Three years ago, I went to a conference in downtown L.A. There were 10,000 people at the conference, and I sat through dozens of panels over the course of three days—a dizzying number of speakers and topics. But there was only panel that stuck with me, or one person, really: Jaquira Díaz.
She stepped up to the podium and quickly set it ablaze, speaking about girlhood and memory, erasure, and voice. The fierceness of her heart and mind left an indelible print on me, and when I learned that her debut memoir, Ordinary Girls, was forthcoming, I started counting down the days to its release. It tells the story of Díaz’s youth and coming of age—a fireworks display of love, betrayal, assault, mental illness, addiction, colonialism and, above all, family and friendship. “I know something about the in-between,” she writes, “of being seen but not really seen. I have lived there my whole life… This is who I write about and who I write for… for the girl I was, for girls everywhere who are just like we used to be.”
We corresponded by email for this interview.
So many books have been written about the passage from early girlhood to early womanhood, and for so many of us this time period is full of memories we’d like to forget. Why revisit it all?
Men, particularly cis white men, write about whatever they want and they’re called geniuses. They write about grown men lusting after twelve-year-old girls, they write rape fantasies, they write about having affairs with students, they write about their boyhoods, about manhood, and their writing is always considered relevant. No one ever asks them, “Why write about this?” even when they’re known abusers. Women, femmes, trans men and trans women, genderqueer people, we’re implicitly taught that our writing about anything having to do with the self or coming-of-age or gender or desire or sexuality or our bodies or trauma is just “navel-gazing,” while cis men are always considered intellectuals, even when they write domestic novels or memoirs about boyhood.
While writing Ordinary Girls, especially when I was writing about sexual violence or trauma, I wrote against these ideas. I found myself deliberately resisting this silencing, and often it felt like I was revealing secrets I was meant to be keeping. It felt necessary to keep working, to remind myself—and readers—that our stories and ideas are just as valuable and important.
Your story begins in Puerto Rico and ends in Miami, with a few other stops in between. For much of your childhood, you also shuttled back and forth between living with your mother, your father, and your grandmother. In grappling with the definition of home, at one point you quote Glinda the Good Witch of the North when she tells Dorothy, “Home is a place we all must find, child.” Where is home for you now? Do you hold multiple homes in yourself at once?
I never stopped moving when I was a child, a teenager, a woman. As a woman, I kept looking for a place that felt like home. I guess I’m still doing that. I feel most at home in Puerto Rico, when I’m visiting places like Comerío or Vieques, driving up winding mountain roads or staying close to the beach. But I don’t live there, even though that’s where I feel like my most authentic self.
My partner and I split our time between Montréal and Miami Beach. We spend a few months in each place, traveling back and forth between them. Miami is home—most of my immediate family lives there, most of my childhood friends live there, and the place, the beach, feels like a beacon, always calling. Montréal feels a bit like home, because we spend so much time there, because we have a place there. But most of all, Montréal is very queer, so it feels relatively safe. My partner is nonbinary and transmasculine, and I’m queer, and we’re an interracial couple, so being in certain places always feels like a negotiation. They’re British, from the Midlands, which is new for me, but also feels like home. I suppose home for me is not a place, but a person.
Part One: “Madre Patria,” and Part Two: “Monstruo,” introduce readers to Puerto Rico’s complicated history, and to the story of a terrible child murder in Miami, both narratives that parallel your own quest for independence, for understanding the limits and desires of mothers and children. Did you set out to weave these themes together, or did your obsessions lead to these connections?
You could say a little of both. In “Madre Patria,” it felt necessary to talk about the history of colonialism and violence in Puerto Rico, because it was such a huge part of my childhood, and directly related to my origins as a writer. One of my earliest memories is of going to the funeral of Juan Antonio Corretjer—a Puerto Rican protest poet and independence activist—with my father. My father was a fierce supporter of Puerto Rican independence, and he wrote poetry, loved reading. He was always reading, and because of this, I loved reading. He read to me, taught me to read, and it was at this funeral that I had my first moment of recognition about poets and writers: I realized that writers were important, that their work could touch people, that they could change lives. And it was in my father’s books that I learned about Puerto Rico’s history, about the Ponce Massacre, about independence activists and colonialism and the fight for liberation. This all influenced me as a child, as a kid who loved books and knew she would be a writer.
