“All my life I’d been waiting for this book.” Ashley Perez from The Millions writes this in her preamble before an interview with Jaquira Díaz, author of the memoir Ordinary Girls. Go to any bookstore and you will find shelves of memoirs, but not many on the lives of black and brown girls. For Díaz, girlhood was a journey of survival. Her book is her coming of age story as a mixed-race Puerto Rican girl growing up amidst violence and crime. The content is both powerful and heartbreaking. But what’s most notable in Díaz’s narrative is her artistry in shaping the story of her life.
Memoirs play with time. Through narration and reflection, the past meets up with the present, allowing the writer to give a closer eye to why what happened still remains so vivid. Díaz utilizes this manipulation of time and takes artistic license. She identifies several moments and brings them together like an accordion. “There was a time, before my mother’s illness, before my parents divorced, before we left Puerto Rico for Miami Beach, when we were happy. It was after Alaina was born, after Mami had gone back to work at the factory, after I’d started school and learned to read.” In an equal amount of befores and afters, she uses just the right moments to capture a lifetime.
This is a mind that has worked and reworked her history numerous times. In putting it to paper, she recognizes that the method of telling a story is just as important as the story itself. “Sometimes when I write this story, I think of my mother as the villain, tricking my father […] Sometimes it’s my father who is the villain.” Díaz adored her poet-activist father, who instilled in her a love for literature. But she also needs to contend with his philandering habits, which lead to her mother’s outbursts of rage and betrayal. Díaz brings to light the challenge of writing one’s family as characters. While many have hurt her, she makes the effort to portray them as multi-faceted individuals who have endured violence from others. Díaz’s mother, for example, struggles with drug use and schizophrenia. But before those problems became evident, she had worked at a factory to support the family, later coming to discover her husband was having an affair.
Instead of adhering to one narrative structure, Díaz champions her story, changing tenses or perspective when it would best serve the chapter. In “Secrets” the main narrative arc is in present tense in the second-person. “You have one sandal. You hold it with both hands, press it tight against your body, cradle it like a baby.” This distances the narrator from the sexual assault, but also gives her an authoritative stance. In “Mother, Mercy,” the main arc is a blow-by-blow of Díaz’s return to Miami in the aftermath of her grandmother’s suicide. The present tense allows for the immediacy of the events, including her reunion with her estranged mother.
While there are so many strengths to Díaz’s writing, one element that struck me as quite notable was her deft attention to weaving pertinent local news events into her own story. In “Monster Story,” she recalls the years living with her mother as she struggles with drug use and what later develops into schizophrenia. Alongside this, she intersperses the updates of the homicide of a toddler, and the discovery of the murderer—the mother. In this juxtaposition, Díaz dives deeper into the harsh truth about mothers: how they can be the ones that cause the most harm. Díaz has her personal connection to that homicide through her action of writing to the incarcerated mother. But in seeking to better understand the woman behind bars, she better understands the mother she’d run away from. Other chapters like “Ordinary Girls” uses a similar technique, connecting a suicide from the apartment complex where her father lived to her own suicide attempts, starting at the age of eleven.
In the interview with The Millions, Díaz states, “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.” Díaz states in this memoir that she writes for them. One can only hope that more girls get the space and opportunity to write their own stories. Because they have value. And because we have waited long enough.
Anita Gill is a teacher, writer, and a recent Fulbright Fellow in Spain. Winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, Anita has humor and essays in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Citron Review, and elsewhere. Her website is anitagill.ink.