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Natalie Diaz, in her own words

By

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Cover image of "Postcolonial Love Poem" by Natalie Diaz courtesy Graywolf Press.

Her words are powerful. As it turns out, they’re as powerful as her jump shot.

A former professional basketball player, Arizona State University Associate Professor of English Natalie Diaz has successfully made the metaphorical leap from cager to poet. Her latest collection, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” was recently a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award. It has also delighted much of the reading public, and it continues to make appearances on year-end “best of” lists.

But the book is not just a crowd-pleaser.

“Postcolonial Love Poem” has stirred timely conversations about systemic racismIndigeneity and intimacy. The book has also made the long and short lists for several other literary prizes, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize.

Diaz, who directs ASU's Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, teaches in ASU’s creative writing program. Her first poetry collection, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” — winner of the American Book Award — was published in 2012. Its poems focused largely on Diaz’s family of origin, and especially on her brother's struggles with addiction.

A. Meinen, a creative writing graduate student at ASU and a mentee of Diaz's, reads “It Was the Animals.” 

“Postcolonial Love Poem” is Diaz’s second collection. It also engages with familial relationships — Diaz’s mother and brother both make appearances in the book — but it expands to include romantic love; desire itself is the focus here. Published by Graywolf Press this March, the book crossed the pond in July, being selected by the British Poetry Book Society and released in a U.K. edition by Faber and Faber.

“Postcolonial Love Poem” is an ode to survival and resilience. This sentiment is encapsulated in its title poem, where the poet enumerates her desires, transcending expectations and limitations. She desires; therefore, she exists.

ASU creative writing graduate student Erin Noehre reads “Postcolonial Love Poem.” 

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic stymying traditional publicity junkets, “Postcolonial Love Poem” quickly arrived on must-read lists, from Amazon.com to O, The Oprah Magazine.

“One of the most important poetry releases in years,” said a reviewer in The New York Times. Another, in one of several glowing reviews in The Guardian, called it “breathtaking, groundbreaking.” Most recently, Diaz’s peers, poet Tonya Foster and novelists Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jess Walter — the latter of whom wishes that more poets would write about basketball — have given shoutouts to the book.

Diaz, for her part, is unfailingly gracious when receiving such praise. She says that she feels “lucky” that "the book was celebrated across this strange pandemic year.” Even before 2020, Diaz’s path to such literary accomplishments was certainly a winding one. Although, she might say, where she has ended up — writing and teaching poetry — isn’t all that far from where she began. 

From the Southwest to the world

Born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. After playing professional basketball for four years in Europe and Asia, she returned to the States to complete her MFA at Old Dominion University. She then spent several years working on Mohave language preservation initiatives in the Southwest.

“I think language is a lot like basketball,” Diaz told The Arizona Republic in 2018, upon winning a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, “because I think language is an energy, it’s a happening, a kind of movement.”

In 2017, Diaz began her career at ASU. As an educator, Diaz’s focus is trained on close mentorship of graduate students in Department of English’s creative writing program. Her mentorship of and advocacy for students is an extension of her considerable gifts, and she encourages her mentees to incorporate both art and activism into their everyday lives.

Diaz does the same in her own life, and in her writing. Her words themselves teach and delight, turn and discomfit. She writes with wit, beauty, vulnerability and — especially in the love poems — with reverence. In the poem “From the Desire Field,” Diaz reveals the anxiety that keeps her up at night. It feels alive, and so she makes it into something lush and green: a garden.

Maritza Estrada, the artistic development and research assistant for ASU’s Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and a graduate student in creative writing, reads “From the Desire Field.” 

From the body to the page

The poems in “Postcolonial Love Poem” range in tone from humorous to tragic, sometimes in the same stanza. They reference Greek myth, police statistics and Sherman Alexie. Diaz doesn’t shy away from difficult topics; instead, she gives them a kind of dialectic treatment. She transforms the knife in her brother’s hand into a tool for mining starlight. She sings an indie rock lyric (“Oh say say say”) in her mother’s voice. And she churns her grief at America’s imperialist abuses into a caress under her lover’s shirt.

Topically, Diaz’s poems careen from her brother’s methamphetamine addiction (Blood-Light”), to the precarious sovereignty of the Indigenous body (“Top 10 Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball” and “American Arithmetic”), to the many virtues of her lover (“Ode to the Beloved’s Hips”).

ASU creative writing graduate student Julian Delacruz reads “American Arithmetic.”

Like “American Arithmetic,” many of Diaz’s poems reference and normalize her Indigenous heritage, beautifully articulating the pain and pride she feels in her cultural identification. Elsewhere, she has talked about how she navigates the divide between this and other dichotomies. “I am Native, so I am both — truth/fiction,” she told PEN America, “and also bleeding over or overflowing each.”

Nationally, efforts are underway to bring visibility to the service, sacrifice and sovereignty of Indigenous Americans – efforts like the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which was unveiled on Nov. 11 in Washington, D.C. However, Diaz acknowledges in her poetry that she must always remain vigilant — her primary goal is to be fully seen, not contextualized or defined, by others:

At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the U.S.
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.

— Natalie Diaz, from “American Arithmetic”

Top photo of Natalie Diaz by Deanna Dent/ASU Now