by Jen Soriano
Jaquira Díaz is a celebrated multi-genre writer best known for her memoir Ordinary Girls. Ordinary Girls took the literary world by storm when it was published in October 2019, earning a spot on numerous “best of” lists and winning a prestigious Whiting Award. The book, which Díaz has called an “anti-memoir,” is not only her own story, but the story of many “ordinary girls” growing up poor, Black, brown and queer in Puerto Rico and Miami. Díaz closes Ordinary Girls with a lyric dedication: “This is who I write about and who I write for…For the girls who never saw themselves in books. For the girls who love other girls, sometimes in secret. For the girls who believe in monsters. For the girls who are ready to fly.”
Díaz is also a fiction writer, an editor, and an essayist. She is a consulting editor at the Kenyon Review and edited 15 Views of Miami, a collection of short stories that paint a diverse literary portrait of the Magic City. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Fader, Conde Nast Traveler, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, among other journals. She has been a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MFA program in Creative Writing.
In this interview, Díaz talks to Slag Glass City about literary revitalization, the problem with resilience, agency through rage, and the life-giving powers of love.
Jen Soriano: As a Black, Puerto Rican, queer femme, you’ve written about how America has always been in crisis for people from oppressed communities. What do you see as the role of writers, and especially BIPOC and LGBTQ writers, in addressing this ongoing crisis?
Jaquira Díaz: I think there’s a danger in assuming that Black, Indigenous writers and people of color and people with disabilities have a specific role when the world is in crisis. We’ve always been in crisis and will continue to be until there’s true Black liberation, until the patriarchy is dismantled, until we have reparations and decolonization, until queer and trans rights are recognized.
Until then, we all have different roles in addressing crisis, depending on our privileges and skills. For some of us, there is showing up to protests or making art and films. But some of us right now have a hard enough time staying alive and breathing.
For those of us in the literary world, I believe our role is to make whatever art we want to make. To take up that space and make your community the center of the universe, or to write whatever we want—that is its own act of rebellion, especially within a publishing world that is built on systems of oppression.
JS: When you start writing you’ve said you often start with a place. Why is place so important? And as someone who has moved from place to place, often by necessity, what are your perspectives on place and belonging? Is belonging possible, and if so what does belonging in a place feel and look like to you?
JD: I do usually start writing with a place when I’m writing fiction or memoir, and in thinking about place I think about history, about the people who live there, about the people who make up its language and culture. This to me is so connected to character. I know a lot of people start with character, but before I can even envision a character when I’m writing fiction I have to think of the place. Again, this is much more than just setting; it’s culture, music, arts, stories, language. The ways that I try to use place are meant to show layers, to show the passing of time, to show the ways a place can change or stay the same, and to show how that echoes the way that people can change or stay the same, and the way that people are so many things at the same time.
In terms of place and belonging, I honestly don’t really know that I belong anywhere, although it’s pretty easy for me to make a home in many places at once. This is kind of how I live my life right now, in between places, spending a little bit of time here, a little bit of time there.
I need a sense of community to feel like I belong. And that means different things to different people, but to me it means people who love me, people who see me, who are willing to fight for me and take care of me and vice versa.
But I’ve always struggled with feeling like I don’t belong anywhere, even in the places that still feel like home. It has a lot to do with feeling unrooted and displaced, which has a lot to do with having to deal with racism and homophobia in these places. This is something we don’t talk about enough in our communities, how much racism and homophobia we encounter on a day to day basis, even sometimes within our own families.
JS: Of all the places you’ve lived, are any of them more or less conducive to your writing?
JD: It depends on what I’m working on. When I’m in Miami, it’s very difficult for me to write about Miami. In order to write about Miami in a way that’s honest and truthful I have to put some distance between me and the place and the people, and see it from a completely different perspective. I have to miss it, and when I’m there I don’t miss it. I’m like, I’ve had enough of this place!
I’m actually getting a lot of writing done now in the UK because I’m not in Miami and I’m able to see the things I want to write about clearly because I’m not there.
For Puerto Rico, it’s kind of the opposite. Because I don’t live there, and I haven’t lived there full-time in a very long time, I have to go spend months there in order to feel like I’m back home, before I can write about it. I used to go and spend summers there. I volunteered at this non-profit that was very close to where I had some family, and just doing that made me feel like I was getting back to myself. I felt like I was back there and doing something and interacting with people, and that helped me get back into the right mindset to write about Puerto Rico.
JS: I have a six year old son who is half Puerto Rican, my partner is Puerto Rican from the island, and we lived there together for four years from 2010-2014. For me it was a welcome change and a second homeland that reminded me of the Philippines (where my parents are from and where most of my extended family lives). For my partner, it was a much more fraught confrontation with all the complications of going back to where he was raised. How would you describe your relationship to Puerto Rico now, and what if anything would you want to share about current social, political and cultural conditions there?
