TOBIN: Will you tell me one of your deepest, darkest fears?
KATHY: No! [TOBIN CRACKS UP] That’s embarrassing!
TOBIN: Okay, okay, okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do — on the count of three, let’s just both say a fear out loud. Okay, ready? [PAUSE] One, two, three.
KATHY AND TOBIN [SIMULTANEOUSLY]: I live in constant fear that I am letting you down, and that you will be disappointed in me. I think it has something to do with my parents, but I can’t be sure. [BOTH BREATHE IN UNISON] Also, birds.
TOBIN: Wow, look at us!
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to “Nancy.”
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS, WHISTLE]
TOBIN: So, Kath.
TOBIN: There’s another WNYC podcast out there that I super love, because [DRAMATIC PAUSE] it’s kind of unlike anything out there.
KATHY: Is it “10 Things That Scare Me”?
[“10 Things That Scare Me” THEME MUSIC STARTS, THEN QUIETS FOR KATHY AND TOBIN TO SPEAK]
TOBIN: In fact, it is.
KATHY: Because I also love that show.
TOBIN: Isn’t it great?
TOBIN: First of all, super bite-sized. It’s around five minutes long, and in each episode, you hear about one person’s fears.
[MUSIC RISES AGAIN, THEN QUIETS]
[CLIPS FROM DIFFERENT EPISODES OF “10 Things That Scare Me” PLAY BACK-TO-BACK]
ALASKA: Number 1: Deer.
OKWUI: Number 2: Thinking too much about things that scare me.
JAD: Uh, number 3: Underwater wiffle balls.
TOBIN: Some fears are funny, some are more serious.
BRIAN: Having my special-needs son be able to hire good attendants.
STARLEE: The man I once saw on the subway eating a full tub of cream cheese. [LONG PAUSE] Like, just out of the tub.
KATHY: And you get to hear a little bit about the “why.”
[NATURE SOUNDS ENTER SOFTLY: A BIRD CHIRPS, WIND CHIMES CHIME]
ALASKA: I think deer are really pretty, but they just have these tiny little, like, mouse brains.
KARA: We’re always doing the same mistakes. That's what I think. Like, I think we go from Salem Witch Trials to McCarthyism to the — the anti-AIDS stuff in the ‘80s that I lived through, to [DEEP INHALE] this now, and I just am, like, we just — I just — I’m waiting for Nazi Germany again.
KATHY: So the reason we’re bringing up “10 Things” is because we recently listened to an episode we just loved. It’s with Natalie Diaz, who is a queer Mojave poet, former professional basketball player, and a 2018 MacArthur Genius.
TOBIN: So, today, we’re going to play Natalie’s episode of “10 Things That Scare Me” —
TOBIN: — and then, Kathy, you’re gonna sit down and have a conversation with her.
[NATALIE DIAZ’S EPISODE OF “10 Things That Scare Me” BEGINS, WITH RAIN AND A TICKING SOUND IN THE BACKGROUND]
NATALIE: Number 1: I am afraid of… there's a certain hour that comes in the evening —because I have anxiety — so if I don't get to bed at about, you know, by 11:00 pm, my anxiety kind of comes up and I get out of bed and do push-ups to push the anxiety out of my body. [BREATH] Sometimes Xanax helps. [LAUGH] Push-ups or Xanax.
[WATER FAUCET SOUND REPLACES TICKING AND RAIN]
NATALIE: Number 2: My body's limits.
NATALIE: Number 3: I have a lot of fear for... that I would have another, uh, breaking point. [LONG PAUSE] About five years ago I spent three months on my mother's couch, um, and I couldn't go anymore, I couldn't work anymore, I couldn’t … y’know, I was in the middle of beginning a language revitalization program — which was very intense and very emotional work — on my reservation with my elders. And it was really, uh, it’s like, just one of the scariest moments I've had is to wake up in the morning and then not know how you're gonna get through the day. Part of that worry is that growing up my mother had really bad depression, and so she spent about four years in bed. And [PAUSE] I’ll never forget an image that’s just kind of burned into me, is, um … We came home from school one day, and my father, he had, like, carried my mother to the shower to take a shower, like, she couldn't even do that. And so … my brothers and sisters, like, we all helped him wash her hair and stuff. And so … that to me feels like a very real worry, that I try to stay aware of.
