Arizona-based Indigenous, Latino, and queer poet Natalie Diaz earns 2021 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Postcolonial Love Poem.
Natalie Diaz wasn’t thinking about awards the day she learned she’d received the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. At the moment, Diaz had been getting things in order for the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands, an Indigenous space at Arizona State University in Tempe where she serves as founding director.
“I didn’t even realize the Pulitzer Prizes were coming up,” she says, recalling the day the awards were announced on Friday, June 11. “Time has been so transformed with the pandemic.”
The Arizona-based poet published Postcolonial Love Poem in 2020, never imagining the poetry collection would one day earn her the prestigious prize.
Diaz received the news from her editor at Graywolf Press, and remembers experiencing an odd and uncharacteristic reaction. For years, Diaz played professional basketball, where measured reactions to countless wins and losses became part of the job.
“It’s the first time I can remember being overcome with emotion,” says Diaz, who was home on the reservation when she heard the announcement. Born in 1978, Diaz was raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe.
She headed to her mom’s house to celebrate. “It hasn’t been that long that we’ve been able to be together,” she says, referring to pandemic separation. “I felt really lucky.”
The Pulitzer Prize, first awarded by Columbia University in 1917, recognizes achievements in journalism, literature, and musical composition. This year recipients include Louise Erdrich (Chippewa), recognized in the fiction category for her novel The Night Watchman.
This is the latest accolade for Diaz, who received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2018. In early 2021, at age 42, she became the youngest poet ever elected to the board of chancellors for the Academy of American Poets. She’s also an associate professor of English in creative writing at ASU, where she holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall chair in modern and contemporary poetry.
Diaz earned her MFA in poetry and fiction at Old Dominion University in 2007, but says poetry took root in her life long before her formal studies.
“My mother and father and elders and the stories they tell are poetic, even though they never wrote poetry,” Diaz says. “Story is where poetry begins.” A speaker of Mojave, Spanish, and English, her language activism includes working on preserving her native tongue.
Her first collection of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012, is largely about her brother’s addiction to crystal meth. With Postcolonial Love Poem, Diaz explores postcolonial violence experienced by Indigenous people past and present, as well as pleasure, sensuality, and desire.
Calling it “an anthem of desire against erasure,” Graywolf Press says the collection “demands that every body carried in its pages—bodies of language, land, rivers, suffering brothers, enemies, and lovers—be touched and held as beloveds.”
“I was trying to be very intentional about love, and the ways I wanted to carry people in the book,” Diaz says of her Pulitzer Prize-winning work. “In some ways, words are like hands reaching out to people, holding them dear. I wanted my hands in the book to be firm, strong, demanding.”
Diaz—who describes herself as an Indigenous and Latino person, and also self-identifies as queer—says her identity is central to everything she does.
“I’m really committed to imagining what the love poem can be for someone like me,” says Diaz, who has recently been experimenting with moving images of water and making rough cinematic films. Additionally, she’s been “working on a little novella for a while.”
Thinking about the ways Postcolonial Love Poem is resonating in the present moment, Diaz pauses to consider the book’s larger context, including the isolation of pandemic life.
“We all have these questions and we all want to receive and offer love even if we don’t know how,” she says. “Maybe we’re all in this place that the pandemic escalated, where we all need more connection to each other.”