JD: In part, Puerto Rico needs reparations from the US government. Puerto Ricans need not just monetary reparations but also land, and—I don’t even know where to start, I seriously think this is a whole book.
My relationship with PR is I don’t live there, I have a lot of both sides of my family there. I go back often but I haven’t been back since November of 2018. And I feel like for me to have a say is not really fair to the people who have been living there full-time and who have to make a home there and work there and live their day-to-day lives there. One thing we do too much of in the States is we listen to everyone else on matters of Puerto Rico and never really ask the people who are there. That’s where we need to start. We need to talk to people who have to deal with the daily consequences of all the decisions made by the United States.
JS: In your interview with Jennifer Maritza McCauley for Origins journal, you talked about your work to “revitalize and rebuild [Miami] through its community of writers.” How does city revitalization and rebuilding happen through writing? I think about Seattle and how it’s very much a literary city, but it’s also a vanishing city for those who were born and raised here, some for generations. How can communities of writers work toward a revitalization and rebuilding that honors history and traditionally marginalized communities, while also embracing change?
JD: The Miami of my childhood is no longer there. Miami Beach feels like a completely new city in a lot of ways, so it is often heartbreaking for me to walk by what used to be my neighborhood and see how much has changed and how everyone I grew up with was pretty much displaced. I walk by a historic theater like the Lincoln Theater, and it’s now an H&M.
I think the main thing for writing to revitalize a city is to focus on its people, thinking about who is there and what they really need. One of the ways you can do that is by thinking about children. I volunteered to read for this organization called Page Slayers, which was run by one of my former students, Dana De Greff, and supported by the McKnight Foundation. All of the kids who went to Page Slayers were from communities that were Black and brown, they were all public school kids, and they all loved creative writing. And they had never had a program like that before, where they got to write and they were provided all their lunches and snacks, and they were taught by all writers of color. This is investing in young writers coming from the city, not from outside. Starting with the community and thinking about what the community actually needs is the way to revitalize a literary city.
But honestly, I don’t know if this is even possible in Miami anymore because the city has changed so much.
JS: I read Ordinary Girls in two sittings; I was so gripped by your writing, your experiences, and your craft of powerful storytelling. You’ve referred to it as anti-memoir; why?
JD: I started referring to it as an anti-memoir because I was resisting this idea of a traditional memoir that moved chronologically from beginning to end. I was resisting writing The Glass Castle.
When my agent sent the book on submission, there were lots of different editors who were interested, some at very big houses, and what I kept hearing again and again from them was that they wanted a very chronological, cohesive book that had one consistent voice and read like a novel. They wanted The Glass Castle, or Educated. And I was not having it. That was not my vision for the book.
I really wanted a book where every chapter felt like a stand-alone essay. I wanted to explore a different essay and a different theme that was connecting my personal story to something larger. I wanted to speak about systems of oppression, and about colonialism, and navigating a certain type of girlhood, and about how many of us share similar experiences.
Ordinary Girls works more like an essay collection than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to have several different arcs, not just one. I didn’t want there to be a climax. Because of this, you can pick it up and read it out of order.
And most importantly for me, I wanted Ordinary Girls to resist “survival as a payoff” for the reader. I didn’t want the reader to feel good after reading the book. After all the chapters I wanted to return to the bigger things, so that the reader is left thinking about the systems of oppression, the systems that keep people in poverty, the systems that hypersexualize and criminalize and marginalize brown women and girls. I didn’t want it to be about resilience. I think the resilience narrative is actually avoiding talking about things that we should be talking about.
JS: Ordinary Girls puts into focus the lives of people who usually get overlooked in stories about urban life: poor girls and young women of color. You cast yourself and them not as victims or props or secondary characters, but as protagonists taking and shaping life in the midst of rough conditions. Agency is strong throughout the book. You write about abuse, and violence without straying into victimization. Did this come naturally, or is this sense of agency something you deliberately crafted?
JD: This book took 12 years. I spent a long time thinking about the book before writing those final drafts. I had almost 700 pages and a lot of them I had to throw away. So I spent a lot of time thinking and crafting before getting the book into its final form.
And I also think that a sense of agency is something that is born out of resistance for Black Puerto Ricans, and in general for people that are marginalized in any way. There have definitely been other writers that I’ve looked to that I’ve learned from about this. As I was writing the book I was reading Audre Lorde and thinking about the uses of anger, and what it means to fight, but also what it means to love and how to be honest.
And I was thinking about this idea of confession. When I was writing the chapter “Secrets,” I was thinking a lot about Audre Lorde and about who gets to speak and who is silenced, and why do we even accept this idea of women’s writing being considered confessional? I was thinking about how in my communities we’re not allowed to talk about the ways we’ve been hurt, and the ways people we love and even our families hurt us. How we’re expected to stay quiet and pretend that everything is ok. As I was writing, I kept thinking about other times this silencing has happened and how this was not just about me, this was about so many of us. And so “Secrets” was born out of resistance, and also out of rage. “Girls, Monsters” was also born out of resistance and rage. A lot of the writing in the book came from a place of rage.