[FAUCET SOUND REPLACED WITH THE LIGHT RINGING OF A GLASS]
NATALIE: Number 4: Uhh … I'm afraid of snakes. I dream about them a lot, and they're often trying to talk with me or communicate with me in the dream. And, you know, I — I have — I’m really lucky that I have a relationship with, you know, some of my elder family members. So, they're always saying, “You need to listen to them in your dreams to hear what it is they're telling you.” But I’m — I also — they're also snakes! [LAUGHS] And so maybe in a way it's a little bit more of, like, uh, there are things I know, but don't want to know. Or things I should know, but I'm not ready to know.
[THE SOUNDS OF PEOPLE TALKING AND WALKING REPLACE THE LIGHT RINGING]
NATALIE: Number 5: I think a lot about wasting food. So, I have this kind of, like, Matrix-like ticker tape in my mind of all the meals I haven't completely finished. And I think about them because I think, in the context of thinking about food deserts — but also thinking about food scarcity.
NATALIE: Number 6: Food scarcity.
NATALIE: Number 7: I am afraid that — that human beings have diminished the world in such a way that they can no longer exist on it at a very near point in the future.
[LIGHT, HAUNTING PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
NATALIE: 8, Number 8: Something else I'm scared of is that the work that I've chosen to devote myself to — that it will have no effect on America. So I wake up often and think, like, [DEEP INHALE] “You’re a poet. Like, what are you doing?”
NATALIE: Okay. Number 9: Umm … I have a — I have a fear and an awareness of white women. [SOMEWHAT LAUGHINGLY] And I'm not saying I'm not also afraid of white men. But I feel like, in many ways, white women are the cog in what can change in America. I feel like if anyone was going to reach white men, it's white women. But I feel like oftentimes white women are also afraid to sacrifice any comfort or any power. And I've also watched the way my mother has been treated by white women. [LONG PAUSE] Yeah, so, one of her bosses was a white woman at the school. And this woman brought their, uhh … their change back from the trip that they had gone on. Uhh, I guess they were given, like, per diem, and they had to bring back change, but they brought it back in a pickle jar full of pennies and dumped it on my mom's desk instead of giving her dollar bills. [SHARP INHALE] And just to hear my mom tell us about that. That was, like, a first example to think, “Huh.”
[A NEUTRAL WHITE NOISE, ALMOST LIKE STATIC, REPLACES THE PERCUSSIVE MUSIC]
NATALIE: Number 10: [LAUGHINGLY] The last one. I am afraid of, uh, what I might compromise in order for America to love me.
[A MOMENT OF SILENCE, THEN SYNTH MUSIC PLAYS]
NATALIE: My name is Natalie Diaz and these are “10 Things That Scare Me.”
[NATALIE DIAZ’S EPISODE OF “10 Things That Scare Me” ENDS]
TOBIN: After the break, Kathy talks to Natalie Diaz about how she went from playing professional basketball to writing poetry — and why, lately, she’s been writing love poems.
[BOUNCY MIDROLL MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: And we’re back.
TOBIN: Natalie Diaz is many things. Mojave. Latinx. A linguist. A teacher. An award-winning poet. And, in a previous life, a professional basketball player.
KATHY: So, Natalie learned to play basketball as a kid on the Fort Mojave reservation. And then as a teenager she to Old Dominion University on scholarship, and Tobin, her team was good — they went to the final four her freshman year.
TOBIN: Ooh! Impressive.
KATHY: And after she graduated, she went pro, and played in Europe and Asia. But during that time of her life, Natalie said that she didn’t openly identify as queer.
[BOUNCY MIDROLL MUSIC ENDS]
NATALIE: When I played basketball I didn't need a — a kind of straightforward language to say [PAUSE] what I was. Because I was mostly an athlete.
NATALIE: And that's really all anybody cared about, you know?
KATHY: I see.
NATALIE: Umm. And, I mean, not that they didn't care about me as a person, but I was viewed as an athlete, like that's the lens I was looked through. Umm. And then, after I stopped playing, and I found myself moving into language in a different way like, one — my Indigenous language and language revitalization — but also poetry and literature, I suddenly realized there was something that I was — I was not naming about myself that was also letting me hide a part of myself. So, there was a, you know, a sequence of a few years that — maybe two to three years — when I was really uncomfortable even saying, you know, “queer poet.” And, y’know, and then you start to realize though that, “Okay, these words are being used as naming, as — as a — a powerful, like, a gesture of naming, of saying I exist, of saying I am here in this space. And so, for me, it's a way of like enacting a type of family even among strangers.
