I picked up Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Diaz because it’s on the 2021 Bookish Reading Challenge List. Because folks told me it was intensely good. And I love memoirs. And also… I knew Jaquira Diaz kind of tangentially from my time at the University of South Florida.
I don’t know what I expected, really. Maybe a queer, party girl memoir with Miami flair…
I did not expect to be frantically turning one page after another because I needed desperately to know what happened next, whether Jaqui would make it out of this endless cyclone of destruction alive—even though I knew damn well she did.
But as I read, I just couldn’t see how it was possible—how she could make any sort of life out of the chaos that spilled out of those pages.
But she did.
The book opened with a funeral and a solid helping of Puerto Rican history.
Inwardly, I groaned. Unenlightened, I know. While I can intellectualize the concept that history is crucial to understanding and navigating the present, I have a hard time tracking names and events unless I can tie them a narrative that personalizes them.
In those opening pages, I wasn’t engaged enough with the book for any of it—the history, Diaz’s memories, the scene unfolding—to reach me. Which made me feel not-so-smart and predictably (and disappointingly)Eurocentric—because what was wrong with me that I didn’t care about Puerto Rican nationalists demanding their independence from colonizers?
But the power of Diaz’s storytelling lies in the fact that by the end of the book, when she circled back to that same history, not only did I care but fury rolled off me in waves. What right did the US have to claim Puerto Rico, to deny it’s citizens the right to vote, to refuse to give back what we stole, to mock them after their island was ravaged by Hurricane Maria? This seems so obvious. But what we know, we don’t always feel. Diaz gave me the gift of both knowing and feeling. She made the history vibrant and relevant to who she is and the way her life is unfolding. And her writing gave me no choice other than to care about that, too.
In particular, Diaz’s analysis of Lolita Libron’s treatment, both by the press as they did a retrospective on the Congressional shooting and by her fellow Nationalists who lagged behind while she charged full-throttle ahead willing to sacrifice her life for the freedom of her people, left me re-reading the pivotal line over and over. I was stunned, not wanting to stray from such a profound insight—and suddenly viscerally aware of the theme larger theme about womanhood weaving its way through the narrative. I’d tell you more, but I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Which is, yet again, another testament to Diaz’s powerful ability to spin a narrative that is both about being ordinary—and singular.
There’s a point in the narrative, where Diaz shifts between first and second person. Something about that point of view shift changed my experience as a reader. From that point on, I read with a sort of frenzied focus, because once that barrier was breached, I really understood that this could be my story—or any woman’s story. I wanted to hold the narrative at arms length because it was raw and painful. But the familiar refrains—addiction, assault, self-destruction, shame, self-loathing—wouldn’t let me act like I didn’t understand, like I couldn’t imagine.
Because I could.
I know writing is really good when it creates two seemingly contradictory insights at one time: the universality of what we experience as women, and the singularity of Diaz’s story. I was aware that there are some similar themes in our stories—and struck by my own privilege as a white, middle-class woman. Nowhere does my privilege become more starkly obvious to me than when the conversation turns to addiction and mental health. But Diaz’s writing demanded I hold space for shared experience and the simultaneous understanding that we can never truly share an experience because my privilege dictates the way people will respond to my needs, my failings, my brokenness—and by virtue of my whiteness alone, those will be afforded much more grace than those of a poor, Puerto Rican girl from Miami.
Two days before I picked up Ordinary Girls, I’d been musing on the ultimate take-away from Educated and The Glass Castle (both of which I devoured). And in that particular moment of musing, it felt like it is forgiveness. Always forgiveness.
But now, I think maybe that’s not right.
Maybe what rings more true is that we don’t really get to choose whether or not we love our parents. But we do get to choose our mode of engagement. We choose when and if to forgive. And sometimes that might not be a linear process. We grieve even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. And we always want their love. Even if we wish it were some other way.
But not in a single one of those narratives did parents have anything to do with healing. Sometimes they benefited from it. But each of the women in those memoirs healed because they chose it. They chose to continue to love, to carry on, to live—despite their pasts. Or maybe because of them.
It took me a long time after I got sober to own my part in my own undoing. What I love about Ordinary Girls, that felt bracingly different that Educated or The Glass Castle, is that Diaz doesn’t just owns her mistakes, her demons, her pain—she places them front and center in the narrative. She is victimized by so much as a child (and as a young woman)—but she never victimizes herself.
She maintains agency in her destruction. And in her own salvation.
But what ultimately sees her through the darkness back into the light is the breakthrough moment when she realizes that she’s not alone—that she hasn’t been all this time. It isn’t familial love or romantic love that pulls her back from the depths and give her a lifeline back to herself—it’s just ordinary girls.