Discussed: Aztec mythology, Judas, family, hummingbirds, and the language of betrayal.

When we write about family, are we betraying the people closest to us? When we avoid the topic, do we betray ourselves?

On October 6, poet Natalie Diaz took the stage to address these and other questions for the first installment of the PEN DIY series. In her literary how-to, titled “How to Sacrifice Your Brother, Even When He is an Aztec,” Diaz shared her advice on writing about those closest to you.

Step 1: Understand that we have never seen an apple, so we are completely free from apples 

Thanks to science we know that light will always arrive at our eyes a little too late, and who’s to say colors are even real? An apple in a poem—or an icebox full of plums—is not actually an apple. The key? Get as close to the apple as possible; write around the apple. Write about everything an apple is not. 

Step 2: Say it, “I am the Judas Horse.” 

When we attempt to tame language, it often betrays us. It breaks free from our grasp like a wild mustang herd (sans Judas Horse)

Step 3: Know the Difference Between Prophet and Poet; Quickly Forget that Difference 

It’s said that losing a language is “like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.” When a language is lost, it’s the people that are betrayed.  Language may be a fickle companion, but Diaz maintains the fight to preserve her native language. She works closely with the last three remaining Mojave elders, she documents and preserves their shared history: jokes, stories, and cadences. According to Diaz, “In Mojave, everything passes through your dreams. All your gifts come from dreams. And so [the elders] discussed maybe the dreams are coming to the kids, but maybe they’re coming in Mojave, and maybe they don’t understand that.” 

Might poets help us to interpret dreams in disappearing languages? 

Step 4: Ask yourself, “Does the moon only exist if I am looking at it?” (a.k.a. the Quantum Theory of Suffering) 

In her poetry, Diaz circles around her family, using outside images and forms to guide language closer to her actual experience. She mythologizes the pain of living with a brother who is an addict by casting him as both Judas and the Aztec god “Huitzilopochtli,…half-man, half-hummingbird.” 

The word “hummingbird,” Diaz notes, “[in Mojave] is nyen nyen, and it doesn’t mean ‘bird’—it is a description of what a hummingbird does, moving into and out of a flower. This is also our word for sex.”

In Diaz’s collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, language acts out the struggle of a family’s inner dialogue. “My mother’s response to the book was ‘It’s just that it didn’t happen like that,’”says Diaz. “…And my sister immediately replied, ‘What do you mean? That’s exactly the way it happened.” 

Step 5: Look at the moon. Write a poem. 

Did it happen that way? It did and it didn’t. We all know language (not to mention memory) is duplicitous, vacillating, and prone to making deals at a crossroads—infinitely unreliable and gloriously inescapable. No amount of wariness avails; our stories follow us like the moon in the night sky. 

Diaz leaves the audience with this question, “Can you imagine holding a word in your mouth for the very first time?” 

Can you?