“Why are you so drawn to terrible people?” the author Jaquira Díaz was once asked. “How come all the people you write about are in prison?” Fortunately for readers, Díaz was never discouraged by such notions of literary propriety. “Terrible people” in the eyes of some—runaways, addicts, criminals, child killers—are not merely the people she’s drawn to, they’re the subjects of her remarkable, heartrending debut memoir, Ordinary Girls. As she portrays her life growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, Díaz introduces us to a range of unruly women—her mother; her “reckless and unafraid” schoolgirl friends, Chanty, Boogie, and China; and her younger self, a bright girl who learns and loves to “fight dirty,” who moves uneasily through juvenile detention centers, the military, and, ultimately, academia. Though she explores her own coming-of-age, Díaz is, above all, interested in the girls, not the girl. She avoids the often unbearable solipsism of memoir by turning her fierce and compassionate gaze on the lives of her friends, tracing the tropical fervor of their adolescence, the moments they break free, the moments they offer each other loyalty and joy. The memoir is rife with a rare energy; it’s never staid or sorrowful or sordid. Díaz excels at capturing the pulse and beat of life. Even in the bleaker moments of the book—Díaz’s suicide attempts and drug binges, the mystery surrounding a neighborhood mother accused of killing her three-year-old son—Díaz’s voice is steadfast, unflinching, yet mournful and lyrical. At one point, she recalls the bravado of herself at sixteen, “like a rabid animal … Macho Camacho in the right … Joe Fucking Frazier at Madison Square Garden” in the “fight of the century.” Swift and startling, Díaz compells us to watch the fighters, to know the elation and risk of survival. After speaking with Díaz on a “Mean Girls” panel at the Center for Fiction this summer, I wanted to continue our conversation about violence, young girls, and new literary forms. I caught up with her over email while she was back in Miami on her book tour.
In Ordinary Girls, your depiction of coming-of-age in Miami is so vivid and rich. The book is full of specific details—dancing to “Pop that Pussy,” drinking orange sodas at Miami Subs, wearing oversize T-shirts over bikinis, listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. How did you excavate that? Was it from memory? Or did you draw on journals and other sources from the time?
I’m still friends with all the girls in the book, the ones who survived, and we often talked about these things. I was part of a group of girls that took lots of pictures. My friend Flaca took photography in high school, and worked in a photo lab, so she always had a camera, and later a camcorder. So much of our adolescence was recorded because of her. But we were all kind of obsessed with documenting our lives. We all had diaries, slam books, scrapbooks. We had a huge shared diary we passed to each other where we wrote entries, and we’d keep it for a few days, then pass it on. I also wrote so many letters to my friends. I was always writing, taking notes. I already believed myself a writer, and was always sketching out ideas. I thought I would write about my life, even though I didn’t even know what memoir was.
Why did it feel important to you to portray the music and style of your friends? Why was it important for you to include details of youth culture, of style and music that are so often absent from “literary” work?
Ordinary Girls is in some ways about navigating a certain kind of black and brown girlhood. So many of the details that were present during our girlhood are erased or disparaged in our literary culture. The details of my life are the details of a working-class life, of growing up in poverty in Miami Beach and in the Puerto Rican housing projects. The music I reference, the music that was the soundtrack to my life, was music of the streets. Hood culture is not considered high art, but what is hip-hop if not poetry? 2Pac was a poet. So was Nas. The old salsa I grew up on was made up of storytelling and myth and poetry. Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón and Lucecita Benítez were storytellers and poets as well as singers. Music taught me to write sentences. I learned more about writing from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill than I ever learned from Hemingway.
The writing about style and clothing is not purely descriptive. The details reveal so much about how femininity is exaggerated, celebrated, rejected. You capture how girls use style as armor, as code, whether it’s the innocent “red hearts on the bodice” of your little sister’s bathing suit, or the swagger of your friend Boogie in her “skintight Brazilian jeans,” or you and your friend Shorty about to cause mayhem in “Daisy Dukes and chancletas.”
When I think of the details of style, of clothing, I think about how much of those years were performance. The way we dressed was as much about expression as it was about resistance. We were not the girls people wanted us to be, as I write in the book. We wanted to control at least what we wore, since we didn’t feel we had control of much else. But we were definitely performing. Or at least I was. I wore boys’ clothes—baggy jeans, basketball jerseys—because I was hiding. I’d started getting all this unwanted attention from men, and I wanted none of it. I dressed like a boy because I wanted to hide my body, but also, I wanted to seem much tougher than I was. I wanted to feel safe in my own body, which was often impossible.
Suicidal young women occupy this very romantic place in white literary culture, from The Bell Jar to The Virgin Suicides, which you reference directly. In your community, there’s nothing romantic about death. “We were trying to live, but the world was doing its best to kill us.” How does your own experience inform or challenge that “sad girl” archetype that’s so prevalent in our culture?
In parts of the book when I talk openly about suicide, I try to speak to something larger, to say something about mental illness and its effect on me, on us. I was a girl suffering from depression. I was later diagnosed with major depressive disorder, anxiety, and insomnia, all of which I’ve struggled with my entire life. I also write about my mother’s mental illness. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was a girl. Years after my mother’s diagnosis, it became clear to me that my mother went undiagnosed and untreated for years. But even after she started getting treatment, I realized she never really got adequate mental health care because we were poor. This is a problem and a reality for many communities, for so many people across the U.S. who don’t have health insurance or access to health care, or who simply can’t afford adequate mental health care because even with insurance, they can’t make ends meet.
