We started talking about dying long before the first woman jumped. This is a gripping first line for any essay, all the more for one looking back at the writer’s middle school years. In “Ordinary Girls,” Jaquira Díaz and her friends don’t contemplate banal suicides: We wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from. In “Beach City,” Díaz and her friends are older, “seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” getting smoked out by guys and “fucking on lifeguard stands,” declaring that Miami Beach belongs to them, not the tourists. In these true stories and as in Díaz’s fiction, she captures vulnerability and brutality, beauty and chaos, in lyrical, urgent prose.
Díaz is the 2016-18 Kenyon Review Fellow in Prose. Her publications include Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of the Small Presses; the Guardian; Ploughshares; The Sun; The Southern Review; Salon; Brevity; Ninth Letter; Slice; TriQuarterly; The Rumpus; and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her work was noted as a Notable Essay or Notable Story in The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, and 2015, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. This fall, her work will be reprinted in The Best American Essays 2016. She is the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, the Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and an NEA Fellowship to the Hambidge Center for the Arts. She’s been awarded fellowships or scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The MacDowell Colony, the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation, among others. She is the editor of 15 Views of Miami, an anthology of linked short stories.
In my interview with Jaquira Díaz, we discuss the challenge of writing about family members, her greatest joy as a writer, and her literary role models.
The Rumpus: Your nonfiction and fiction reflect your coming-of-age experiences: your parents divorced; in your family, there is a history of mental illness, addiction, and suicide; and you’ve referred to yourself as having been a juvenile delinquent. When did you begin to follow the path that lead to becoming a writer? Did you write as a child/teen? Was there a particular turning point?
Jaquira Díaz: Before I was a writer, I was a reader. I loved books because my father loved books. He’d been a student at the University of Puerto Rico, writing protest poems and studying literature and the work of pro-independence political activists. We didn’t have children’s books in the house, so his books were the first I read. I was a kid trying to make sense of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, pretending I could understand Julia de Burgos and Juan Antonio Corretjer. We lived in poverty, in one of Puerto Rico’s government housing projects, and my father eventually had to drop out to support his family. He became a drug dealer. But he never stopped loving books—my brother was named after Hugo Margenat, who was his favorite poet.
My coming of age (in Puerto Rico and Miami) was absolute chaos. When I was eleven, I attempted suicide for the first time. Then a few months after that, I ran away from home for the first time. And then I started getting arrested. I was what they called a “repeat offender.” I kept running away, kept getting arrested, kept fighting in the streets, kept trying to kill myself. I was drinking and using drugs, seeing court-appointed shrinks. I was so angry, so lost. I turned to books because I needed something. I was always writing, but for most of those years I didn’t think I’d even make it to my eighteenth birthday. And then I did. And then I wasn’t sure I’d make it to twenty. When I came back to Miami Beach and ran into people I knew in high school, some were surprised to know I was alive.
There were many turning points, not just one. But the first time I realized it was possible, it was because of a Language Arts teacher at Nautilus Middle School—Mr. Douglas Williamson. When most people had given up on me, including other teachers, he never stopped pushing me, never stopped letting me know that I could do better, that he expected better of me.
Just after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami, Mr. Williamson gave us all an assignment to write an essay about our experience, how our families planned for it, how we survived it, the aftermath of the storm. I turned in my essay and forgot about it. A couple of months later, I learned that he had submitted it to some writing contest for Miami-Dade County students and it was published in the Miami Herald. Everybody was surprised, including me. I was not that girl. I was the girl who threw down with girls and boys and their older sisters and even the DARE cop, who got suspended every year for fighting on the first day of school, got kicked off two different school buses, got kicked out of music class for throwing a chair at the math teacher’s son, got kicked out of Pre-Algebra for stealing the teacher’s grade book, got slammed onto a police car by two cops, in front of the whole school, after a brawl with six other girls.
Mr. Williamson, he saw more than just the lost girl, the angry delinquent who never walked away from a fight. There was a lot of pain there. I was a closeted queer girl who’d come from poverty, growing up in a community where gay men and women were attacked, even killed, being raised by an elderly grandmother because my mother, who was an addict suffering from mental illness, couldn’t. And my father? Well, he was absent most of the time.
Mr. Williamson challenged me. He didn’t turn me around completely—life got much worse before it got better—but I always thought of him and how it felt to have someone who saw something in me, when even my parents thought I’d end up in jail, or dead. I went back to Nautilus a couple of years ago, to thank him, but he wasn’t there anymore. Wherever he is, I hope he’s still a teacher. His students, every single one of us, were lucky to have him.
Rumpus: Do you ever hesitate, or get pushback from your family, when you’re writing about the intimate details of your life and their lives? What advice do you have for writers who censor themselves for fear of upsetting their family members?
Díaz: I don’t ask for permission. I’ve pissed off some people, which is amazing considering I don’t have a book out yet. I’ve had someone threaten to kick my ass if I wrote about them, even though they don’t even read and have no idea what I’m writing. I’ve had someone walk out on a reading and then yell at me in a parking lot. I had family members gossip about me. My father and I have had conversations about this and he’s been very supportive, even when it means sharing those intimate, ugly details. My mother knows I’m writing a book and is proud that I’m a writer. She thinks it means I’m famous. When we talk about my writing, she mostly just wants to know if there will be a movie soon and who’s going to play her.
I’m conflicted about this because I don’t hide who I am, who I’ve been, or where I came from, and I don’t believe in censorship. But people have a right to their privacy, to their own stories, and should be allowed to live their lives with dignity and grace. Especially the people who come from the marginalized communities I write about, because they’re already robbed of or denied so much, including their own voices, and I firmly believe in building up communities rather than tearing them down.
