palestinian Arabic. It is a blueprint America shares.
That night, gathered in the courtyard of a bar strung with lights, I understood the electricity in the eyes and questions of the mostly young women who were teaching Arabic to young children in communities throughout Haifa. During the conversation at the end of the event, a man began arguing with me, and eventually with his girlfriend who was sitting next to him, about our responsibilities to our language. It was not an argument in a negative sense—it was an argument of passion and love, an argument of strength of a people. The man was middle-aged and had decided not to speak Arabic to his son—he believed the son needed to learn Hebrew to succeed at school. He believed Hebrew was the language of his son’s future, at least in regard to what success means in Haifa. The man’s girlfriend was in her mid-twenties, had no children of her own, but was a teacher in a small community. She was angry that her boyfriend wasn’t fighting for the language—she believed that to fight for the language was to fight for her people. I don’t know their experience but know my own—I know what it is like to fight for language while you also have an understanding that you cannot win. You must reorganize all that you’ve been taught of winning, so that the fight itself is the victory. This is the nature of language, it is both the song and the scar.
What are your relationships to the languages you inhabit and which inhabit you, and how do you move within them? Do you feel responsibility to any of them politically? Do you feel free in any? Do your emotions—anger, desire, pleasure, fear, grief, joy—behave differently from one to the other?
Handal: I don’t have a native tongue but come from a symphony of languages. This is a hymn and a hurt. Every sentence is a reminder of being inside and outside. Sometimes there is a border between what I hear in my mind and can verbalize; what I write and can recite. This has traumatized and transformed me. It made me understand that nothing can be neutral. That everything is political—language and love, sex and self. That, as writers, we are often unnoticed if we can’t be linked to a country. But I am a poet, not a nation.
So, I inhabit every language freely but in different ways—and don’t belong to any completely. It is impossible to forget the history associated with a language—personal and historical. I love Arabic’s orchestral breath—its stillness has guided the direction of my body. I love Aramaic’s ancient earth and Armenian’s nostalgia—its duduk reverberates. Breaks the soul and lifts it. I love French’s mind—its finesse and sophistication. It’s measured, disciplined, but my body can be naked in it. I love the poetry of the Spanish—it resonates inside like a great melodic waves and returns me to words. I love the long murmur of Greek—it transports echoes. I love how I can see my Mediterraneanness in Italian. I love the way American English lets me accommodate all these languages on my pages. I love silence above all. It takes me everywhere. Nowhere. And beyond.
Handal: Language is destruction and divinity. Every letter is sacred in your love poems. In “Like Church” you write, “You think my Creator had heard of the word Natalie?” Why do you use “word” instead of “name?”
Diaz: The American English language is such an insecure and immature language—it is also a beautiful and complex language. It is also one of my languages. I cannot speak or write in English without assuming and performing its power. I must break English as it breaks me—I often don’t know which is happening, my breaking or its breaking. The process of naming has always been an assertion of the Empire of the English language, and all empires.
When the government came to Fort Mojave to conduct a census in the very early 1900s, they lined up all the Mojaves and renamed them, one after the one. They named them absurd things: you’re Robin Hood; you’re Rip Van Winkle; and you are Abraham Lincoln. Those were actual names they gave us. They named a brother and sister, who were in line together, George and Martha Washington. My people were starving, and they gave them the names of tycoons such as Vanderbilt and Rockefellers, names which last in our families today. Before that, Mojave names were linked to our clans, which were linked to our lands, our waters, our weathers, etc. The sun and fire clan. The ocotillo cactus clan. The prickly pear clan. The moon clan.
These government names were never intended to be names one called out in love or touch, or to make relationships—they were just words meant to cut us off from the very things we were made of, to make us less of what we were, to diminish us. The same thing happens to our lands, to our sacred sites. I’ve been to some of your lands and waters, to sites that are a part of your beloveds and beloved people’s bodies of knowledge and flesh and future. I know the violent ways language has touched and continues to touch your homes.
In your poem “Les Chemins lumière,” the epigraph opens the poem with an inquiry into what makes a language ours, or how we either belong to or don’t belong to a language. Authenticity is in question. Can you talk more about this poem specifically in relationship to French, but also in its constellation to the other languages you carry in you?
Handal: In “Les Chemins lumière” I explore French as the first language I remember speaking, and my many relationships with it. In Palestine many people spoke French, as Catholic schools and hospitals were run by the French. To Bethlehemites, it is a beloved language, as many considered French an addition, not a threat, to their native culture (though we hadn’t forgotten their controversial role in the Levant). In France, I grew up with a generation of North Africans who were conflicted as they were educated in the language of the colonizer and deprived of their native tongue. In the French Antilles, there were constant debates on a so-called authenticity, whether or not one spoke a “good” French. This sense of linguistic and cultural superiority is arrogant. Languages are ruins. Purity is a myth. In the midst of these opposing interactions, I felt most sensual in French. It was the distance between naked bodies—the effort of undressing and the ease of lusting. Its touch was an energy more electrifying than hope.
You walk into the wilderness of your grief to translate your aches. And give it desires. In “Grief Work” you are also translating the untranslatable—love.
