The concept of hunger can be used to represent many different things, whether it be in the physical, emotional, or conceptual sense. In Natalie Diaz’s poetry, hunger serves to represent ideas in both physical and psychological ways. She places the concept of hunger skillfully throughout her works in When My Brother Was An Aztec, so as to reveal the psychological meanings of hunger under the guise of physical hunger. In her work, Diaz truly embodies the idea that she “is not afraid to be hungry…not afraid to be full” (Harjo). There is a definite sense of hunger present in her poetry, but there is not a fear of unfulfillment. Poems like “No More Cake Here” and “Why I Hate Raisins” incorporate such a sense of physical hunger which, in turn, represents a deeper psychological hunger.
“No More Cake Here” exemplifies the duality of hunger’s meaning in Diaz’s poetry. In the poem, the focus is around a party the speaker is throwing in honor of her brother. However, the reader learns in the first line that it is not jovial birthday party, but a celebration of her brother’s death. However, the speaker describes the party in a gleeful way, which gives the poem an uneasy feeling. Although the description of the party is celebratory, each facet of the party has a darker connotation to it. For instance, the speaker details that she has sent out “one hundred invitations,” but did so “while on the phone with the mortuary” (Diaz 3-4). She also explains that she “put Mom and Dad in charge of balloons” yet goes on to say she “let them blow as many years of my brother’s name, / jails, twenty-dollar bills, midnight phone calls, / fistfights, and ER visits as they could let go of” (Diaz 11-13). The descriptions of the party are dynamic in the fact that they are simultaneously festive and grim. The same duality could be said of the “cake” the speaker bakes for the party (Diaz 27). The first time the cake is referenced is in lines 27-29, and the speaker states, “I baked my brother’s favorite cake (chocolate, white frosting). / When I counted there were ninety-nine of us in the kitchen. We all stuck our fingers in the mixing bowl.” These lines are the first time the concept of hunger is referenced in the poem. On the physical level, everyone dipping their fingers into the bowl to taste the cake batter is a representation of indulgence, much like how the speaker’s brother indulges in meth. There is tremendous temptation to try a bit of the cake batter, just as there is the brother’s temptation to use meth. The party patrons trying the cake batter is a direct parallel to the brother’s meth addiction; the temptation is just too great.
The cake not only represents physical temptation, but also represents a deeper, more psychological hunger as well. The cake in the mixing bowl represents the sense of relief felt now that the brother is deceased. Now that he is dead, no one will have to fear what he will do next, and the act of the sticking their fingers in the bowl represents the partygoers collectively indulging in the relief they feel from the brother’s passing and no longer having to deal with him. However, the speaker mentions that there are “ninety-nine” people in the kitchen, but one hundred invitations were sent out. The missing partygoer is the speaker’s mother, who “slept of ten years— / she missed the whole party” (Diaz 16-17). The mother did not taste the cake and indulge in the relief of her son’s death because she was heartbroken that she had lost her son, and her sleeping for ten years represents the depressive or exhaustive state she slipped into after his death.
In the last stanza of the poem, the speaker mentions cake again, but this time it represents a different kind of psychological hunger. At the end of the poem, the speakers says, “The worst part he said was / he wasn’t even dead. I think he’s right, but maybe / the worst part is that I’m still imagining the party, maybe / the worst part is that I can still taste the cake” (Diaz 61-64). In this case, cake does not represent the relief of her brother passing away, but the speaker’s yearning to actually feel the relief of her brother’s death. When the speaker says she can “still taste the cake,” she is revealing that she can still feel the relief —and perhaps satisfaction— of her brother dying. The lingering taste represents the speaker’s hunger for freedom, which can only truly be achieved by the death of her brother. The speaker and her family would no longer have to bear the burden of his meth addiction and could finally live without fear of his next move.
The duality of hunger’s meaning is also epitomized in the poem “Why I Hate Raisins.” The speaker in this poem details the struggle of day-to-day life, particularly the lack of food. She states that even on the days they had “no groceries” there was still the box of raisins (Diaz 3-4). One day, the speaker complains that she is hungry, and her mother gives her the box of raisins to eat. The speaker eats the raisins too fast and becomes sick, illustrating that the raisins “set like black / clay at the bottom of my belly / making it ache and swell” (Diaz 9-11). On a physical level, the speaker’s hunger and subsequent heaviness of her stomach represents the cycle her family has slipped into regarding their food situation. The speaker’s hunger represents the family’s need to have food provided to them by the government, and the heaviness of her stomach represents the heaviness the family feels when their food supply begins to dwindle. Not only does it weigh on the family to have to ration out their food, but it also weighs on them that they are dependent on the government’s food supply to survive. The heaviness in the speaker’s stomach can also represent how the shame of eating all the raisins —and ultimately letting her own mother go hungry— weighs on her. Chinese philosopher Menicus poses the question, “And is it only the mouth and belly which are injured by hunger and thirst?” The question is answered by the shame the speaker feels from eating all the raisins and later understanding that she let her mother go hungry, which injures her psyche and causes more pain than her upset stomach.
Much like the cake in “No More Cake Here,” the raisins in “Why I Hate Raisins” also represent a complex psychological hunger on top of a physical hunger. It is easier to understand exactly how the raisins represent psychological hunger, because in line 13 the speaker states, “I just want a sandwich like the other kids.” Her mother then replies, “What other kids?…You mean the white kids. You want to be a white kid?” (Diaz 15, 17-18) Although it may seem as though the speaker’s hunger is to be a white child, it is not. What she truly yearns for is the privilege that the white children are granted. When the speaker says she wants a sandwich, on the physical level she wants a sandwich, but psychologically she wants the stability that the sandwich represents. This idea is further proven when she says, “at least the white kids don’t get the shits” (Diaz 21). The deeper meaning behind this sentence is really, “at least the white kids can afford to live off of more than USDA provided raisins.” The speaker’s physical and psychological hunger are closely linked, and are both represented by a simple pack of raisins.
Works like “No More Cake Here” and “Why I Hate Raisins” intricately twine together the different meanings of physical and psychological hunger. In “No More Cake Here” the partygoers trying the cake in the mixing bowl portrays a physical need to diminish their hunger, and also represents the psychological act of finding solace in the death of the speaker’s brother. “Why I Hate Raisins” outright addresses the true physical hunger the speaker tries to sate with raisins, but the raisins also represent the speaker’s hunger to live a privileged and stable life. Hunger is one of the more trivial concepts in Diaz’s works, layered in meaning and portrayed in multiple ways, with the most intriguing of them being how she is able to represent both physical and psychological hunger in the same objects, like cake and raisins.