The PEN Pod: On The Importance of Centering Marginalized Narratives with Jaquira Díaz
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with debut author Jaquira Díaz, who stunned critics with her memoir, Ordinary Girls, which was published last fall and is now available in paperback. In the book, she documents the traumas and joys of growing up queer and biracial in the housing projects of Puerto Rico and Miami Beach. We spoke with Jaquira about the importance of memory, diversity, and truth in narratives, as well as how her own relationship to literature was shaped by childhood experiences of not seeing herself reflected in the books she read.
It’s Pride Month, and we’re coming on the heels of a traumatic number of weeks that have shed long-needed light on police violence against Black people in this country. How do you think readers might experience your memoir amid these times, as opposed to when it came out in the fall?
I guess there are a lot of ways that I could answer that question. I could probably write a whole essay about this, but I’ll start with talking a little bit about what the memoir is about. Colonization, oppression, and the fight for liberation are themes that run throughout the course of the book. One of the things I write about in Ordinary Girls is being the Black daughter of a white mother, being a biracial Black person, and how the way I’m perceived by others changes depending on where in the world I am. My mother’s family is white, my father’s family is Black, which means that somewhere in my family tree, there are colonizers as well as colonized people. I often feel that my body carries this violence, and it also comes with pain and grief. So much of the book is about lifting up Black and Brown people, especially Black and Brown girls, but also about growing up closeted because of the homophobia that permeated our community in the ’80s and ’90s.
“In Puerto Rico, just like in the U.S., Black people were brought to the island and enslaved, but also historically we were erased in many other ways. I definitely feel that erasure is a violence that we carry in our bodies—it affects everything we do, from how we move in the world, to how we act, to what we have access to, and the ways we live and love.”
It’s also about the importance of memory and not forgetting the history of violence against us and fighting against the erasure of Black Puerto Ricans. In Puerto Rico, just like in the U.S., Black people were brought to the island and enslaved, but also historically we were erased in many other ways. I definitely feel that erasure is a violence that we carry in our bodies—it affects everything we do, from how we move in the world, to how we act, to what we have access to, and the ways we live and love.
I would hope that in reading Ordinary Girls, which is my story as well as the story of my communities, readers would see this as a conversation and would also be looking for other books that are part of this conversation, that are centering Black Puerto Rican stories or Black Latinx stories, and centering Blackness itself. More often than not, our stories are erased or forgotten. So often, we’re not even part of the conversation of what it means to be Black in America. My experience of growing up was that Black Puerto Ricans were often erased, and we were just all talked about like we were just Puerto Ricans, and our Blackness was not even considered a part of who we were, even though it was definitely affecting the way that we lived our lives. I would hope that one of the things that Ordinary Girls does for readers is to bring them into my life and bring them into my experience in my community and show them that this is just one story and that there are so many others.
I think that that idea of centering, particularly in the wake of where we’ve been over these last few weeks, feels so essential in literature right now, where traditionally there’ve so many voices that have been kept out of the canon. And, as you say, this book is one story, so imagine all the other stories that aren’t being told and haven’t been written because of structural inequality.
This is something that I even talked about in the book a little bit, how I didn’t even see myself in books. I didn’t see my experience represented. It’s changing now, but there’s still so much work to be done. There’s so much more that people in publishing can do to center our stories.
“I realized that poets were important, that writers were important, and that books could change the world. It was a moment for me that was kind of like the origins of my life as a writer. I first started to imagine that I could be a writer, that I wanted to be a writer.”
Books also play a role in your memoir. I’m wondering how books and literature defined your childhood: this idea of not seeing yourself in a lot of these books, but also how they defined the other people in your family?
I wrote about this in the memoir—when I was little, my father was studying literature and he was a poet and he loved books. He was always reading, and there were always books around the house. And because he spent so much time reading, I also became a reader. Because he was a poet, because I always saw him writing, I got the sense that poetry, writing, and books were important. One of my earliest memories, which is in the opening chapter, is about my father taking me to the funeral of Juan Antonio Corretjer, who was a Puerto Rican protest poet. When I was at this funeral and I saw all of these people who came to pay their respects—people that didn’t even know this poet—it was like a moment of awareness. I realized that poets were important, that writers were important, and that books could change the world.
