When Jaquira Díaz began writing her memoir, Ordinary Girls, in 2006, few of us would have been able to predict that a former reality TV star would be the President of the United States, and that the current moment would so expose the depth of racism, sexism, and class privilege inherent in the American experience. Yet, while reading Ordinary Girls, I couldn’t think of another personal story that so clearly acts as a refutation of the ugliness of the Trump era.
Born in Puerto Rico, the child of a black father and a white mother, Díaz learned early about the political power of poetry and of the written word. In her book she recounts a complex yet happy early childhood. Then when her family moved to Florida, her life changed, not only because she was suddenly surrounded by a community that viewed her as an outsider, but because her father’s infidelity and her mother’s mental illness increasingly impacted her daily life, throwing her into a cycle of depression and anger.
The young Jaquira, or “Jaqui,” acted out, drinking too much, getting in fights, getting arrested. She faced sexual violence and bigotry against gay people. A recurring trope of the book is the idea of the monstrous feminine, and Díaz explores how she, as a young queer woman and a daughter of abuse, both faced monsters and took on the mantle of “monstruo” herself.
Despite how dire the summary of this story sounds, the memoir is ultimately a cry of hope. Díaz rises above her challenges, and ultimately, this book is the proof of her triumph.
I spoke with Díaz about monsters, the duality of the immigrant experience in America, and what it’s like to reject or embrace the label of being an “ordinary girl.”
The Rumpus: In a note at the book’s start, you acknowledge that as a writer, you needed to reconstruct the story as best you can. What did the research for this book look like? And how did memory fail or succeed for you as you created this piece?
Jaquira Díaz: Writing memoir involves not just the act of remembering, but also recreating, speculating, interrogating, re-envisioning, connecting… No matter what you write, it’s only a partial recollection and flawed depiction of the real story, of real people with their own stories. You use your skills as a writer to craft something akin to character, to dialogue, because the book requires it. What readers get in Ordinary Girls is still just a fraction of the story. People are much more complex than I could ever show on the page.
The research was extensive. In some cases, this involved conversations with family and friends, looking through photo albums, pictures, video, reading letters, journals, diaries, notes I kept over the years, essays and poems I wrote when I was a kid. I read a lot of books. In other cases, I spent hours upon hours poring over newspaper articles, trial transcripts. I read hours of witness testimony and transcripts of two different murder trials. I flew to Miami (when I was living in Ohio) to sit in on Ana María Cardona’s third murder trial, sat in the courtroom while she testified and waited for the jury to deliver the verdict. I went to Puerto Rico several times, spent summers there talking to family and friends, traveled all over the island interviewing teachers and animal rescue workers and ordinary people. A lot of it didn’t make it into the book, but I did write separate pieces about some of it.
Rumpus: When I met you in 2014, you were writing this book, and I know earlier versions of a few of the chapters have been published in journals. When did you begin writing Ordinary Girls, and how has the project of the book unfolded for you over time?
Díaz: I started writing Ordinary Girls around 2006, but took time away from it here and there. The writing, from beginning to end, took about twelve years. I had to step away several times, and there were many different versions. At one point I was writing a memoir that was just set in Puerto Rico. That changed, and I started writing essays. Then it was part memoir, part literary journalism. I sent some pages to my agent, Michelle Brower, and she gave me extensive notes. I revised, and that turned into about seven hundred pages. The book was a monster. Then, I started cutting until it was back to bare bones. Then I wrote some more essays. It wasn’t until I was a scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in Luis Alberto Urrea’s workshop, that I had a clear picture of what this book would be. Luis (and his wife Cindy) read the pieces I submitted, and my description of the book, and gave me some advice. After our conversations, I realized they were right. I left Bread Loaf and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, then sent the manuscript back to Michelle. She gave me extensive notes, again (thanks Michelle!), and I revised and sent it back. It was such a long process.
Rumpus: The idea of “ordinary girls” is an idea you return to a number of times in the book. What is an ordinary girl?
Díaz: The idea of the “ordinary girl” or “ordinary girls” changed for me over the course of writing the book, just like it has for me personally, outside of writing this book, over the years. When I was a kid, I never felt like I fit anywhere. I felt like an outsider in almost every situation, like an alien in my own family. There were times when being queer and closeted, when being Black and Puerto Rican, meant I felt hyper-visible and invisible all at once. You can see some of this in the book. I spent most of my adolescence hiding who I was, pretending to be someone else. There were times when I thought that what I wanted most was to be ordinary. An ordinary girl.
And then something shifted. As I fell deeper into depression, as I got angrier and angrier, I thought an ordinary girl was the worst thing you could possibly be. It was much more about negotiating girlhood, a certain kind of girlhood, and what that meant. By the end of the book, there’s an acceptance, as I embrace the kind of girl I was, and realize that these ordinary girls were capable of amazing feats. They saved me—their friendship, their love. They anchored me.
Rumpus: The chapter “Home Is a Place” begins with the following sentence: “There was a time, before my mother’s illness, before we left Puerto Rico for Miami Beach, when we were happy.” Miami and Puerto Rico both loom large in this book. They feel like living beings, like characters. Can you tell me a bit about how you were thinking about “place” as you wrote the book?
