What Does It Mean to Be an Ordinary Girl?
Jaquira Díaz on the joy, pain, and necessity of writing memoir
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In her nonfiction debut, Jaquira Díaz drops us into the life of an ordinary girl. An ordinary girl who spends a childhood in Puerto Rico and Miami, whose mother grapples with mental illness and addiction, “who spent hours climbing the tangled branches of the flamboyanes… barefoot, splashing in puddles, catching lizards…” An ordinary girl who speaks English with an accent, who fights in the streets, who joins the Marines, who becomes a writer.
Ordinary Girls is both lyrical and fearless, facing trauma head-on and with a candor that grapples with the identity-defining questions of girlhood. Do our families and home environments determine who are? Or are we worlds of our own making, filled with the joy, food, music, and friendship that carried us through?
When I finished Ordinary Girls, I had a deep wish that I could go back in time and hand it to my younger self. I had the pleasure of speaking to Jaquira Díaz over the phone about writing difficult material, time travel in memoir, and what it means to be an ordinary girl.
Yohanca Delgado: You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction; what drew you to memoir?
Jaquira Diaz: I tried to avoid it. I wrote stories based on real life. I used myself as a character, I used people from my life as characters. I started thinking of this as a novel because I didn’t want to confront the truth. I wanted the authority to change things to suit the narrative. But the truth kept coming up and I couldn’t avoid it. The truth is that I was afraid of confronting real people in my real life, my experience with abuse, addiction, and other things.
I had already written some essays that made it into the book. I went back to those very early essays and expanded them. I went back to those early stories and rewrote them as essays. I thought about what it was I was trying to say before I started making shit up. The book went through many, many versions until I finally decided that I was going to write a memoir.
This book would not let me move on. I couldn’t write anything else until I got this out of the way. Until I started facing the past and thinking about who I was, and my place in the story. I also started addressing what I had been avoiding: writing about my mother.
YD: So this was not… an enjoyable process?
JD: It was torture! Everyone asks: Is it cathartic? It was not an enjoyable process. It was very hard work. Especially when I was writing about sexual violence. I was re-traumatizing myself by reliving these events in order to write about them truthfully. I was interrogating my role and the reasons I did things, not just what would serve the narrative.
YD: Part of what makes this book extraordinary is that it grapples with a difficult mother–daughter relationship almost in real time. And in many ways, this story is part elegy, part love letter to your relationship with your mother. This memoir portrays her mental illness and descent into drug addiction with a vivid honesty, but it also insists on portraying what makes her human, her teaching you to love your body, her love.
JD: The first draft didn’t have a single word about my mother. I was avoiding writing about my mother, but I was writing about other mothers. I wrote about all kinds of other mothers, obsessively. I wrote stories about La Llorona, Ana María Cardona. I wrote about my mother’s mother, my grandmother Mercy, who was racist and couldn’t accept that my mother had married a black man, that she’d had his children.
I wrote about 100 pages of this book, gave it to a friend, and when she read it, she said, “Where’s your mother? Where was your mother during all this?”
So I asked myself why I was avoiding even mentioning my mother, when all I wanted was to write about her. And then I started writing about who my mother was before her mental illness took over her life, the stories that my sister and I told at family gatherings. I wrote about who she actually was, who she might’ve been.
I made an actual physical list of things: how she always told us she loved us. She would tell me she loved me, even after she kicked my ass. The way she was sex positive and never let anyone slut shame her. She’d say, “Fuck you— I love my body and you should love yours, too.” I wrote about who she might have been. There was joy and music. But she was not like other mothers.
YD: You write about armed robbery and partner violence, homophobic harassment, physical and sexual assault. How did you approach these memories? How did you take care of yourself as you were writing them?
JD: Writing this book, I realized, for the first time, that I hadn’t told a single person about my first time having sex, which was a sexual assault. Why was I keeping it a secret? It wasn’t for me. It definitely wasn’t helping me. So I decided to write it. I kept writing, and it was like reliving the trauma. I suffered from insomnia, I got very sick. I couldn’t sleep for four straight days at one point, and had to go to the hospital. I gained weight, I lost weight. My hair started falling out. I got very depressed. I don’t know if I could write another memoir.
It helped to take breaks and write about something else. I wrote some essays about music. I wrote a profile on Kali Uchis. I started a novel and wrote stories. I started working on a YA novel with my friend Keith Wilson. I went to therapy, to talk about why I was even writing this book, and whether or not it was worth it to finish. I feel like it was, but I didn’t know that then.
YD: I can’t barge in here and say it was worth it because I can’t fully grasp the sacrifices you made to write this book. But I can tell you that this book will change lives. I would have loved to have encountered Ordinary Girls growing up. There are so many girls and women who will feel seen and represented. You even dedicate the book to the “ordinary girls.” How do you define “the ordinary girl”?
JD: The way I define “ordinary girls” changed while I was writing. And I think the definition kind of evolves as the book progresses.
When I moved to Miami Beach from Puerto Rico, I didn’t fit in at all. I was a girl who looked like a boy. I only spoke Spanish. I didn’t feel seen. I didn’t look like my father’s black family or my mother’s white family. There were times when being queer and closeted and Black and Puerto Rican meant I felt hyper-visible and invisible all at once. I spent most of my adolescence hiding who I was, pretending to be someone else. There were times when I thought what I wanted most was to be ordinary. I just wanted to be some ordinary girl.
As I got older and started fighting and getting arrested, as I fell deeper into depression, something shifted: I didn’t want to be an ordinary girl. I decided that that was probably the worst thing I could be. I was so depressed at times I wanted to die, but mostly, I wanted someone—my parents, especially—to listen, to see me.
