From the MacArthur Foundation:
“Natalie Diaz is a poet blending personal, political, and cultural references in works that challenge the systems of belief underlying contemporary American culture. She connects her own experiences as a Mojave American and Latina woman to widely recognized cultural and mythological touchstones, creating a personal mythology that viscerally conveys the oppression and violence that continue to afflict Indigenous Americans in a variety of forms.
In her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), Diaz reflects on her brother’s drug addiction, drawing upon Mojave, Greek, and Christian symbols to describe his destructive behavior and its effect on her family. Her brother is alternately a charismatic Icarus persuading his parents to let him come home again, the figure of Judas betraying his family, and most hauntingly, an Aztec god who devours his parents every morning. In “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” addiction is personified as the Devil, seen by her brother in his hallucinatory state and then by her mother as she recognizes her son’s brutal and desperate condition. Other poems in the collection focus on Diaz’s childhood on a reservation. “Hand-Me-Down Halloween” is an angry eruption of language that ensues in the wake of the speaker being taunted by a white boy for wearing a secondhand Tonto costume. She takes a more satirical and wry approach in “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” folding a biting critique of economic inequality, stereotyping, appropriation, body-image issues, and consumer culture into a series of tableaux centering around a Barbie of Mojave identity trying to fit into a standard Barbie universe.
Diaz ends the book with poems about an unnamed beloved, and in more recent poems she has continued to explore expressions of Indigenous love in nature, family, and community. Other recent poems, such as “American Arithmetic”—about police violence against Native Americans—and “The First Water Is the Body”—written in honor of the Standing Rock protesters and her own Mojave people—engage directly with the bodily oppression of Indigenous Americans and the urgency of survival. Diaz is a powerful new poetic voice, and she is broadening the venues for and reach of Indigenous perspectives through her teaching, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and language preservation efforts.”