Díaz: I almost always begin with place when I’m writing a piece—either fiction or nonfiction. It feels necessary to me, to know the place, to know the people, the cultural and historical moments, before I even begin the writing. Setting for me is much more than just where something is set, much more than place. Setting is a historical and cultural marker. It’s metaphor. It’s theme and atmosphere. It’s a marker of time and progress, or a way to show lack of movement or progress.
When I thought about Miami, I was mostly thinking about setting as way of depicting contradictions, duality. How Miami Beach for me was both beach and city, where the natural world and this constructed cityscape co-exist, a liminal and transient place. It was both ugly and beautiful, dirty and glamorous. But also how the duality of the immigrant or migrant experience is felt in a place like Miami—coming from Puerto Rico, how suddenly we were stripped of our language in school, but outside of school we still spoke Spanish at home. How some people who came from places like Puerto Rico and Cuba and Colombia and Venezuela and Haiti were doctors and lawyers and professors and architects back home, but in Miami, they were driving taxis and cleaning hotel rooms and valet parking cars and struggling to pay the rent. How it takes so many years, so much hard work, to get some of that back.
In thinking about Puerto Rico, I thought about how to convey historical and present-day violence against Puerto Ricans, about colonialism, racism, and systematic oppression. But also about joy—how to convey joy and beauty when writing about the island.
Rumpus: In that same chapter, there is a bit of a battle between your Abuela (your father’s mother, who is black) and your grandmother Mercy (your mother’s mother, who is white). You say,
In Abuela’s house, we were all negros, even if we had a white mother, even though Alaina and I looked brown, even though my blond-haired brother looked white. She called us “mi negrita” and “mi negrito,” always as terms of endearment.
And then later, “Our white grandmother, Mercy, hated that my hair was a tangle of dry fizzy curls like my father’s. Bad hair, she called it.” There’s a sense in which, as the young Jaqui grows up, she’s caught between two worlds. Can you talk about that?
Díaz: It was all three of us, my siblings and I. But I wasn’t really caught between two worlds, to be honest. I was always aware that we weren’t white. We were a black family. Our abuela made sure we knew who we were—she owned the word “negra,” and she refused white people’s standards of beauty. But as much as I felt like I didn’t fit anywhere, and knew that I was racially ambiguous, that most people couldn’t tell I was black, I definitely knew that nobody thought of me as white. Our white grandmother was racist, and never let us forget it—the three of us, and our cousins. When you move around the world as a person of color, you are always aware of it. People are constantly reminding you. People are always trying to tell you who you are, trying to tell you where you belong and where you don’t, either with words, or slurs, or actions.
Rumpus: The book is divided into four sections, the second of which is titled “Monstruo.” You tell stories about yourself, about your mother, and about Ana María Cardona (who was convicted for the death of her three-year-old son) all through the lens of the word monster. Yet as the name monster gets applied, it doesn’t feel like an indictment. How were you thinking about monsters or monstrosity as you told your story?
Díaz: I definitely thought of the ways monstrosity is usually used as an indictment for women and girls. Women are labeled “monsters” when they are suspected of killing their children, or of killing men, even before there’s a trial or conviction, as in the case of Ana María Cardona. I was obsessed with monsters as a kid, loved monster stories, and dressing up on Halloween. That part just emerged organically through the writing of the book. But when you think of monstrosity as a lens—it was meant to be.
I was thinking of all the ways I was labeled when I was coming-of-age, how it became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: I lived under a kind of surveillance, with cop cars constantly pulling me over for random searches, and I eventually became exactly what they expected. I was arrested for the first time before I was even a teenager, and I heard all these grownups, cops, teachers, people in positions of authority, talking about me as if I wasn’t even in the room. It struck me as unfair at the time, the way they perceived me without even knowing me, what I needed, or what was happening at home. But later, during the writing, I realized that when they said “juvenile delinquent,” or “hoodlum,” or “thug,” words that were literally used to describe me, that these were all not just gendered, but also racialized. I never heard a police officer refer to a white girl on trial for assault as a “hoodlum” or “thug.” Yet it was easy for them to refer to me to this way, a child, while I was in the room, in front of other adults, because it was easy for them to see me as something less than human. These words are all meant to dehumanize. It was easier for them to see me as a monster than as a girl suffering from major depression.
I wrote about some of this for The Guardian. The school-to-prison pipeline is getting worse for black and brown girls, and research shows that it’s directly caused by how people in positions of power, especially cops, perceive black and brown girls. Black and brown girls are criminalized, arrested, dehumanized, even when they are in elementary school, as young as six.
Rumpus: Last question. I wondered did any of your family members or friends who ended up in the book read the material while it was being written? If so, did that change the way you approached any of the writing?
Díaz: Some of my friends and family have read the pieces and excerpts that were published and available online. But none of my friends or family members have read the whole book, except for my friend Keith S. Wilson, and my partner, Lars, who is not in the book.
Thinking about my family and friends definitely changed the way I approached the writing. 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. I didn’t ask for permission, but I did tell them I was writing about them. In most cases, I let them pick their names or nicknames.
This was important to me, because I wanted to be able to look every single one of these people in the face, and own the fact that I had written about my life, about moments that included them, and know that I hadn’t done them harm. People have a right to their privacy, and to their own stories.
Photograph of Jaquira Díaz by Maria Esquinca.