NATALIE: And that, I think is really important. And it doesn’t — that operates very similarly to the way basketball was. You know, like, I could be on a court with any four other players, like, you know, in a pickup game, for example, and I could not know them, but suddenly I have to find ways of knowing them.
KATHY: How much work was it to play professionally?
NATALIE: I mean the work isn't so much the work of the body I think. It becomes, like, the work of life. And for me when it became too much is when I felt like I was missing out too much on on another life that I knew was there. So, like, you know, I have a huge family, so being away from my family was — was really difficult.
KATHY: Hmm. Do you still think of yourself as an athlete?
NATALIE: Yeah, definitely. I mean, and sometimes to a fault! Like, I was just — I was built through athletics. I think that way. I … In a way, like, my body was built on a court. And so I have this kind of literal and physical periphery —
NATALIE: — that I can kind of see in a way I know that most people can’t, like, what's behind me. But that also is exactly the way my imagination works. You know, I spend a lot of time in the periphery.
NATALIE: And that's — I think — a lot of the reason why I've been able to do what I've been able to do which is, like, to connect to people. And I think some of that has to do with what I learned on a basketball court. Y’know, like, I think something that's helped me a lot is that I don't feel like I can ever lose on the page, for example, because I have really lost in the game, you know? Like, I've missed the shot that could’ve won the game. Like I've fouled the player who made the shot, who won the game. And so that’s, like, a real kind of losing, like, a measurable kind of losing. And, you know, things like a certain kind of confidence and, you know, a willingness to be competitive, a willingness to — to lose. Some of those things have transferred over. Umm, but then, you know, some of them have not. So it's been interesting to kind of see how that energy has reorganized to become the things that I need it to be now.
KATHY: Do you ever miss the squeaks of sneakers on a basketball court?
NATALIE: [LAUGHS] I do. [KATHY LAUGHS] I dream about them. [NATALIE LAUGHS] I dream about them, for sure. And it’s, you know, it's silly, because one of the first things I do when I get into a court, you know, especially, like — my favorite are the old wooden courts. But, uh, the first thing I do when I get onto a court is, like, start squeaking around a little bit.
KATHY [SHOCKED]: Really?
NATALIE: [BOTH LAUGH] Yeah. It's like, you know, there's just something about, like, “Ope, you know this space!”, y’know? And it — I think I probably lean into it a little more than I need to. So, you know, I might be shooting baskets and I'll be squeaking enough to sound as if I'm doing a lot more out there. [KATHY LAUGHS, NATALIE ] But there's something about that does, you know, feel a lot like, just, kind of being barefoot at home even —
NATALIE: — you know, it's like that's when I'm most connected in a way to the ground even though I'm on a court.
KATHY: Mhm. I really want to talk about your poetry. You write very vividly in your poetry about hunger, um, and, like, literally not having enough to eat and then — so then two of the two of the fears that you talked about was about food scarcity. Is this something that you experienced firsthand?
NATALIE: Yeah, I mean, I grew up in a really big family. So, um, [BREATH] I know what it feels like to have to have people bring you food, y’know? I know what it's like to, like, watch my father, like, go to, you know, the welfare office and just say, “I need help,” like, “We need help, can you give me food stamps?” We had this, like — uhh, I think probably most Latino or Mexican families have one — like, we had this giant pot. We had one pot for Menudo and one pot for beans.
NATALIE: And, so, when we would come home — and we — you could smell it from outside the house — but, you know, like, “Oh,” you know, like, “Mom's cooking beans.” And then we’d just know, like, that pot! We would just have beans forever, you know? [NATALIE LAUGHS HEARTILY]
NATALIE: So, it was kind of like the, y’know, infinity bean pot. And the coloring of it just reminds me of, like, a galaxy. It was just this deep black pot with these, like, little speckles. Like, you could have been looking up at our desert sky at night. Um. [INHALES] But, yeah, I mean, I think hunger of all kinds, right? Like, you know, if you've ever been in a position where you've been hungry — like, hungry for food — you've probably been in situations where you're hungering for other things as well. You know? Like, certain kinds of love and attention. And, um, that's shaped a lot. Like, I — I think a lot of these hungers are connected.
KATHY: Gotcha. [PAUSE, BEAT] I understand that you've been writing a lot of love poems recently. Is there a reason for that?