I don’t ask for permission, but I do sometimes let people know I’m writing about them and I offer to change their names. If there’s a chance what I’m writing will affect their personal or professional lives, I use nicknames or leave out their names altogether. People always recognize themselves, even when it’s not them you’re even writing about. People will remember the events you wrote about even if they weren’t there, will remember shit you know never happened, and will deny something even if you have it on video.
My advice? Be brave. Write, be honest, be open and vulnerable and self-aware. Don’t let yourself off the hook, go deeper, write harder. And be prepared for the consequences.
Rumpus: In your experience, what is the toughest part of being a writer?
Díaz: Making money. Everything to do with money. I see writing as a career, a business. Yes, it’s definitely making art, but writing is also my day job. Or rather, finding ways to make money from writing is my day job. What’s the toughest part of that? You put so many hours into this thing, you spend weeks, months, years working on a project, and then someone expects you to do it for free. I write to support myself—it’s not a hobby. I’ve had this conversation many, many times, and people are often surprised that I expect to make money. Some writers are perfectly happy being paid in “exposure,” or copies of a journal or magazine, but we all have bills to pay. Writers, all writers, should absolutely expect to be paid. You should definitely get paid for your hard work, for your time. No one would ask a cashier or a bank teller or a hotel manager to work for free. Why are writers expected to spend their careers doing volunteer work?
This is much more difficult for writers of color, queer writers, and writers from underrepresented communities. We are already fighting for visibility and representation, so imagine, on top of that, expecting to be paid for our work.
Rumpus: What is your greatest joy as a writer?
Díaz: I wrote about this in a Facebook post several months ago, when I first found out I’d gotten the Kenyon Review Fellowship, but it’s still true today: So much of what happens when you’re writing is just sitting at a computer, staring at a screen, absolutely terrified that no one will care about this thing you’ve been working on for years and years and years, this thing that has been your entire life, that has taken over your dreams and kept you away from your family and friends and made your hair fall out and made you break out in hives and caused you to have a breakdown at the front desk of a Los Angeles hotel while your friend tried to calm you down.
And then it turns out that someone does care about it, that someone understands your vision and believes in it as much as you do. And then the whole world seems possible.
Rumpus: You’re drawn to the mixed genre of literary horror. What appeals to you about this genre? Are there particular literary horror writers or stories that you consider to be the gold standard?
Díaz: I’ve always loved horror—since I was a kid. I was obsessed with monster stories. Zombies, werewolves, vampires. I also love sci-fi and fantasy, but what appeals to me most about horror is the way horror stories can be deeply psychological, about much more than just gore. I especially loved the stories passed down by my grandmother, about mythical monsters like La Llorona. La Llorona was a woman who drowned her children in a river, and then, after she realized what she’d done, she drowned herself and came back as a ghost. She’s a monster now, haunting the places where children play, wailing. She cries for her lost children. As much as her story is a ghost story, it’s also a story about grief, motherhood, abandonment, humanity. And it’s a myth that exists in so many cultures—it’s passed down in almost every Latin American country, and there are versions of it in the West Indies, Portugal, Spain. There’s a reason the story resonates across so many cultures and languages.
I’m also interested in the use of mythology and folklore in nonfiction. I have an essay in the latest issue of Ninth Letter, “Monster Story,” which is an attempt at this very thing. It’s about violence and family and La Llorona, among other things.
I love Shirley Jackson’s stories. I love Victor LaValle in general, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Some writers I love, who don’t necessarily stick to one genre, who could write anything as far as I’m concerned: Nalo Hopkinson and Angela Carter and Kelly Link and Karen Russell and Tananarive Due and Daniel José Older and Samuel Delany and Carmen Maria Machado.
Rumpus: Who are your other writing role models?
Díaz: Dorothy Allison. James Baldwin. Rebecca Solnit. Helen Oyeyemi. Kirstin Valdez Quade. Joy Williams. Jesmyn Ward. Diane Cook. Danielle Evans. Lindsay Hunter. Maggie Nelson. Jodi Angel. Randa Jarrar. Rebecca Makkai. Anne Carson. Pamela Erens. Porochista Khakpour. Karl Taro Greenfeld. Barbara Ehrenreich. William T. Vollmann. Truman Capote. Joan Didion. Melissa Chadburn. Eula Biss. Amelia Gray. Elena Passarello. Jennine Capó Crucet. Amina Gautier. Daniel Alarcón. Junot Díaz. Mayra Santos-Febres. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Antonya Nelson. Jo Ann Beard. Patricia Engel. Ru Freeman. Megan Abbott. Adriana Páramo. Sheree Renée Thomas. Lauren Groff. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Flannery O’Connor. Caitlin Horrocks. Julie Iromuanya. Angela Flournoy. Solmaz Sharif. Lacy M. Johnson. Amber Dermont. Lidia Yuknavitch. And finally, Elizabeth George, whose foundation supports emerging writers working on their first books.
Rumpus: “If I wasn’t a writer, I would be______________.”
Rumpus: What can you share about the memoir that you’re working on?
Díaz: I’m working on a few projects: I’m collaborating on an intersectional feminist/young adult/scifi novel with poet Keith S. Wilson. I’m working on a polyphonic literary/horror novel. And Ordinary Girls, which I like to think of as anti-memoir/literary journalism. You can read an excerpt in the Kenyon Review online, and a longer excerpt in the Kenyon Review’s Nov/Dec 2015 issue, also forthcoming in Best American Essays 2016.