JS: All too often, “ordinary girls” don’t get to tell their stories, much less comment on, and influence, culture and politics at large.. And yet this is what you have done and are continuing to do. How do you connect back to young Black and brown girls, young queer and trans people, young poor girls who might want to write and have their writing matter? What advice do you have for them?
JD: My advice is to center yourself in your community. Don’t pander to the dominant culture. Be honest and self-aware. Write about the ugliness but also remember the ways that your community is human and strong and beautiful and joyous and all the people and places that made you who you are, and celebrate all those things. Take care of your community the way that you want to be cared for.
Also, think of your audience, and don’t listen to the haters.
JS: Ordinary Girls got a lot of deserved attention, and you are also a fiction writer and cultural critic. What are you working on now and what else do you want people to know about you as a writer?
JD: I’m working on two novels, the first one is under contract coming out from Algonquin Books and it’s called I am Deliberate. It’s set in part in Puerto Rico and also in Miami, the main character is a teenage girl, but it’s not me; it’s not autobiographical at all. It’s meant to speak about a very specific cultural moment in our history, and that’s all that I can say about that! It’ll be coming in about two years.
The other novel is a super-secret young adult project.
And I’m always writing essays, so at some point I think there might be a collection popping up somewhere.
JS: What have been some of the most rewarding moments in your life as a writer, and what are you most looking forward to in writing life for 2021?
JD: I’m looking forward to writing things that bring me joy, that don’t feel like I’m punishing myself! It was so difficult to write Ordinary Girls, and it felt like every day was a struggle. I’m looking forward to just enjoying the writing process and to writing something that feels like fun.
It’s very, very different to write fiction; it feels like play because it’s not my life, and writing nonfiction I felt like I had such a huge sense of responsibility because I was writing about real people.
JS: Circling back to the political moment, do you also see opportunities right now, and if so, what are some specific things that give you hope?
JD: I do see this as a critical moment for a lot of us—those of us who are most vulnerable or who have disabilities or who don’t have stable incomes or health insurance, people who are undocumented—there are so many of us who are vulnerable and it’s hard for me to see opportunity in that.
The things that bring me hope are to love my people, my family, to love my spouse, my friends, and prioritizing self-care before anything else. This keeps me balanced; this fills me with hope and keeps me going. Having the audacity to say that no matter what’s happening I’m going to love my people, that feels necessary to me and it’s what brings me joy.
JS: I believe that all of our lives could take different tracks if things had happened a little differently along the way. Do you agree? What are a few of the major events that put you on the path you’re on right now?
JD: The path I’m on right now, the book I’m writing right now, the way I’m living my life right now, the person I am, and how happy I am, is because of my partner. Even when I’m terrified and dealing with the crisis that is life for a queer Black Puerto Rican, I feel happy. And I don’t think I would be this person if I hadn’t met my partner back in December 2018. I feel like that changed me in a very real way and forced me to look at the reasons why I wasn’t happy, and forced me to address those reasons. I don’t think I would be living a meaningful life if it hadn’t been for that.
2020 was for me hard as hell. My fiancé and I were planning a wedding and then suddenly we were separated and they had to go back to the UK. We were separated for five months and had no idea when we were going to see each other. It’s looking up now because I was able to travel to the UK, and we got married.
My partner is also a nonfiction writer. They write mostly lyric essay, and we write together almost every day. Usually we write across from each other, or side-by-side, and they’re working on their book and I’m working on mine, and often we talk to each other about our projects as we’re walking or cooking, and we read each other’s work and give each other feedback.
I’ve never lived with a writer before, and before this relationship I always thought there was no way I could ever be in a relationship with a writer; that’s never gonna happen. And now I’m like, this is why my life never worked before! Now my life makes sense because my person actually understands what I’m doing.
The work feels meaningful because we get to do it side-by-side. Not only do I get to do what I love but I get to do it next to the person I love, and that is very much a dream come true.
Jen Soriano is a Filipinx-American writer whose work blurs the boundaries between nonfiction, surrealism, and poetry. Her essays have appeared in Waxwing, Pleiades, TAYO and other journals, and her lyric essay “A Brief History of her Pain” was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her chapbook manuscript, Making the Tongue Dry, was a finalist for the 2018 Newfound Prose Prize and the Cutbank and Gazing Grain chapbook contests. Jen holds an MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop and is at work on a lyric memoir about historical trauma and the neuroscience of healing. Connect with her on Twitter @lionswrite and Instagram @jensorianowrites.
On October 27th, 2020 Jaquira Díaz visited DePaul University via Zoom. View her interview with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Chair and Writer-in-Residence Erika L. Sánchez here:
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 6 · November 2020