by Colin Mcclurkin
Poet Natalie Diaz visited Ohio Univeristy on Thursday, September 20 to read from her new book of poetry, “When My Brother Was an Aztec.” Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, where she faced poverty, addiction and the declining culture of her vibrant people. Her childhood experiences led to this moving, and often devastating, collection of poems published years later.
Diaz’s work was recently acknowledged by the MacArthur Fellows program who awarded Diaz a grant of $625,000. The MacArthur Fellows program awards these grants to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential future works.
In the poem “My Brother at 3 a.m.,” she writes of a time when her brother came home during a drug induced panic attack, telling their mom that the devil was after him. When Diaz spoke of writing about her family she said, “It’s one of the hardest things to do; you come to the page with so much guilt…”
When introducing the title poem of her book during her visit, Diaz asked, “How do I love my brother? I don’t know how to still in real life, but somehow on the page I find a way to love him.”
The poem chronicled the pain her brother inflicted on their family. Diaz uses allusions to native folklore alongside jarring firsthand experiences to depict a complex and painful family dynamic. One line in the poem reads “He lived in our basement and sacrificed our parents every morning… He thought he was Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird.”
Diaz then shared a poem relating to the simple, everyday things that we take for granted, like eating an apple. When introducing this poem, she asked, “What if I could make some of the simplest things in my day feel like a miracle?” This poem is titled “I watch her eat the apple” and shows an everyday occurrence may be perceived in a fantastic new way, if you only search for the beauty in it.
Another interesting poem that Diaz read was “Run N Gun,” which tells of the importance of basketball during her life on the reservation. Diaz received a full-ride scholarship to play college basketball for Old Dominion and later played professionally overseas. “He taught me that there is nothing easy in our desert, he blocked every shot I ever took against him, until I was about twelve years old.” Diaz said, when recalling days she spent learning the game of basketball from her older brother.
Diaz strongly emphasizes the importance of the Native American experience in her work, as it is so often overlooked in many parts of the United States. During the Q&A towards the end of her reading, she made it clear that she wants to reach other young Native Americans through her work.
“It’s really important to me that an indigenous student somewhere has a chance to see my work,” Diaz said. For this reason, Diaz publishes nearly all of her work online as well as in print form, providing a broader platform for readers to read her work, making it especially easy for those without the means to purchase her books.