I do my grief work
with her body—:
We go where there is love,
to the river, on our knees beneath the sweet
Why not now go towards the things I love
You quote Derrida, “Every text remains in mourning until it is translated.” Perhaps we remain in mourning until we are translated. Do you feel you’ve been translated?
Diaz: I do not believe anything can be translated, not in the sense that we have come to use the word—I believe most things are misunderstood, even when I come to an “understanding.” If I understand something, it is within the conditions of my own values, prejudices, meanings, lexicons, emotions, etc. There is an energetic simultaneity and connection that I believe doesn’t need us to be translated in the traditional sense. I want to not understand and still stay in the moment, not witness to it, but be part of the energetic constellation, including the lines seen or not seen, the lines mis-seen.
There were lines of French in your book that I did not “understand” in so far as I could not “translate” them, but I had a sensual experience of the text, visually, the way the words sounded in my head and felt as I tried to pronounce them and hold them alongside the English words. There are words that my people will never recover, that will never be spoken again in Mojave—and yet those energies are still moving somewhere. My Elder teachers say they might be in my dreams, or they might find me in another way that is not what we think of as language, meaning not speech. I don’t mean this to be an illogical perspective—I do transcribe and translate my Mojave language all the time, but I have never imagined that I have delivered Mojave to English. Maybe the way I experience it is that Mojave is spilling into English, and English is a small cup that is able to hold a few drops.
Your relationship to translation is different from mine, as is natural—our languages are kin, but they were built on different lands and water, and have shaped different peoples. The smallest poem in the book is also the poem that has returned in me many times over the last several months. It has become the window to many of my experiences, in particular my experience with my Mojave language and even returning to my Spanish language, which I have not spoken well in a long time.
Désir: A Distance
I dreamed the honey
refused to melt in the tea
How important the dream is here, that the speaker will wake up and will immediately be compelled to the honey, to the task of it—that it should melt. The body of desire as a distance, the body being what is in between who desires and that which is desired. This for me is the nature of translation.
What were some of your experiences—of language, land, story, body, country—that shaped your desires? And what were the limitations of language and image to render desire across these poems?
Handal: What you say takes me to the desires in your book—desire as distance and disquiet, garden and grief, shadow and sensuality, a dark woman and a corazón. You excavate the body of desire:
Like any desert, I learn myself by what’s desired of me—
and I am demoned by those desires.
You devise new ways of desiring, and in so doing, new ways of existing and resisting erasure:
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.
I relate to the wish and fear in those lines. Today, there are less than six percent of Bethlehemites in their ancestral lands.
When I think about the experiences that have shaped my desires, these moments come to mind: When I wrote a poem about water in the middle of midnight at seventeen years old and a great love entered me like a bullet and a burst—it gave me the desire to be a body of words. When my cousin and I drove down the hills in Bethlehem without the car headlights on so the soldiers wouldn’t shoot the boys hiding from them. Still, the gunshot. The Yallah, Yallah that followed like an endless echo trapped in the collective body of a people—it gave me the desire to resist all forms of injustice.
When a woman on a train in India told me, even if smoke keeps coming out of her flesh and they burn her entire body, she believes the only place we can find true history is in poems—this gave me the desire to discover unsung heroes, and the determination to fight harder for the liberation of all sex, sexuality, race, religion, and class. When my denuded body hesitated by the window in my Paris apartment, unsure if what I wanted was on the rooftop or on the bed, I found the desire to always move towards what I haven’t yet imagined.
Diaz: I am thinking back to and am still struck by when you said, “Every time I cross language, the border loses some of its power.” Ramallah, Bethlehem, Gaza, Beirut, and the many smaller cities and metropoles of your poems—Paris, New York, Dublin, Zagreb, Marfa, Granada—map an intimate and emotional geography of memory, desire, study, family, and friendship. The cities have both a cumulative and an autonomous lexicon: Zagreb, at the time of the poem “Lettera a Damir,” is still the Yugoslav-Italian border; in “Cara Aceitunada” the speaker is in Granada and when asked where she is from, she replies with a list of cities; in Rome, there is the music of lemons falling for hours; and hope manifests at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York.
How has “the city” shaped your poetics? What are the constellations and grids that shape your relationship to language in the atmospheres of the city?
Handal: Cities are so visible, they are invisible. Their chaos blurs. My poems are created in that criss-cross. Like cities, I am motion, which is poetry, which migrates and translates the world. A poem is inside and outside of history, the way a poet belongs outside and inside a room. Each time I enter a city, I am a past, native, foreigner, future. The language of a city is a map. You have to be fluent in its fables to find instructions on how to speak it. The city transforms the traveler into a translator of never-known sounds, shapes, shades; transforms the poet into an interpreter of imperceptibles.
The city is like the heart; we only discover a small part of its innumerable parts, yet can’t stop searching for its stillness. For the questions in its answers. For the memories of its improvisations. For the strangers who never arrive but keep arriving.
When we traveled Palestine together, it took me back to your Mojave Nation, where I realized I never left. Nor desired to depart. The energy there retold me imagination is invincible. And although our forgetfulness appears and disappears like an imperfect atlas, water will be our eternal guide—as Mojaves are the people of the river, and Levantines are the people of the sea. In Palestine, we climbed the sky together, and saw the map of the next world.