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 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Key West Literary Seminar, Bread Loaf, and the MacDowell Colony. Her work was noted in Best American Essays, and appears in Ploughshares, The Sun, The Southern Review, Five Chapters, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. Her story “Ghosts” appears in the Winter 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “Ghosts”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
As with almost everything I write, “Ghosts” started with place. I wanted to write about Suriname, where my abuela’s grandmother was from. Unfortunately I had nothing but my abuela’s stories, which were mostly about Puerto Rico. So I imagined this fictional setting that was meant to resemble Suriname, and that’s when it hit me: I created this fictional place, I owned it, which meant I could do whatever I wanted with it. So I changed its name and bombed it—like a terrible dictator—and then a story started to emerge. Eventually the characters took over. Ramos, a U.S. Marine—who happens to be based on a real person—and Vega, the main character. The story took me more than a year to write. I kept abandoning it, returning to it, reimagining it. It was the place—it refused to let me go, so I kept coming back. After I finished this story, I wrote more stories. Eventually, those stories turned into a project, a polyphonic novel.
Maybe the hardest part about writing a story about U.S. Marines is thinking about my own time in the military. There’s a lot of guilt and anger and sadness associated with that time in my life, and it’s probably the only story I will never write.
Your story in KR, “Ghosts,” is set primarily outside of the U.S., but written from a distinctly American perspective. What are the challenges of undertaking this sort of project?
In some ways, “Ghosts” is a war story, and that alone is a challenge. What can you say about war that hasn’t already been said? Writing a story set outside the U.S.? That’s where the writing got interesting. Vega is already an outsider—a woman in the military, a Marine, surrounded by men. She’s one of two in her platoon who speak Spanish, the only two Marines who can actually communicate with the villagers. The villagers see her as “different” from the other Marines—not just because she’s a woman, but because she’s Latina. She speaks their language, yet she will never be one of them. Through Vega’s character, some themes started to surface naturally. Longing, loneliness. What does it mean to be part of a community? A family? To belong to someone, even in death?
I also wanted to write a story that straddled different genres. Literary horror. (I’m madly in love with Shirley Jackson—isn’t everyone? They should be—and I’d love to see a revival of the literary horror story, or the literary horror novel.) Myth and lore. (The best part of envisioning this fictional setting was thinking about its landscape and history and culture. The stories that were passed down by the people. And writing a story with a churile, a ghost in Indian Caribbean folklore, and the possibility of other monsters lurking in the jungle.)
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
The last five years: As a grad student, you have a ton of coursework, books to read, conferences to prepare for, classes to plan, a thesis to write, literary magazines to run, stories to write and submit, meetings to get to, readings to attend, you name it. You barely have time to sleep. Most of the time you’re running around trying to get to the places you think you’re supposed to be, and neglecting your dogs and your husband and hoping that tomorrow you’ll have an extra half hour to work on that paper you were supposed to finish weeks ago. You brainstorm in the shower, or while shopping for groceries, or while waiting in line at the DMV. You start dreaming about novel revisions and personal essays and metaphor. You get your paycheck and you want to cry, and every day you ask yourself, How do people do this? And then, just when you think you are actually going to make it, it turns out you have to go out into the real world and get a job. A job!
Eventually, you begin to think of yourself in first person.
Once I was out of grad school, I learned that every single minute is a gift, that I need to write whenever possible. That writing, at least for me, has nothing to do with discipline and everything to do with obsession. That I have to be a method writer of sorts, becoming the characters, seeing the world as they see it, hearing what they hear, feeling what they feel. I learned to abandon realism, take more risks, experiment, cross boundaries, let the story take me where it wants to take me, even if that place is weird or twisted—especially if that place is weird or twisted—even if there are ghosts there. I write every day but I’m constantly switching back and forth between projects. It’s the only way I can work. I’ve found that taking time away from a particular project helps me see it clearly, and once I return to it, the writing is better.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
People. Knowing them, watching them, studying them, meeting them, remembering them, spending time with them, loving them, losing them. People are so interesting, so complex. Full of contradictions. I’m interested in characters that are flawed—good people doing terrible things, villains doing good things. Or characters that are not quite villains, not quite heroes, but much more complicated.
Place is also a HUGE influence. I often write about living in the government housing projects in Puerto Rico, about being a juvenile delinquent while growing up in Miami, and there are aspects of these places that always find their way into my writing. In El Caserio Padre Rivera, I learned to love stories. In Miami, I discovered that I was a writer, and eventually, that you can love and hate a place simultaneously, that you can find yourself leaving it your whole life, but never manage to leave, and spend the rest of your life going back to it, but never really get there.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Wait. What?! Writing is all the things. At least until somebody figures out time travel.
In real life, I’m carefree, silly, foulmouthed, a practical joker, always laughing. I dress up my dog and take pictures. I watch ridiculous B movies, Doctor Who, Buffy, the Sci Fi channel (which I refuse to spell the other way, on principle). But when I’m writing, I’m someone else. It’s time to get serious. I can’t write humor. I don’t know why. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. But it’s OK—I have a theory that all those funny writers are really depressed.
Writing is a way of connecting to the past, for whatever reason, an attempt to make sense of our histories, personal or otherwise. Growing up in Miami, in a city that speaks so many languages, in a bilingual family, I didn’t see myself in books. As a kid, I loved books and I believed in their magic and their power. I imagined that people in books mattered, yet I never found books where people like me mattered—people who were brown, or queer, or poor, who lived in neighborhoods like mine, who looked like me and loved like me. You could say I wrote out of necessity, because I needed to. I never really had a choice. I still don’t.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
This is more of my writer’s credo than anything else:
Lift others as you climb. Read! Read widely and diversely. Read like your life depends on it. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Go out into the world and live life so you can have something to write about. Break some rules, fall in love all the time, have crazy-awesome-but-safe sex, get arrested for something you believe in (but maybe don’t kill anyone), learn to speak another language, dance with strangers, believe in magic, talk to people, don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself, celebrate other writers, make mistakes and embrace them, appreciate the beautiful and the ugly, be happy and sad, get angry, listen to NPR, go to the movies by yourself, be nice to people, swim in the ocean, sing in the car, go see stage plays, be brave, eat good food, travel, get old, bake cupcakes, plant an organic herb garden, dress up on Halloween, floss every day, go hiking, call your mother, always bring Charms Blow Pops, be more ambitious, never ever stop learning, lift lift lift others as you climb. Also, get a dog ’cause all the best writers have dogs.