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ODU Alum Natalie Diaz’s Poetry Gets New York Times Attention

Former Old Dominion University basketball player and M.F.A. graduate Natalie Diaz's debut book of poetry is getting national attention - most recently in a glowing New York Times book review.

Eric McHenry, an author who teaches at Washburn University in Kansas, wrote favorably of "When My Brother Was an Aztec" in the Times' Sunday Book Review. The review appeared in the iconic newspaper's Jan. 27 print edition and online.

Diaz received a bachelor's degree from ODU in 2000. While an undergraduate, she was a standout on the Lady Monarchs basketball team who went on to play professionally in Europe and Asia after graduation. Diaz eventually returned to Norfolk and received a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing in 2006.

"When My Brother Was an Aztec" was published last spring by Copper Canyon Press.

"On the evidence collected in this ambitious, uneven, beautiful book, her skill with metaphor owes much to her being a good listener," McHenry wrote in the review. He also noted Diaz's current project working to preserve the dying Mojave language with the last four fluent speakers still living at the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation, in California, where she grew up.

Luisa Igloria, director of ODU's M.F.A. Creative Writing Program, said Diaz's book initially served as her graduate thesis. Igloria added she was "thrilled" at the attention her former student is receiving.

Late last year, Diaz's work was recognized by the Los Angeles-based Lannan Foundation, an organization "dedicated to cultural freedom, diversity and creativity through projects which support exceptional contemporary artists and writers, as well as inspired Native activists in rural indigenous communities." Diaz was awarded the Bread Loaf 2012 Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry and a 2012 Narrative Prize for her poem "Downhill Triolets," according to the foundation's website.

"Word is getting around the poetry community," Igloria said. "She's always been wonderful. We saw she was a strong writer from the beginning. She has a reputation as someone who is passionate about everything she does."

Last summer, "PBS NewsHour" highlighted Diaz's ongoing work to preserve the Mojave language as well as her book, whose subject matter tackles often-harsh themes concerning reservation life, teen pregnancy and her brother's methamphetamine addiction.

"For me, writing - it's kind of a way for me to explore why I want things and why I'm afraid of things and why I worry about things. And, for me, all of those things represent a kind of hunger that comes with being raised in a place like this," Diaz explains, in a PBS interview posted online.

For more of Diaz's story, and to hear her read excerpts from "When My Brother Was an Aztec," visit PBS NewsHour. The New York Times book review can be found here.

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