When I’m in a slump, I have friends who know how to put me back on track. Last fall, the state of the world and my place in it—and, by extension, my writing—had reached a low point. At just the right moment, a friend handed me an advanced reading copy of Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls, a debut memoir about family, queerness, identity, and being seen.
I wasn’t ready for this book. Yet all my life I’d been waiting for this book. In Ordinary Girls, Díaz writes about vital subject matter with a brilliance I wanted to understand. It’s not hyperbolic to say that, at times, I literally had the breath knocked out of me reading Díaz’s words on the page. I asked myself over and over again how she did this, and then I thought, what if I asked her?
I was thrilled when she agreed to the interview. When we got on the phone together, we talked about grief, complicated relationships, craft, and just whom Díaz is writing for.
The Millions: I love on the last page of Ordinary Girls you talk about the girls you wrote the book for. Why is it so important that the book reaches these girls?
Jaquira Díaz: It was important for me throughout the process to remember whom I was writing for, because otherwise I would have stopped writing. It was so difficult to get this book out. And to be honest, the book wouldn’t let me go. I had to get it out of the way before writing other things, before moving on to writing fiction. And, in order to do that, to finish the project, I needed to remind myself whom I was writing it for. So it helped to keep returning to the opening. I kept thinking about all the books I needed when I was growing up, when I was in school, and all we read in class were books by cis, straight, white men. And I kept thinking about how this book might be the first time a queer Latina, a queer Afro-Latina, sees herself in a book, and how that would have been important to me growing up.
TM: This was one of those books I read that made me feel seen in a lot of ways I hadn’t before, and I could imagine how impactful it would have been if I had this book when I was younger. You write about carrying the weight of intergenerational trauma and the history of your people no matter where you go. Do you feel that writing this book has changed the feeling of that somehow?
JD: Yes, absolutely. It felt like in all these years of writing, I had been avoiding writing this book, avoiding talking about sexual violence, colonialism, trauma. I felt that in some ways by being silent I was contributing to the violence and erasure that is so prevalent in our communities, that haunts our communities. Talking about sexual violence and colonialism and other kinds of racialized violence—how not talking about it can feel like a burden. The process itself was grueling, but being done with it felt like such an accomplishment. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took 12 years to finish the book, and I’m definitely changed after having written it. I have more faith in God now. I have more faith in myself. I feel much stronger, definitely much stronger than I was right in the middle of writing it. The book literally made me sick. I had the worst insomnia of my life while writing this book. I gained weight. I lost weight. I gained weight again. I had to go to the hospital because I wasn’t sleeping. It took a real physical toll on my health; so being done with it feels like such an accomplishment.
TM: You write about very complicated relationships with your family and chosen family in super difficult situations. And I feel like you do so without anger or bitterness. Instead, you do it with fairness. How did you do that?
JD: First of all, I needed to be honest about my role in all of this, about who I was and who my family was. It was very important to me to write about the real people, to be as close to the truth as possible. I needed to interrogate not just everyone else’s role, but myself and who I was. The project of this book became much more about making connections and interrogating things about the larger world than it was about telling a story. Which is why I keep returning to certain themes of girlhood, of sexual violence, of silence, of secrets, of monsters. And it became much more about making those connections and speaking out than it was about following one linear story. For years, I avoided writing about my mother, for example, because writing about my mother was so painful. She was one of the hardest people to write about because, in so many ways, she broke me.
I also thought, If I am not honest, readers will be able to tell. In that process of digging for the truth—for me, but also for my family members and my friends—I started thinking about forgiveness. In the middle of writing this book, I was able to forgive my mother, and we have a very different relationship now than we did back during the years that were covered in the book. We’re very close now. We have a loving relationship, and I think part of that was definitely forgiveness. You know how they say that when you forgive people, it’s much more about yourself than it is about them. It’s for you. And being able to forgive all the people in my life, and myself, that made all the difference. I definitely wanted to write something without pity or glory or anger, something that was honest. That spoke to a factual truth but also a larger truth.
TM: How did you write about grief when it came to complicated relationships? You talk about when your maternal grandmother passed away and you had not seen her for a while, but the grief hit you so viscerally. And it’s such a complicated relationship because there was a deep family bond, but there was also distance out of self-preservation. Can you talk more about that?