It always felt like Puerto Rico’s history was a part of me—and I think most Puerto Ricans feel this way. It felt necessary to write about it. But also, it’s a very real feeling, a way of knowing, of living, to always be aware of where you came from, to have the history of a place threaded into your daily life, living and breathing beside you, inside you. You become aware of this when you have to leave a place that is home. When you return to that place and feel a sense of loss—not just a sense that you’ve lost your home, but that you lost something of yourself by having left it. The connection was always there, and always will be.
In “Monstruo,” I set out to use monstrosity as a lens. I was thinking of all the ways I was labeled when I was a teenager, called “juvenile delinquent,” “repeat offender,” “thug,” “hoodlum.” 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. Eventually, I 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.
I went back to the Baby Lollipops murder case, thinking 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 was the case for Ana María Cardona. She was referred to as a monster and baby killer before she had a trial, before the evidence was even presented. In large part, because she was a lesbian, because her partner (who was also convicted) was a woman. They often called her the “lesbian mother,” and there was so much implicit (and explicit) homophobia surrounding the story. When the news broke, I was eleven. I already knew I was queer. I lived in a place that was so homophobic, they always made it seem like being gay was part of the crime, like it was just as bad as torturing and murdering a toddler. I became obsessed with this story, but I didn’t even know why. I kept notes about this when I was eleven, and for years afterward, and I always knew I would write about it. I finally wrote about it for the first time in grad school, and I still didn’t know why I had been so obsessed with it, except that the news story was part of the news cycle around the same time our mother took us away from our father and grandmother. I was only able to recognize some of the other reasons later, much later. Writing this chapter was a different kind of process—writing as discovery.
This is a memoir that’s mostly linear but swims back and forth between time periods frequently, from chapter to chapter and sometimes within chapters. How did you approach the task of stitching together your childhood memories?
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. I wanted the book to feel similar to the way we experience memory, which is often in flashes, linked by association. I also wanted there to be an arc in each chapter, a theme. I wanted each chapter to explore a particular relationship, or an event in my childhood. At first I just wrote scenes, my most vivid memories, because I thought there were important reasons I remembered them so vividly. But I also wanted each chapter to speak to a larger story, not just my personal story, to say something meaningful about the larger world, about girlhood, about race, about colonialism, about sexual violence and who is silenced. So after I had all of these scenes, I tried to group them chronologically if it made sense to the larger story. There was a lot of moving things around, a lot of cutting and rewriting.
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. But there were also moments that 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.
Occupation and colonization are threads that run through your story—both historical and personal. How do you see the occupation of a country in relation to the occupation of a body?
I think it would require a whole essay to address this question properly. But I will say that the answer changes depending on who you are. I see myself as a racialized person, something that changes depending on where in the world I am. In relation to the colonization of Puerto Rico, I’m always thinking of myself as racialized in the United States, but I’m also a queer woman, I’m black, and I’m biracial. My mother’s family is white, and my father’s family is black, which means that somewhere in my family tree there are colonizers as well as colonized people. My body carries this violence, and as much as I don’t want it to, I can’t help but see it in the mirror. It comes with pain, with grief.
Black Puerto Rican women have been enslaved, but also, historically, erased in many other ways. Black women’s bodies were considered property, were devalued. Black hair and black femininity were erased, black bodies were considered less desirable, less professional, less feminine, less human than European bodies. Black pain was not considered real. Black men’s and women’s bodies were considered dangerous. Even after slavery, this violence remains. Consider the deeply-ingrained myth that all Puerto Ricans are a mix of Spanish, Taíno, and African. The reality is that while this is true of some Puerto Ricans, this erases Black Puerto Ricans. Some Puerto Ricans are black. Some are white. Some are indigenous. Some are Afro-Indigenous. Some, like my black family, didn’t have Spanish heritage, but French, and came from Haiti before settling in Puerto Rico. Erasure is a form of violence, and we carry it in our bodies. It affects everything we do, how we move in the world, what we have access to, the ways we live and love. There are ways that black and brown Puerto Ricans experience this that white Puerto Ricans, white people in general, can’t possibly understand.
Your brother used to ask you this question, trying to shame you. Now, you can answer it on your own terms, from a place of power. What kind of girl are you?
One who will not be silenced or shamed.
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Margot Kahn is co-editor of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice collection This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Rumpus, Tablet, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere. Learn more at www.margotkahn.com.