I wasn’t sad—I was ill. I was in so much pain I wanted to die. And there was such a stigma around depression that I couldn’t really talk about anything I was feeling. I was so alienated that I thought dying would be easier. My story wasn’t, and isn’t, unique. So many of us go through this, suffering in silence. And then, when I was finally ready to talk openly, I could only see a therapist a handful of times in a year, because that’s all that my father’s insurance would cover.
I wish this were what we were all talking about in our current literary culture—our experiences with mental illness and the ways it affects our communities—rather than romanticizing “sad girl” narratives. I think we’re moving in that direction. In the past year alone we’ve had the work of Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias and Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, both necessary and beautifully written.
There’s been a lot of interest in playing with linearity in memoir recently. Your book shifts between place and time. Part of this feels formally innovative, but it also feels necessary to capture the dislocating nature of your life. You were, as a young girl and then as a young woman, constantly moving between homes, countries, races—nothing felt particularly permanent. Your book artfully examines how colonialism and poverty and other factors create this destabilizing current. Did you purposefully avoid a more traditional chronological structure?
I gave up the idea of writing a memoir that was strictly chronological because that felt forced, like I was fabricating a sense of chronology. It felt like lying. So instead, I let things emerge organically. I wanted the book to feel similar to the way we experience memory, which is often in flashes, linked by association or sensory details or images. But I also wanted there to be an arc in each chapter, a theme, a relationship explored. And I wanted each chapter to speak to a larger story, not just my personal story, but to say something meaningful about the larger world, about girlhood, about race, about colonialism, about sexual violence and who is silenced. There were times when I needed to slow something down, because I wanted the readers to spend more time in a certain place, to think about a certain character and what that character meant to the overall theme. Such as in “La Otra,” when I focus on my mother, and her fight with our neighbor, and the neighbor’s daughter, Jesenia. I took this moment, carried it with me my whole life, so much so that I keep returning to it. So I slowed the narrative down, then flashed forward.
But there were also moments when I needed to speed things up, when I wanted the reader to get a sense of the chaos, of the disorder, of a life like mine, when everything seemed to move faster, when everything seemed to be headed toward disaster. I needed the reader to feel a sense of discomfort. Trying to tidy that up, to make it cleaner somehow, also felt like I was fabricating a sense of stability.
Your book veers away from the traditional coming of age memoir, the ones in which the pivotal experience in a young girl’s life are usually related to love and sex. For you, violence, not love, was transformative. “Learn to fight dirty, to bite the soft spots on the neck and inner thigh, to pull off earrings and hair weaves.” I haven’t read such a nonchalant, candid portrayal of a young girl’s rage, power, and physical anger. This is so rarely discussed or portrayed when it comes to young women. Can you talk about the process of writing these scenes? Did you ever feel you were in new territory, that there would be unease or discomfort from readers?
Writing the scenes themselves didn’t feel new to me, because I spent so many years being that person, living that life. I did sometimes stop and marvel at the fact that I’m alive, still here, still breathing, and that I was ever that person, that I was in such a state of rage.
But I did feel shame when I thought about readers who didn’t live in neighborhoods like mine, who didn’t grow up in poverty, who didn’t live this kind of life. In order to keep writing this book, I had to stop thinking about readers outside my community, about how they might judge me or perceive people like me. What got me through was to keep looking back toward home, to remember that the people I was writing about were the same people I was writing for, and that those people, my people, they saw me, they knew me. It was important to show them that our stories, our neighborhoods, and the ways we live and love, are just as important as those that get much more attention. I wanted to show that my voice, and this book, is made up of the places that made me, the people who brought me up.
At one of your readings, a woman asked you something to the effect of, “How did you get out of the Miami world you depict, how did you get better?” The implication being that becoming part of an academic or literary community was superior. And you replied, “I’m not better.” Your book also avoids a redemptive ending. Instead, you remain loyal to and fiercely aware of the struggles of your friends, of a demonized murderer, of Puerto Rico’s history. Was there any pressure—internal or external—to provide readers with the more traditional ending of an individual’s triumph?
The truth is I’m not better, and I’m not sure I ever will be. Even though I’ve had access to education, to a graduate writing program, to a literary community, to the publishing world, even though I’ve been a professor and writer, I will always feel like I’m that same poor girl. Growing up poor means that we learn—we’re taught—that the ways we live and love and work and speak and think are wrong, that we’re not good enough. We’re expected to perform for those in power, and often that means performing a certain kind of redemption story. We’re expected to perform survival and resilience and overcoming obstacles. There has been pressure to provide that kind of traditional ending, but my life has never been like that.
People keep asking, What was the one moment or event that turned your life around? But the truth is there wasn’t a single event or a single moment or a single person that turned my life around, and there was no Aristotelean reversal because this is not a novel. Real life doesn’t work like that. I’m still living my real life, and I’m still struggling. Puerto Rico is still in crisis. Black Puerto Ricans have always been in crisis. Every day is a struggle. But also, every day is a blessing.
Rebecca Godfrey is the author of The Torn Skirt and Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk, which was reissued this year with an introduction by Mary Gaitskill. She teaches writing in the M.F.A. program at Columbia University.
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