JD: When my mother’s mother—she died by suicide—when I found out that she died, I didn’t really understand what I was feeling because our relationship in life had been so painful. She was abusive. She was racist. She was homophobic. She was abusive in more ways than one. Physically, emotionally, psychologically. And I didn’t even know that what I was feeling was grief. During the years she was alive, I spent so much time telling myself that when she died, I wouldn’t feel anything. And when she actually died and I was finally facing the reality of it, I was actually questioning whether or not I was feeling grief. I wasn’t sure. I had this limited idea of what grief actually was, because of my experience with it, which had been mostly dealing with my paternal grandmother’s death. That was painful. But then I realized after Marcy died that grief was more than just one feeling. Grief was painful, but it was also joyous. And it was anger. And it was depression. And it was anxiety. Grief was like experiencing every single emotion you’ve ever felt all at once. And navigating that when my maternal grandmother died was much more difficult because I didn’t know what I was feeling.
TM: I’ve always had this question of what we are allowed to feel when it comes to grief and complicated relationships.
JD: I definitely felt that when Marcy died. Because I was sad and because I felt pain, I felt I was in some way betraying myself— she had inflicted so much pain on me and on my family.
It took a few months for me to feel like it was okay to feel what I was feeling. That it would never truly make sense but that that was fine.
TM: Near the end of the book, you wrote about the differences in how you processed the grief for both of your grandmothers. With your paternal grandmother, what do you feel like she would be most proud of?
JD: I think she would definitely be proud of the book, but she would be prouder of the way I live my life. That I have faith. That I found love. That I’m living in a way that’s true to who I am, that I’m not pretending to be someone else.
TM: Is there something about writing—about the kind of things that your book has—that you wish you would see more of in memoir?
JD I definitely wish that there were more writing about girlhood and navigating a certain kind of home. I definitely wish there was more writing about girls growing up in poverty. Queer girls, black and brown girls. I didn’t have any books like that growing up. I mean, I certainly looked for them. I went to a library and what the librarians handed me were books about white people written by white people, written mostly by white men. I wish that there were an abundance of books about brown and black girlhood, about girls who grew up working class or in poverty. I also wish that there that there were just more books about Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora. When I was writing this book, I mean, I searched out almost every book written by a Puerto Rican in English that I could possibly find. And there weren’t that many.
JD: If only Lilliam had been writing when I was a girl—that would have changed my entire world.
TM: And I felt similarly about T Kira Madden’s memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, and then I felt the same thing with your memoir. There are so many different elements for me that resonated like being mixed race and what that means and how you’re looked at in this world. Why was it important to include writing about being mixed race?
JD: Well, one of the things that I always knew growing up was that we definitely were not white. We definitely did not belong. We were made to feel—and by we, I mean my sister, my brother, and I— like we didn’t belong in my mother’s white family. We definitely didn’t look like them. Also, my black grandmother made it clear to us that we were a black family, and that no matter how we looked to the world, we were a black family and we would be treated like one. Those are things that in our families I knew, but when I went out into the world, when I went to school, nobody saw me as black. People didn’t know unless I told them. And sometimes people didn’t believe me. It always made me feel like I was both invisible and hyper-visible, living in some liminal state where no one really saw who I was. And it was very important to kind of get that through to the reader. How much of my childhood and adolescence and even much of my adulthood was spent without really being seen. And also how exhausting it is to go out into the world and have people look at you and not really see you, never really understand who you are.
TM: Do you feel like writing this book was also a way to bring some of that together?
JD Yeah, in some ways. We all have to have some sort of reckoning with race. Being biracial, being a light-skinned black person, also means that you might be racially ambiguous, that you walk in the world with a certain amount of privilege that other black people don’t have. And for me, I definitely feel like it’s my responsibility to use it to open opportunities for other black people who don’t have the privilege of being racially ambiguous or treated the way that I’m treated. I definitely feel like I’ve had access to a lot of things that some of my friends haven’t had access to. And there have been moments in certain organizations when I realize that there is a possibility that I got this opportunity because they didn’t know I was black and it certainly made me feel like shit, but also made me feel like I had a responsibility to try to open doors for other people.
TM: I know this was very hard to write, but what was a joyful element of writing your memoir?
JD: God, that’s a very difficult question because it was so, so hard. One of the most joyful moments, to be honest with you, was to be able to write the acknowledgements, to thank people who have meant something in my life and have helped me, even if they just helped in very small ways. And to show them how that very tiny thing they did was very important in making me who I am, in helping this book become a reality. That was probably the most joyful moment.
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Each year begins with a post-midnight call from my parents. I expect such a call this coming year, but it will be sans one parent. Perhaps when my father calls, my grieving mind will play one of those mean tricks it’s been playing since March, and for a hopeful half-second I’ll wait for Mom to come on the line with her buoyant voice full of new year’s wishes.
Last January, she wished that all my hopes and dreams surrounding my forthcoming short story collection would become real for me. She knew that my hopes and dreams—the ones that don’t involve my family members alive and prospering—are all tied up in the books I’m writing. This also means, by extension, all my hopes and dreams are tied to the books I’m reading. And what greater signifier of our eventual end is there than a TBR pile? How it mocks and taunts. How its very existence is a reminder that reading all the books one desires to read is a project no human can even possibly come close to completing.