NATALIE: [SIGHING] Yeah, definitely. I mean … The love poem to me feels — it feels like us a space where I'm the most possible. It's a lot like basketball again, you know? I have a freedom of not being defined by somebody else, but a freedom of engaging in language and all its complexities. What's most important for me is that question, like, “Don't I also deserve that?” And that's I think what I'm asking constantly, is, “Don't I deserve this? Don't I deserve pleasure? Don't I deserve love? Don't I deserve desire?” Those are the things I'm asking, you know, in the love poems.
KATHY: That kind of makes me think about the last fear that you said in “10 Things,” is that, um, you're afraid of what you'd have to compromise in order for America to love you. What did you mean by that?
NATALIE: [SIGHING] Yeah, well, I think a lot of things, right? You know, for example, like, I write in the English language. Like, I write in a language, like — that, one, didn't include me, but also was then, like, weaponized to diminish me. You know? I mean, we're called Indians for a reason. We've been called savages for a reason. And I think sometimes the biggest part of that compromise is that desire that says, like, no matter how strong I'm trying to be no matter how much of myself I'm trying to be, I also need that validation. I — I also want it. You know? Which is why I think basketball was such an important place for me to start, because it was very clear.
NATALIE: You know? You make a basket or you miss a basket, like, you won or you lost. And then, suddenly, when that disappeared, I was left with all of these, like, paradoxes that say, like, ”How do I exist in a country like America?” Like, a country that was basically founded on crushing what I am. And I think those are some of the questions I have, I guess, about that idea of what I'm compromising living here.
KATHY: Mhm. Do you — when you're home there on the reservation, are you comfortable being yourself? Being a poet, being a queer poet?
NATALIE: Yeah. We don't talk a lot about, like, my queerness or, um, poetry when I'm there. You know, language is such an interesting thing, right? Like, um, so, while there is a lot of queerness on my reservation the words that we were given to, you know … so we had lost our language for a little bit because of boarding schools and cavalry and all of these things. And so our language began to work in translation. But the words we were given to talk about queerness, uh, and then — then translated was “I ha Noack,” which means, like, “the coward's sickness,” or “the coward's disease.” And it was used because of the way the cavalrymen talked about the the men who wouldn't go into battle. And that's not a way that Mojaves described these persons, because we saw them as full people. They were just another kind of person and being and — and part of our community. But when cavalry came in and saw this, of course they had to name it because it didn't fit into their standard of what a man should be.
NATALIE: And so they began to call them “cowards.” And that … so then we took that English word and translated it back and — and now that's the word remaining in our lexicon, our Mojave lexicon, for how to talk about that.
NATALIE: Umm. It’s the same thing with my family. They — every word they ever knew for what I was, meaning how I loved—so lesbian, queer, fag — I mean, they — they couldn't even distinguish them, because in their mind all of those terms were derogatory. And so, while they had no problem with me having a partner — living with my lover — suddenly, when they had to speak about it is when they begin to have trouble about it, because those words had only ever before to them meant something negative. But yeah. So, at home, you know, when people think about me, they think about me in a couple of ways: either as, like, still — as having been an athlete, or the fact that I worked with language. But poetry and — and, like, my queer identity aren’t two things that are that are a big part of who I am to the people at home.
[ADVENTURE PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: That is poet Natalie Diaz. By the way, if you want to hear more episodes of “10 Things That Scare Me,” go to 10thingspodcast.com. And spoiler alert — Kathy and I both did one! Keep an eye out.
[CREDITS MUSIC STARTS]
TOBIN: Alright, it is credits time!
KATHY: The “Nancy” team includes Zakiya Gibbons, Temi Fagbenle, Stephanie Joyce, Jeremy Bloom, and Paula Szuchman.
TOBIN: The “10 Things” team includes Amy Pearl, Daniel Guillemette, Sarah Sandbach, Emily Botein, Melissa Chusid, and — once again — Paula Szuchman. Music and sound design by Isaac Jones.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: “Nancy” is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS ALONE FOR A SECOND, THEN ENDS]
KATHY: Tobin, do a dinosaur voice.
TOBIN [IN A DINOSAUR VOICE]: Hi, guys! I’m extinct!
KATHY: What are you doing today?
TOBIN [IN A DINOSAUR VOICE]: Getting hit by a comet! [BOTH CRACK UP LAUGHING]