Jaquira Diaz, "Ordinary Girls"
Review of Ordinary Girls, by Jaquira Diaz
Book of the Month, May, 2020
Written by Las Comadres Book Club member, Serena V.
Last week, I passed a man on the street with an angry look on his face. He didn’t have a qualm with me, but for just a half second, I imagined he did and that I would fight him. This doesn’t make any sense because I don’t fight random people on the street, but after reading several chapters of Jaquira Díaz’s memoir, Ordinary Girls, I was so engrossed in her story that I started taking on her life, for a half second. Díaz’s memoir takes you through Humacao, Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, through substance abuse, mental health issues, sexual assault and rape, physical violence, suicide, imprisonment, poverty, and how she found happy moments within all of her struggle. She takes you along each experience with such clarity that you can perfectly imagine how it all went down and at times, feel like you’re right there with her.
It’s not surprising that Julia Alvarez (In the Time of the Butterflies) wrote, “There is more life packed on each page of Ordinary Girls than some lives hold in a lifetime.” Couldn’t agree more; to say that Díaz has been through a lot is an understatement. At various moments in the book I wondered if it was necessary to give readers this much of her suffering. Is she satisfying our trauma porn needs? For example, did we need to know about so many instances where she was assaulted or raped? After reading about how she was fondled by a neighborhood boy, and then a stranger at the basketball court, and then someone at school, and then raped several times over the course of just a few years, I found myself becoming numb to the harm. I can’t believe that men of all ages were taking from her body whenever they wanted and however they wanted. Most times she was either frozen or overpowered, yet still severely harmed even in the moments when she did attempt to fight them back. I was surprised to see it happen over and over, and eventually I had enough. I have to imagine that it also happened even more times than told in the book and she did hold back. If so, incredible.
This brings me to my next question. Do we read stories of struggle to learn about other people’s experiences (read: suffering), or do we read them to see how they “made it” despite their struggles? While reading, if you remember that this is a memoir, that Díaz is a writer sharing her own story, then you know she “makes it” eventually. But I wondered during various points in the book what I myself was hoping to get out of it. I’m a brown girl that had a difficult life growing up in southern California, and know people that are still struggling. I’m also fortunate to know others who have “made it” out, so I know our stories are numerous and vary. But for non-black and brown girls, who feel ordinary or not, how do they read this book? Is this the kind of story that isn’t suitable for mixed company, for fear of non-black and brown people judging us, using this as proof of harmful broken homes and rampant drug use stereotypes? Or do we (read: black and brown girls) need to tell this story so that all can hear and build empathy, because black and brown girls struggle in more ways than we may ever know?
Díaz brings in the stories of Lolita Lebrón, a woman who led a revolt in the US Capitol building for the freedom of Puerto Rican people, and Pedro Albizu Campos, who was arrested and tortured for wanting independence from the colonial government. The memoir begins with a young Díaz and her father at a funeral procession for the poet and activist Juan Antonio Corretjer and leads into the story of La Masacre de Ponce. By beginning with these struggles for freedom and ending with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, she shows how painful the results of colonial rule play out in the lives of these “ordinary” Puerto Ricans. The legacy of violence, torture and sacrifice is alive and well in Díaz’s own story and she too fights for freedom from the oppression of her abusive mother, brother and Mercy, her neglectful father, and the systems all around her that provide little to no support as her pain manifests into destruction.
It’s safe to say that after reading Díaz’s memoir, I take her story with me. Ultimately, I appreciate the book most for that reason. Díaz, in all of her flaws, was also very loved and often found herself in the company of others. Was her experience and that of the other girls around her in any way ‘ordinary’? That may be why she chose this title and maybe her motivation for writing this book. Her story and the stories of the girls around her may be more “ordinary” than we think, and perhaps, more than we care to know.