Monday, August 19, 2019

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir - Jaquira Díaz

That Jaquira Díaz is a survivor cannot be argued. The odds that Díaz would be able to turn her life around as dramatically as she seems to have done had to have been pretty heavily stacked against her when she was growing up in housing projects in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach. Compounding Díaz’s problems, her mother battled schizophrenia all her life, her maternal grandmother was mentally unstable, and Díaz herself had to battle depression so bad that it led to multiple suicide attempts on her part. But survive, she did, and now she is telling the world all about it in Ordinary Girls: A Memoir.

So how did she do it? A big part of the story is that Díaz’s love of books and stories not only helped her to survive a childhood largely spent drinking, drugging, and fighting on the streets and beaches of Miami with her friends, but also offered her the career path she has embraced as an adult. Her father may have not always been there for Díaz – and he regularly failed to protect her from her mother’s destructive behavior – but he was a man who loved books and reading. Reading her father’s books made Díaz feel closer to him despite his shortcomings, and even during the most chaotic and lowest periods of her adolescence, she never lost the desire to turn herself into a writer.

But it wasn’t easy to get there.

Díaz tells us that she was a runner, someone who ran from her problems rather than facing them head on. Damn the consequences. Whenever the combination of circumstances and depression reached an unbearable pitch, she walked away from good jobs, from marriage to a man who wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, from a promising stint with the U.S. Navy, from school, from her family, and from anyone else who tried to help her. The problem was that she almost always ran in the wrong direction. Díaz did, though, have a loyal core of friends - those “ordinary girls” of the book’s title - whom she counted on to get her through just one more day or night every time she couldn’t do it on her own .  And they did just that.

Jaquira Díaz
Despite being an avowed feminist and social warrior, Díaz and her friends seem to have completely embraced the Hip Hop lifestyle during their teen years, a lifestyle that (at least from the outside looking in) is the antitheses of feminism. She and her friends knew the lyrics to dozens of rap songs and took great joy in singing them together, but still seemed surprised when anything akin to those lyrics intruded on their real world. Sexual violence, drug and alcohol abuse, a mentally ill mother, a largely absent father (even when he was there), violent fights with other girls, and arrests and court appearances were all part of Diaz’s adolescence. Her solution was usually to run from one bad decision to the next.

Yes, the odds were stacked against her, but she made it. I only wish I knew what finally turned her around for good and how it happened, but that is a frustrating thing about Ordinary Girls. Díaz doesn’t really tell us what finally did it for her other than suggesting that her childhood friends were instrumental in making it possible for her to become who she is today. I don’t doubt that for a minute, but I am disappointed that she did not share more about the rest of her life with us. About the closest thing we get is one three-sentence paragraph in which Díaz mentions college, graduate school, editing a magazine, teaching, working as a financial aid counselor, and taking care of her paternal grandmother - with exactly this much detail.

All of that has the makings of a second memoir, so perhaps that is the plan. If not, opportunity lost.

Copy provided by Algonquin Books for review purposes

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