Jaquira Diaz‘s Ordinary Girls is among the better memoirs that can sometimes just blend into the one it preceded and the one that will follow. Take key texts like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle among the many narratives of childhood as hell. Add Ordinary Girls to this list of memoirs that deserve deeper attention.
More so than many, Ordinary Girls will be treasured and studied not just for its testimony of survival, but also its stunning and refreshingly consistent strength of style. Every page shimmers with assuredness and the strength of somebody who has survived to tell this story but also knows that survival is a daily process. Foremost to Diaz’s motivations seems to be her compulsion to express the survival instincts of an obsessed reader. Love the books that come into your radar, and they will love you back:
“When you grow up poor, sometimes books are the only connection you have to the world outside your neighborhood. You imagine that that the people in those books matter… because someone wrote about them.”
There are deeper shades and more complex elements to that line, and it’s in those areas that Diaz shines. From the first page, when she tells us she was with “…the wild girls…who were black and brown and poor and queer…” and that she was secretly in love with half of them in her crew, we come to understand this will be a different journey. Diaz is working on multiple levels, code-switching between a mixed-race culture (Puerto Rican and white), friends who dismiss any academic inclinations, and the very idea of who she can love and how she can love. A narrative about coming to where she is now from where she once was would be compelling enough. That Diaz tells her story with equal parts fear, regret, humor, and humility makes it one to treasure.
In Part One, “Origin Story”, the scene is Puerto Rico, 1985. Diaz is with her father at a funeral for one of his heroes, poet and activist Juan Antonio Corretjer. Diaz loved books because her father loved books. She adored him, but when he wasn’t there, she had books to help firm her identity. “One day, he would tell me all his secrets,” she writes. “…I would write it all down, determined to remember.”
The story of how her mother and father got together is compelling enough to make its own stand-alone narrative. He was a college activist protesting American colonialism, and she was desperate to leave her abusive home. She was Puerto Rican but she was born in New York. As a mother she was an exhibitionist at home, in love with the music of Madonna, “…not even thirty and already in the snares of schizophrenia and addiction and three kids at war with each other…” Life gets complicated for Diaz with a maternal grandmother named Mercy, “our white grandmother”, who “…collected certifications but never had a job…she collected…unemployment, food stamps, disability, welfare…” In blunt, admirable prose typical of this book, Diaz writes:
“…Mercy would cut my hair off many times, as if trying to teach me something about who I was, who I was supposed to be: my grandmother was the first person to ever call me nigger.”
This first section of Ordinary Girls is about origins and movement. Diaz moves many times with her family, which includes two siblings and eventually leaving Puerto Rico for the equally treacherous streets of Miami Beach. Dad would leave for other women and come back (eventually) as if nothing had happened. “The five of us were the kind of poor you could feel in your teeth,” she writes. Mom sometimes disappears, too.
Part Two, “Monstruo”, opens in Dade County, Miami. It’s 1990. A dead toddler they call “Baby Lollipops” (based on the T-shirt he has on) is found in the bushes. Diaz’s mother comes back after a long absence, and the jarring effects of mental illness and drug abuse are clearly felt:
“She was twenty-seven but dressed and acted like a teenager, flaunting her curves, using her body to get what she wanted from men…”
It’s a given that we are obliged to love our mothers, but what happens if they are the ones who damage us the most? There are moments of clarity, when Mom brings them to the beach, when she was “…tired but happy…her golden hair pulled back, beads of sweat collecting at her hairline. This is how I want to remember my mother.”
We learn that “Baby Lollipops” was killed by his mother, and there are more murdering mothers to remember. It’s 1994, andSusan Smith tells the media a fake story about an armed black man kidnapping and killing her two boys. Death and mother issues zig-zag across surface of Diaz’s story. But there’s also rage expressed against her brother. “It was my sixth or seventh arrest,” she writes, “this time for stabbing my brother.” In less assured hands, this line would seem tossed-off and careless. But Diaz trusts her reader to understand that this is not just a collection meant simply to shock. This notion is driven home as she writes to Ana Maria Cardona, convicted murderer mother of “Baby Lollipops”:
“I would like to hear your story. Not what the papers said or what people said or what was on the news, but the truth.”
Cardona writes back: “This is not a story. This is my life.”
