On Love in Tragedy: Lessons from Natalie Diaz

Natalie Diaz

By Caroline Smith ’19

It is not every day that you can meet a MacArthur genius, but on November 2nd the Visiting Writer Seminar class did just that. After studying Natalie Diaz’s collection of poems, When My Brother Was an Aztec, for two months, we were ready to meet the author. We came to the master class prepared with questions and with open minds.

Sabrina ’19 noted that, at the start of class, the room was mixed with a feeling of awe and ease because we had, at that point, recognized her brilliance, but we also felt like we had known her for a long time through reading her poetry.

Diaz graciously opened the time up for questions, and we began by asking her about the cover image of her collection.

After several questions about “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” “Hand-Me-Down Halloween,” and “Jimmy Eagle’s Hot Cowboy Boots Blues,” among others, Lydia ’19, asked Diaz a question that stopped her in her tracks: “Is there anything you want us to know about the book that we haven’t asked you?” 

This question prompted Diaz to explain how she wrote about both love and pain simultaneously to show how humans are capable of experiencing the full scope of emotions, regardless of their situation. Shaneice ’19 later reflected that Diaz, through this response, deconstructed “the idea that writers can only write about one singular theme.” 

This response struck a chord in the room because we had not yet been able to quite pin down how the two themes of love and pain intersected in poems like “Lorca’s Red Dresses.” However, when Diaz pointed out that even within tragedy, love and possibility can still prosper, it clicked for us. 

Now with the information that Diaz viewed love and pain as separate themes that ran together to reveal something about the human experience, we began to view the collection a little differently. In light of this knowledge, we saw the collection as more of an attempt to express emotions and ask questions rather than to pin down answers that are not there. 

Following the visit, Shaneice observed that what many people miss after reading just a few of her poems was that “while Diaz does have a brother who struggles with addiction, her identity is far more than the poems ‘My Brother at 3 A.M’ and ‘How to Go to Dinner With a Brother On Drugs.’ Natalie Diaz is also the writer of love with her poem ‘I Watch Her Eat The Apple.’ ” In other words, “her story does not end with her brother’s addiction.” 

After discovering the intersection between love and tragedy in Diaz’s poetry, we were excited to learn that in 2020 Diaz will publish a new collection, titled Post-Colonial Love Poem, which will shine a light on the love that is often overlooked at first glance in her poems.