When I think of the books I read this year, I can’t help but think of the books my mother never got a chance to read. I think of the shifting stack of books on her nightstand. I believe they are still there as if in memorial to her reading life. My mother loved the prolific romance novelist, Beverly Jenkins. Surely there were many of her novels my mother missed. I’ve never read a romance novel, know little of the genre, but after my mother passed, I took a Beverly Jenkins novel from my parents’ basement shelf, to read, but also as something tangible of her to hold since I can no longer hold her hand, but I have yet to open it.
For Christmas last year, my father bought my mother Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, but in her illness, I don’t believe she ever got a chance to read it. And there is my own book that I taunted her with in galley form. Look it exists! Hold it, but please don’t read! I didn’t want her to see the typos of the galley, to have to turn the inferior flimsy paper. The pictures are blurry in the galley and would, I knew, look better in the finished copy. I was in the midst of making small, but consequential sentence-level changes. My child had put on his clothes, but he had not yet washed his face nor combed his hair.
The final version, I told her, would be here in a few weeks. She didn’t have a few weeks. Yes, Ma, many good things did happen with my book, many of those dreams did become true, but because you are not here it all means less. I wonder if she would have enjoyed my book. She would have complained about the profanity. She would have smirked, and shaken her head at the book’s fantastical conceits and said, I don’t know where you get this wild imagination. It’s not so wild though. I want an imagination so wild it conjures her at will. That’s the sort of fantasy life afforded only to the characters in the stories we tell.
Speaking of the stories we tell, I’ve been telling myself and others that I was reading Ocean Vuong’s excellent novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous before and after my mother passed. In my recollection, as my mother faded I was comforted by the relationship between Little Dog, the main character, and his mother. I have strong memories of sitting on my bed the morning after my mother’s passing using the poetry of the prose to heal my grief-scarred mind. That memory can’t possibly be true. I picked up Vuong’s book at the AWP conference more than a week after my mother died. What’s true though is how beautifully at peace the novel made me feel when I had little but the tumult of sadness.
I don’t keep a log of my reading and haven’t for many years; though I did in the years I tried and failed to read one hundred books. I will forget some. Others, possibly belong to the previous year. My TBR pile grows. But I’m ending the year as I began it, with Maurice Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow. I read it out of excitement and anticipation early in the year and now, I read it as a professor eager to share a good book with his students. I bought my niece a copy of Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams so we could read together. And we traded e-mails about the plot twists, the characters and the general joys of the narrative. Similarly, my son and I read Jason Reynolds’s Look Both Ways and found ourselves lost in laughter. Alongside my wife, I ready Kiese Laymon’s Heavy—honesty in black, carefully laid.
Because short stories make my world go around: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (begun in 2018, I believe); Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories; Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls; Bryan Washington’s Lot; Mickey Hess’s The Novelist and the Rapper (also his A Guest in the House of Hip-Hop) and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Poetry likewise makes my world revolve, but in the opposite direction: Kwame Dawes’s City of Bones; Jericho Brown’s world-shaking The Tradition; Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast; Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon and his earlier Bastards of the Reagan Era (the cover of Felon is white and Bastards is black, and the books are like that, night and day; read them together and watch a whole world build around you). I read the autobiographies of William Wells Brown, a formerly enslaved man who went on to write several slave narratives, and I wept for the pressure white supremacy and the peculiar institution put on an individual, the way it made him write his tragedies as comedy to entertain indifferent white people. Jess Row’s White Flights redefined many of my assumptions about how race works in white fiction.
I served as a judge for the Tournament of Books and read Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, Lydia Kiesling’s Golden State, Michael Odaajte’s Warlight and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s (hilarious) My Sister the Serial Killer. When Toni Morrison passed in the summer, I was reading her essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, and like nearly each time I’ve read a work by Morrison, I left elevated by the intellect of the author. This time though I also left with a great sadness—my mother was gone and the woman who is a literary mother to so many of us had likewise left the earth.
There was Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, which was magnificent. There was David McCumber’s Playing Off the Rail, an out-of-print book I loved in college and one I was excited to reread after I found it online at an indie bookstore (it’s still wonderful, BTW).
There was Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record and Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams and Tochi Onyebuchi’s War Girls, all three of which were so moving and allowed me an entry into a world I’d otherwise have never seen. There was Jose Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal, a book that grows better and better with each visit. And there was Chuck Klosterman’s Raised in Captivity, a collection of short-burst fiction stories that always end faster than you want them to.
More from A Year in Reading 2019
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005