At this point in Ordinary Girls, about a third of the way through, we come to understand the difficulty of balancing the need to contextualize a story and the compulsion to purge or rationalize the unspeakable. Diaz deals with life in Florida post-Hurricane Andrew. She becomes the girl who fights, all along harboring a secret crush on a girl named Boogie. She can’t confide to a friend about how she “…filled spiral notebooks with stories about monsters…”or how the lollipops he brought her would only bring back memories of the murdered baby from years earlier. Recalling memories can be impossible, and the complex role this monster played in her life — and his intimate relationship with her mother — only complicates things:
“Later…I would leave out the parts about how I said no, how I pushed him…how he kept saying It only hurts for a second…I would leave out all the blood.”
In the book’s title chapter, Diaz slips deeper into depression and suicide attempts. She writes about how she and her crew did not want to be ordinary. They “…wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from.” Suicide ideations are compounded by her manic depressive mother telling her she’s small, nobody, nothing. Diaz explains how the reader can be part of her world of juvenile delinquency: “Get yourself a bunch of hoodlum friends… Get used to shoplifting, vandalism, joyriding… Spend your fourteenth birthday on the streets.”
In “Girls, Monsters”, Diaz writes about books by, about, and for white people. Librarians “…never, ever recommended books about black and brown people, about queer girls from the projects, about people like me.” Still, she dives into The Virgin Suicides, Dracula, It, and Catcher in the Rye. Books prove to be her saving grace, but it would also be “…these hood girls, these ordinary girls, who would save me.” No matter how much she might not have wanted to be “ordinary”, she grew to realize there was nothing wrong with that:
“We wanted to be seen, finally, to exist in the lives we’d mapped out for ourselves… We were ordinary girls, but we would’ve given anything to be monsters.”
Diaz enters Navy training as a means to escape the streets, but it doesn’t take. Diaz writes: “In the Navy, for the first time in my life, I believed I could be good at something…It was the first time in my life that people expected me to succeed.” Love is found and nurtured with other women. Diaz keeps a journal to ensure (it seems) she won’t become her mother. “It was in the navy where I’d been able to imagine living past eighteen,” she writes, “where I’d finally felt like I mattered. But I would eventually run.” In “Secrets”, Diaz writes in second person, a good way to distance herself (and the readers) from the trauma of post-rape procedurals:
“They keep asking about your panties…You lift up the back of your sweatshirt so the woman with the camera can take pictures of the bruises and cuts on your back.”
In “Mother Mercy”, Diaz uses the Casey Anthony trial as a time reference to note the death of Mercy. Again, it’s these bad mothers that fuel this book. Diaz’s siblings are away in different parts of the world and she’s alone to do her best to put things to rest. “All my life my grandmother threatened to kill herself,” Diaz writes. Diaz’s mother (Mercy’s child) returns at this point, unrecognizable, skinny to the point that Diaz feels a hug might fracture her collarbone. Mix the horror of seeing her bedraggled mother with the acceptance of Mercy’s death, and the balance is staggering. Diaz imagines a metaphorical deathbed reconciliation between Mercy and her child. “…Mercy, when she looks at her baby…suddenly feels likes she’s looking into the center of the universe, the whole world in her arms, the whole world terrifying.”
Late in Ordinary Girls, we learn that by 2015 Diaz received a letter from Ana Maria Cardona, then in her 22nd year on death row. Cardona denies torturing her child, instead blaming what she did on drugs. Diaz is haunted by Cardona’s claim “I did not kill my baby.” Both Diaz’s parents are chronically ill at the close of this book, and it results in major depression. Diaz returns to Puerto Rico in 2016 on assignment for The Guardian to write a feature about activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, and she reflects on people living dual lives:
I know something about the in-between…I have lived there my whole life…I’m a child of colonialism…”
Ordinary Girls is a fierce, beautiful, uncompromising memoir about survival, motherhood, love, forgiveness, and identity. It’s harrowing with a purpose, a book written (as Diaz tells us at the end) “For the girls who love other girls. For the girls who believe in monsters. For the girls on the edge who are ready to fly.” Diaz has managed to find that calm place between the personal and political, the attraction towards darkness and the unimaginably profound blessing of a survival instinct that her on solid ground. She might specifically declare at the end that this story is for the girls who believe in monsters, but there are miracles to be found on every page for every curious reader hungry for the lessons to be learned from a hard life. Here’s hoping Diaz has many more stories to tell.