It was a moment for me that was kind of like the origins of my life as a writer. I first started to imagine that I could be a writer, that I wanted to be a writer. I made the connection after I was a grown woman, looking back at this moment, that it was also in a way that one of the very last times that I saw my father actively thinking of poetry as something that could change him. And that was like the end of it for him. That was the last major event.
And when I was reading regularly, because we were poor, I went to the library and I asked librarians to recommend books when we lived in Miami Beach. I basically asked the librarian to give me any book, whatever book, whatever they recommended, and all the books they gave me were always, always books that were about white people written by white people. And so I thought that in order to be a writer, you needed to be white, and it wasn’t until I read Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, that I thought, “Wow, we exist in books!” That it was possible that in American publishing, that I could publish a book about people like me, that American publishing might consider us part of the conversation.
“I thought that in order to be a writer, you needed to be white, and it wasn’t until I read Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, that I thought, ‘Wow, we exist in books!’ That it was possible that in American publishing, that I could publish a book about people like me, that American publishing might consider us part of the conversation.”
I want to briefly talk about issues of mental health. You plainly talk about your own struggles with depression and suicide in the book, and I wonder how you think that might speak to LGBTQIA+ kids and particularly kids of color?
In the parts of the book when I talk openly about suicide, I try to speak to something larger that’s not just my own story, but also trying to interrogate this idea of suicidal ideation and our collective obsession with narratives that romanticized the sad girl and suicidal girls. I was trying to say something about mental illness and its effect on me and on us as a community that was predominantly composed of people of color.
I was a girl who suffered from major depression, anxiety, and PTSD, which I’ve struggled with my whole life. And I also wrote about my mother’s mental illness. She went undiagnosed and untreated for years. And even after she started treatment, I realized that she never really got adequate mental health care. And this is a problem and a reality for many communities, but much more so in communities of color, where a lot of us are disenfranchised, don’t have health insurance, don’t have access to healthcare, mental healthcare, or simply can’t afford it even if we have health insurance because a lot of people can’t make ends meet.
I would hope that what queer kids of color can find in my book is the truth. First, that I wasn’t sad—I was ill. I was suffering from mental illness and that I was in so much pain that I wanted to die. Part of that reason was because there was such a stigma around depression and mental illness that I couldn’t really talk about anything I was feeling. But I would hope that they would find in my story that my story was not unique, that so many of us go through this suffering in silence and that they find some sort of permission to talk about it, to look for help. Some sort of validation knowing that they’re not alone, that some of us have lived through this and have survived, and that it’s possible to survive.
“I would hope that they would find in my story that my story was not unique, that so many of us go through this suffering in silence and that they find some sort of permission to talk about it, to look for help. Some sort of validation knowing that they’re not alone, that some of us have lived through this and have survived, and that it’s possible to survive.”
Do you feel that we might rethink our ideas of nationhood and politics as a result of this moment? How we treat one another, how we treat especially sort of colonized places like Puerto Rico in the wake of all this?
I struggle, to be honest with you. I feel like there’s so much energy during this moment. I think it’s clear that people are as focused on liberation now as they have always been. And that more people are becoming aware of their own roles, like how they have been complicit in oppression and how they can be allies and the fight for liberation. But speaking about Puerto Rico, I honestly don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime. I think more and more people are talking about it now, how necessary Puerto Rico’s independence is, but I don’t think it’s just about independence. I think there also needs to be a conversation about reparations for the Puerto Rican people, so that independence and self-governance can lead to Puerto Ricans thriving and that the island can become self-sustainable.
I don’t think independence will be possible without the U.S. first even acknowledging that Puerto Rico is, in fact, a colony, and acknowledging the many, many ways Puerto Ricans have been denied all of their rights and the need for reparations. So, am I optimistic? No, not really. I mean, I feel like I could write out an entire novel about this, imagining a future and alternate future, and it might read as sci-fi.
What are you reading right now?
Oh my goodness! I’m reading Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which is so beautiful. It’s so understated and starts off very slow. And then it kind of grows and grows and grows into this. . . beautiful explosion. That’s the only way I can describe it. I’m almost finished, and I don’t want it to end.
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