JAQUIRA DÍAZ’S FIRST BOOK — the memoir Ordinary Girls, published by Algonquin Books on October 29 — lyrically chronicles a childhood and early adulthood marked by pain and chaos but also by joy and celebration. Díaz grew up, first, in one of Puerto Rico’s roughest neighborhoods and then amid Miami’s Latinx “hood girls,” hitting the beaches and the clubs, taking refuge in poetry and prose, getting drawn into drugs and violence, contemplating love and death. Juxtaposing her own struggles with those of her parents, grandparents, and ancestors, as well as the Puerto Rican people generally, Díaz weaves in cultural history alongside urgent issues of race and gender. Her search for the truth compels her to reevaluate past personal traumas, including reaching out to a condemned murderer, all to make more sense of her life in the present.
Díaz’s celebrated personal essays, some of which now form chapters in Ordinary Girls, have appeared in Longreads, The Sun, Slice, Los Angeles Review of Books, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. One has been included in The Best American Essays 2016. Díaz sat down with LARB to discuss her memoir, her love of music, and her gratitude for the richness of her Puerto Rican heritage.
KAVITA DAS: You begin and end Ordinary Girls with your beloved “hood girls.” And you make clear that this book is written for and about them — the ones you know and the ones you don’t. What did you learn about love and life from your “hood girls” and from growing up as one yourself?
JAQUIRA DÍAZ: More so than any of my girls, I’m someone who has had access to education, to an MFA program, to fellowships and writing conferences. It’s taken a lot of hard work and resilience to get here, but that doesn’t erase the fact that I’ve had these opportunities and my girls haven’t. The world isn’t kind to black and brown girls, or black and brown women, especially when they come from working-class communities or from poverty. My girls taught me that it’s possible to make our own families, to find our families. They helped me believe in love and friendship and hope. But more than anything, after they had girls of their own, it was their girls who taught me the most important lessons: they helped me see the girl I was. They helped me remember that there are girls out there who are just like I was, just like we were. My story wasn’t unique — somewhere there is a teenage girl with a mother who suffers from mental illness and addiction, just trying to get through the day. Maybe seeing herself in this book will make life a little bit easier.
In Ordinary Girls, you talk about how the villain in the narrative of your life changes. Sometimes it’s your Papi, other times it’s your Mami, sometimes your brother Anthony, and sometimes your grandmother Mercy. But you acknowledge that sometimes it’s you. How did this rotation of villains come to shape your narrative?
A couple of readers have told me that Ordinary Girls seems to move in a circular or cyclical motion. I kept returning to certain themes, certain events, certain people and places. I gave up the idea of writing a memoir that was strictly chronological because that felt forced; instead, I let things emerge organically. Sometimes I flashed back, sometimes I flashed forward, sometimes I changed tense or point of view. I was driven more by a need to make sense of things, to interrogate memories that had stuck with me through the years.
I tried to think about this concept of “villains” after having separate conversations with my mother and father, after realizing that their versions of the story were very different. It felt important to give some consideration (and to allow the reader access) to these different versions, because that changed the way I thought about my parents’ marriage, about my mother’s illness and behavior, and eventually about myself and the woman I’d become. I was always searching for the truth, not just my truth, and I hope that comes through for the reader.
Beyond your own harrowing life journey, Ordinary Girls is also about the perils and redemption of family and friendship, and how chosen families can compensate when biological families fall short. How did you go about depicting the impact of your friends and family on your personal journey?
That was one of the most difficult things to do in this book. I was always conscious that I was writing about real people and that, no matter what I wrote, it would only ever be a partial recollection and flawed depiction of a real person with their own story. I tried to protect their privacy as much as possible, so I changed their names, used nicknames, and sometimes changed details of their appearance. But I never set out to tell their stories — how could I? People have a right to privacy, and to their own stories. What readers get in Ordinary Girls is still just a fraction of the real person/people. What I tried to capture were some important aspects of each person and how they affected my life, and this varied by chapter, depending on that chapter’s narrative arc and theme (and so many other things). People are complex, much more complex than I could ever show on the page. I could spend my whole life writing about these people and never do them justice.
Race is a constant thread within Ordinary Girls. This was a personal issue for you since you were often viewed as taking after the black side of your family. How did this shape your larger view of race and your place within conversations about race?
I’m Afro-Boricua, but the term “Afro-Latinx” was not one we ever used at home. My abuela was unapologetically black and Boricua, and at home we used the words “negra” and “negro,” always as terms of endearment. Our white grandmother was racist, and when she used words referring to our black family, to our blackness, they were always used to demean and dehumanize us.
My whole life people have tried to tell me who I am or who I’m supposed to be. My whole life people have looked at me and tried to measure my proximity to whiteness, always asking, What are you? Sometimes they don’t ask, they just assume. The things that white people (including white Latinxs) have said to me, or said in front of me, because they couldn’t tell I was black. Passing was not something I wanted or want. It feels (and has always felt) violent.
Because of anti-blackness in the United States and Latin America, most of us are either hyper-visible or invisible, or both simultaneously. So many people I’ve had conversations with don’t even know that Latinxs are not a race or that black people exist in Puerto Rico (and throughout all of Latin America) and that we don’t all look exactly the same.
