Jaquira Diaz takes a searing look at girlhood in memoir ‘Ordinary Girls’

Growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, she dealt with issues like race, sexuality, poverty and mental illness.
Author Jaquira Diaz.
Author Jaquira Diaz. [ Maria Esquinca ]
Published Oct. 25, 2019

The title of Jaquira Diaz’s fierce yet tender memoir is Ordinary Girls, but maybe there’s no such thing. Lost girls, hurt girls, angry girls, strong girls who find their own way, but none of them ordinary.

At the core of the book, a series of linked essays, is Diaz’s girlhood, from her preteen years through her teens. It’s that time of life when everything we experience seems heightened and intense, both the beautiful things and the terrible ones, and we swear the friends we make will be our friends forever.

Diaz survived more than her share of terrible things. She was born and lived for much of her childhood in Puerto Rico, surrounded by extended family. In many ways she remembers Puerto Rico as idyllic, and as she grows up she realizes how profound an impact its tragic history has had on her.

But her family’s home was a battleground. Her vivacious, beautiful mother spent years slowly sinking into mental illness and addiction and was often violent toward her husband and three children.

Safe haven for young Jaqui is her Abuela, her paternal grandmother, a strong and nurturing presence. Abuela and Jaqui’s father are black, while her mother’s side of the family is white. Grandma Mercy, her mother’s mother, could be crushingly cruel, Diaz writes: “My grandmother was the first person to ever call me n-----.”

Her family’s fortunes were always precarious, but when they move to Miami Beach, they become “the kind of poor you could feel in your bones, your teeth, your stomach. Empty-refrigerator poor. Sleeping-on-the-floor-until-somebody-threw-out-a-sofabed poor.”

As she enters her teens, Diaz writes, ”I was the loud, angry one, the one who always got into fights, fought over anything, everything. I cared about books and music and monsters and not much of anything else.”

She describes dizzying years in which she drinks and drugs, runs away from home, survives sexual assaults and attempts suicide more than once, the first time when she’s 11. She’s kicked out of school and arrested over and over, once for stabbing her brother with a steak knife.

But she also falls madly in love, with boys and with girls. (Her fluid sexuality will be another source of tension in her family.) She revels in nights of salsa dancing in South Beach clubs, talking with friends on the beach until dawn. And she forges enduring friendships with girls who always have her back, who pull her up when she’s about to go under.

Another steadying force is her talent for writing. When she does come to school, she’s in an honors English class, and she describes winning a writing contest sponsored by El Nuevo Herald:

”Everybody was surprised, including me. I was not that girl. I was the girl who kept getting arrested, who missed school and got suspended, the girl Chanty’s mother didn’t want around her daughter.

”I looked at the paper again, right there in my hands. It was proof of something, I didn’t know what.”

After a stint in the military, Diaz would go to college and earn an MFA in creative writing at the University of South Florida. Now a teacher, journalist, essayist and fiction writer, she has received two Pushcart Prizes and a number of fellowships.

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Ordinary Girls is her first book, and as she publishes it she’s living once again in Miami after years in other places.

”Miami,“ she writes, “like my family, is a place you learn to love and hate simultaneously. You can find yourself leaving it your whole life but never manage to leave, spend the rest of your life going back to it and never really get there.”

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir

By Jaquira Diaz

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 321 pages, $26.95

Meet the author

Jaquira Diaz will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 1 p.m. in the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute Auditorium.