When author Jaquira Diaz got a phone call from the Whiting Foundation to let her know she was one of 10 winners of a 2020 Whiting Award, she thought it was a prank.
But no kidding. Diaz, a longtime Florida resident, really had won the $50,000 award. Earlier in March, she won a Florida Book Awards gold medal for her first book, Ordinary Girls. It’s a fierce memoir about her childhood in Puerto Rico and her teen years in Miami Beach, about a life bruised by mental illness, addiction, racism and sexual assault.
But Diaz always dreamed of being a writer. Eventually, she earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in several publications, and Ordinary Girls was published in 2019, when Diaz appeared at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading to talk about it.
The Whiting Awards have been given each year since 1985 to 10 emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. Recent winners include Tracy K. Smith, Colson Whitehead, Alexander Chee and Sigrid Nunez.
Diaz answered the Times’ questions about the award and her writing via email.
What was your reaction when you heard that you had won the Whiting Award?
I was on book tour, boarding a flight back home to Miami, when I got the call from the Whiting Foundation. When they said they were calling to let me know that I’d won a Whiting Award, and that it was $50,000, I thought it was a prank. I seriously thought it was one of my writer friends messing with me. I told them that I was boarding a flight and asked if they could call me back later, in like four or five hours. When they called later, I put them on speaker so my partner could hear the call and assure me it wasn’t a prank, and I couldn’t even speak. I just cried and cried and said “Thank you.” I had no other words. That was all I could say.
Ordinary Girls is your first book. Have you been surprised by the reception it’s received?
I'm surprised every day. Growing up, I used to live and think in a kind of future tense, always looking toward the future, always dreaming of what could be, in order to get away from the present moment. I dreamed of being a writer. It was a way of surviving, dreaming of some other life. And now that I'm a writer, it feels unreal, like I'm living someone else's life. I feel blessed to be able to do what I love, fortunate that the book has made its way into the world, that people have read it, that it's resonated with them. I have the worst impostor syndrome, and I still have a hard time accepting when people tell me they like something I've written, so it's hard for me to imagine that the book is out there, that people are reading it. I didn't expect the enthusiasm from readers, the love. I read some of the reviews, the ones my publicist sends, and sometimes burst into tears.
There have been other things that have been difficult, though. Sometimes, when you’re a woman writing memoir, some people feel like they have a right to your life, like you’ve lost the right to privacy. I’ve had readers ask some very personal questions, like “What is your mother’s official diagnosis?” and “How many times were you raped exactly?” and “Is your mother queer?” I’ve had people contact my friends on social media to ask about my ex, to ask my age, my relationship status, where I live. ... I am on social media, and yes, I wrote a memoir, but I’m a very private person. I share very little on social media. I changed people’s names in the book to protect their privacy. I understand and appreciate that readers are interested in the book, but I was definitely not prepared for this.
You received your MFA in creative writing from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Could you talk about how your time in that program shaped your writing?
The faculty was very, very supportive. I had a very small group of friends — we’re still in touch. But I’m pretty sure every other student hated me because I was super ambitious and driven in a take-no-prisoners kind of way. I was hyperfocused, and determined to get either a teaching job or a fellowship when I got my MFA, and working so much I hardly slept or smiled or even blinked. I was exhausted! Hahaha. There was also a lot of laughter and joy, too. I miss it. USF definitely prepared me to get a teaching job, taught me discipline. I learned to juggle ten thousand things at once. But it was really how much they valued all writing that shaped me, not just what was considered “literary,” but also genre, graphic narratives, young adult literature, screenwriting, poetry, mixed genre work, collaboration, you name it. They nurture all kinds of writers and writing, and encourage writing across genres. I think more than anything, USF made me braver. It taught me to experiment, to try new things, to read widely and diversely, to never stop searching, learning.
What are you working on next?
So much! I’m mostly working on a novel, I Am Deliberate, which is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. But there are other projects: some essays on climate change/climate justice, colonialism, race, gender, sexuality, poverty, mental illness, and culture. An adaptation of Ordinary Girls for television. And a novel for young adults, in collaboration with writer Keith S. Wilson.