As a light-skinned black Boricua, I’m often read as racially ambiguous, and because of colorism, I benefit from my proximity to whiteness. I think it’s our responsibility (those of us who benefit from light-skinned privilege or racial ambiguity or whiteness) to have a reckoning with race, to do the work to actively address institutional racism, as well as racism and colorism in our everyday lives, not just in the public eye. Otherwise, we are complicit.
We have to talk about the music in the book. It provides a perpetual and varied soundtrack, contextualizing the whole narrative. There’s the Latin music your family is listening to while you’re living in Puerto Rico as a child, then your mother’s obsession with Madonna, followed by early ’90s R&B and hip-hop while you hang with your girlfriends in Miami. You and your girlfriends even picked out the songs you wanted played after your planned suicides (Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye,” DRS’s “Gangsta Lean”). Is it fair to say that music was a constant companion for your best and worst times?
I studied music as a kid. I wrote music, dreamed of making music, being in musical theater, touring with bands. Aside from writing, music was what I wanted my life to be. But music lessons cost money, and we were poor, so I had to give up that dream. I stopped playing altogether, stopped singing. But it remained a huge part of my life, except now I just write about it.
Music is also a huge part of my daily life with my partner. We both write to music. Music is almost always playing at our apartments in Miami Beach and Montréal, and we live with a kind of always-present soundtrack. We start the day to José Feliciano, we cook together to Nina Simone or Sam Cooke, we clean the house to Prince or Héctor Lavoe, we get busy to Marvin Gaye or Sam Smith. We usually keep Khalid and 6lack on rotation.
In the book, I wanted the juxtaposition of joy alongside the pain, beauty alongside the ugliness. There were times in the book when I wanted to establish a cultural and historical moment, to help the reader remember a particular time and place. Music made that possible in so many ways.
You depict over and over your struggle with running away — from family, from relationships, from the military. But committing your life to the page for all to read is a huge act of not running. How has writing, and specifically writing this memoir, impacted you in terms of this personal struggle?
Growing up, I used to live and think in a kind of future tense, always looking toward the future, always dreaming of what could be, in order to get away from the present moment. It was a way of surviving, dreaming of some other life. I realized that I was still doing this when I started writing Ordinary Girls 12 years ago. I wasn’t really living in the present moment or allowing myself to interrogate the past. Writing — especially writing nonfiction, and especially this book — has changed that for me. I had to take some time to think about the past, to interrogate all the reasons I was living the way I did, to think about abuse and addiction and mental illness and racism and violence, and to move forward — to actually live, not just dream about living a better life. Now, I live in the present. I’m in love, and engaged, and happy. Personally, I’m happier than I’ve been my whole life. Professionally, I feel grateful, and lucky, to do what I do.
In the book, your friend observes that you are drawn to people who do terrible, controversial things — from Ana María Cardona, the “Baby Lollipops” killer, to Lolita Lebrón, the Puerto Rican nationalist who led an attack on the US Congress. You chose to weave their narratives into your own. Why are their stories relevant to you? Do you feel a personal connection to them, or are you seeking as a writer to give them voice beyond the sensational headlines?
I’m not drawn to people who do terrible things in general — I’m drawn to individual people and individual stories, to people who are loved and hated, sometimes in equal measure, to people who are capable of being incredibly loving, but also incredibly violent. This is humanity.
And of course, I felt a personal connection to Lolita Lebrón, as a lot of Puerto Ricans do. She wanted freedom for Puerto Rico.
I still can’t explain why, specifically, I was drawn to Ana María Cardona. But I can’t ignore that she was Latina, and queer, and suffered from depression and addiction, and grew up in poverty. Or that she tortured and killed her baby. Or that she loves her surviving children. Or that the media portrayed her as a monster, that people referred to her as a monster. She’s not a monster. She’s a woman.
You write, “I know something about the in-between, of being seen but not really seen. I have lived there my whole life,” and you explain the personal impact of having your culture and people stolen by colonialism and slavery. You go on to note “[h]ow strong [is] our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget.” Where do you see Ordinary Girls fitting into this legacy?
When I started writing this book, I thought not just about how to write my story, but how my story is connected to a larger world and what my place in that larger world might be. I am always aware that there would be no Ordinary Girls without all of the Puerto Rican writers who came before me, writing in Spanish, writing in English, bilingual writers. I wouldn’t have this language if not for my abuela’s español jíbaro. There would be no Jaquira Díaz if we’d never had Esmeralda Santiago, or Judith Ortíz Cofer, or Mayra Santos-Febres, or Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro. I am indebted to them, and to all the Boricuas who came before me.
But I am also indebted to la gente de mi pueblo, especially the people of El Caserío Padre Rivera, people who lived in poverty when I was a girl, who gave me a sense of community, and so many stories. And while I’ve had access to education and so-called upward mobility, some of the people I knew continue to live in poverty — there are colonial systems that keep us there, that make it almost impossible for us to get out.
When I wrote, “How strong our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget,” I meant to call myself out, to implicate myself, to resist the act of forgetting, to resist being complicit in this erasure.
Kavita Das writes about culture, race, gender, and their intersections. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, a biography of the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer who played a pivotal role in bringing Indian music to the West, was published in June 2019 by Harper Collins India. She is also at work on a collection of personal essays.