But then, all these years later, as I was writing the book, thinking about what I actually wanted, I realized that I just wanted a quiet life with my books and my music. I wanted to be ordinary.
As the book ends, there’s a moment when you get to see who I am with my friends—who were the “ordinary girls” for most of the book, these ordinary women who live and love and go to work and raise children. These women who loved me and took care of me. Ironically, they are what saved me.
YD: The structure of this book is really interesting: it’s divided into four parts: Madre Patria, Monstruo, Familia, and Regresando, and bookended by two short essays about girlhood. How did this structure come together and how does it reflect how you want the reader to move through this narrative?
JD: The separation of parts came after the whole book was written. After it was written, I had to do a lot of rearranging to make it one cohesive narrative with several different arcs in each chapter, so that it felt like it had movement and momentum, but also that it was moving in a circular motion. I arranged the chapters thematically rather than chronologically, although some sections move chronologically as well.
The one that came to me without even thinking too much about it was “Monstruo,” because [that section of the book] is asking the reader to think about monstrosity and how we label women who don’t fit into what our definition of womanhood, Some of the women I mention, such as Cardona, were immediately labeled as monsters. I’m implicating the reader, asking her to think about what this section is really talking about.
In “Madre Patria,” I wanted for the reader to think about what the world patria means in Spanish. It’s a section about colonialism and identity. The “Familia” section is about a search for family and a search for self, all the different places I sought a sense of family and community. “Regresando,” the final section, is about returning again and again. “Returning” [a chapter in Regresando] does what the rest of the book was supposed to do. It asks the reader to think about what it means to return. Have we really lost something when we return and realize that everything we built is gone?
YD: On a craft level, you do something really interesting with time. It kind of reminds me of a DJ record scratch, if that makes sense? The narrative will describe the present moment and then zip the narrative forward in time before returning to the present moment again.
JD: You mean like a DJ cross-fader?
YD: Yes! Is that what it’s called?
JD:The poet John Murillo, whose poem I use as an epigraph for “Girls, Monsters,” was a huge influence. He has a poem called “Ode to the Crossfader.” The first time I heard him read, and I was reading along with the book, I realized he did this interesting thing, moving back and forth in the lines of the poem, almost like moving through time. Listening to him really made me think about my work and what my work was doing.
I like to time travel in my work. To tether something to the present, or to the narrator’s present, and remind the reader that the narrator is an adult now, knows the past, present, and future, and has lived past that moment. This moment will affect the future. What our mothers do affect us in the future, as girls. I wanted to evoke the way that memory feels. How memory works, some things come of nowhere and some things are connected. I wanted to be able to do that, to have a narrator who sees the current moment and also sees the future. That’s something I’m really interested in, in speculative nonfiction.
YD: Speaking of time, one of the things that’s most impressive to me is that the book ends in 2018, so close to now. Some of these relationships are still in play, still in development. How did you find the editorial distance to write about recent, raw events?
JD: That’s a great question. I have no idea how I found editorial distance. Sometimes I had to sit with a sentence for weeks. Those later chapters were some of the most difficult to write.
It took a lot of trial and error and writing and rewriting. I didn’t have a vision for those later chapters. I wrote diary entries and then tried to shape them into something.
Sometimes the words poured out. After Hurricane Maria, I was so angry and so hurt; I just kept thinking about Puerto Rico and my family and other Puerto Ricans. Around that time, my uncle was missing and it felt like no one was paying attention. There were so many things that didn’t make it into the book, too. There was so much I had to cut.
YD: What did you cut?
JD: There were a lot of characters that didn’t make it into the book. A lot of people in my life that I didn’t include in order to protect their privacy. I wanted to be able to look people in the eye. I wanted to be able to hold up this book and have every person who knows me read it and if [including something] meant I couldn’t do that then I didn’t put it in.
I also cut a lot of what happened when I was a runway. I have at least six or seven stories about running away that may or may not make it into another memoir. Stories about what happened on the road. Another one that people have asked me about—leaving the military—that was all cut.
YD: Ordinary Girls explores individual histories like those of Ana Maria Cardona, who is serving life in prison for the death of her three-year-old son in 1990, and Lolita Lebrón, a Puerto Rican nationalist who led an armed attack on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954. These stories are very different, yet they appear throughout the narrative with a frequency that feels both intentional and distinctive. What was it about using those stories that felt rich or inspiring to you?
JD: I’m interested in different people at different times for very different reasons. For a while in college I was obsessed with Lolita Lebrón—because of the cultural moment. I loved Lebrón when I was younger. To me, she was a hero. But I kept thinking about it and going back, and I realized that it wasn’t just that. She was a normal person, divisive and human. An ordinary woman who inspired both tremendous love and hatred. Some Puerto Ricans see her as criminal and some see her as a hero. For me, she was a symbol of Puerto Rican freedom.
Part of what drew me to Cardona was that she was gay and I was a closeted queer kid. The media used her sexuality as part of what she had done wrong. She had dared to fall in love with a woman and dared to let this woman care for and abuse her child. Baby Lollipops was also found close to our neighborhood and I couldn’t help but connect our stories. She was gay, Latina, her mother suffered from mental illness, she suffered from mental illness. There were so many ways that our stories overlapped.
YD: How did this book surprise you? Is there anything that you set out to include that didn’t make it, or anything that found its way into the text unexpectedly?
JD: My abuela and food. I didn’t know that I would actually enjoy writing about food. We cooked together—she taught me to cook. Writing that piece about cooking with my abuela made me realize how much I actually enjoyed writing about food.
I was also surprised that I wrote about my best friend’s quinceañera—surprised I hadn’t written about it before. A moment when we felt invincible: we love each other and these are the best years of our lives. I was very surprised about how much I loved writing about teenagers.