Jaquira Díaz is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and an NEA Fellowship to the Hambidge Center for the Arts. She’s been awarded fellowships or scholarships from The MacDowell Colony, the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her work is noted in The Best American Essays and appears in Ploughshares, the Sun, Southern Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. Her story “Ghosts,” which appeared in the Kenyon Review’s Winter 2014 issue, was a Notable Story in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014 and received a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. An excerpt from her essay “Ordinary Girls” can be found here. The full essay appears in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Ordinary Girls”?
I’ve always wanted to write about Southgate Towers, so it feels like I’ve been writing “Ordinary Girls” forever. But I started the piece in 2013, a couple of years after my grandmother committed suicide. Most of the writing took place at the Hambidge Center for Arts and Sciences and at The MacDowell Colony, where I spent hours in isolation, disconnected from the world. The isolation was crucial for me to be able to write about this.
My grandmother and I had a complicated and strained relationship, and I didn’t realize how much the woman she was had really shaped me until after she died, until after I wrote it. There’s a long history of mental illness in my family. Writing “Ordinary Girls,” about my own suicide attempts, started as a way of trying to understand something about that, and something about myself: Why this obsession with suicide, with death, with dying?
From the opening sentence, “We started talking about dying…,” the story is told in first person plural. But it grows increasingly specific to your own experience. Could you tell us a little bit about why you chose to write about other women’s suicide attempts—rather than focusing on one in first person (singular)?
All my life my grandmother had threatened to kill herself. I visited her at the hospital when I was a kid, after she swallowed two bottles of pills then asked my aunt to call 911. I watched my uncle wrestle a knife from her when she swore she would stab herself in the heart. My grandmother had been killing herself for over twenty-five years. Sometimes I can’t believe she did it. Sometimes I think I always knew she would. When I got the news, I was both surprised and not surprised at all.
When someone you love kills herself, there are so many questions, more questions than you even know what to do with. After my grandmother’s suicide, I realized how little I knew about the woman she’d been during the last years of her life, but also how alike we actually were. So much of what happened with my grandmother all those years was drama, performance, but there was also absolute despair, the kind you can’t necessarily understand unless you’ve been a person suffering from mental illness and addiction.
When I was an eleven-year-old kid, and later a depressed teenager who was drinking too much and smoking too much and hanging in the streets with all these other street kids, I saw these women and girls as having something I wanted. I loved them and hated them for it. Like my grandmother, I think there was an element of performance in the way my friends and I talked about suicide, but there was also real pain there, moments of real suffering. I wanted to convey those moments, as they happened for me, when the romanticizing of these women’s suicides changed, shifted from fantasy to become a plan, a serious attempt. It’s frightening how quickly a girl goes from being all bravado and anger to swallowing all her mother’s pills. It happens in an instant.
When did you decide to include the French woman in Southgate Towers? Did you begin by writing about her, or did she appear in a later draft?
The French woman. She was there before I wrote the first word. I thought about her for months, before I started writing “Ordinary Girls,” while I wrote, and after. And later, when I moved back to Miami, when I went back to Southgate Towers just to see what it looked like after all these years, I thought about her. I’d felt a sort of kinship with the French woman when she jumped, because she’d jumped. I wanted “Ordinary Girls” to show that, but it was also important for me to write a piece that spoke to something larger—how we can romanticize suicide, how a person who has committed suicide can become a sort of myth to those who didn’t know her.
At the time, all I really knew about the French woman was that she committed suicide by jumping from my father’s high-rise building. I had no idea why she was so important to me when I didn’t even know her, never even saw her face. Later, it hit me—I’d been thinking of her as a myth, a legend, a story. But she was not any of those things. She was a real person. She’d left behind a family, a mother and father, friends. People who did know her, people who loved her.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I write much slower these days. I’m more interested in voice and language, how my sentences are constructed, how they sound. I want my sentences to have urgency, for every single word to matter. I pay close attention to cadence, rhythm, balance, symmetry. I love a good story or essay, but I also want to hear it sing.
I write first drafts in longhand, in a notebook. These are usually just rough outlines with a couple of sentences here and there. Then, when I’m doing the real writing, on my computer, I read paragraphs aloud, then write some more. When I have a few manuscript pages, I record myself using my phone, then play it back. I listen, write some more, record some more. I read and record and listen and edit, doing this over and over until the sentences sound right.
I take breaks during the writing and listen to music. Dancing also helps. Sometimes I write to music, though not always. My writing soundtrack lately: Bill Withers, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Redding, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colón, Grupo Mania, Wilfrido Vargas.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I write full time, and I’m always working on several projects at once. I just came back from a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I was collaborating with Keith S. Wilson on a novel. I’m working on a memoir about growing up in Miami, and I have another novel in a drawer somewhere. I’ve also been traveling a lot, and I’ve been working on essays about those places, mostly Puerto Rico and Detroit.