ORDINARY GIRLS by Jaquira Díaz


A Memoir
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An “ordinary girl” rebels against her unstable life in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach until military service helps her gain a life-altering self-confidence.

Growing up in housing projects in Puerto Rico, Díaz (editor: 15 Views of Miami, 2014) tossed aside the blonde-haired Barbie dolls her elders gave her. “They always made me feel ugly, the brown kid who would never look like her white mother,” she writes in her inventive debut memoir. It didn’t help that her philandering father sold drugs, her mother showed alarming signs of her soon-to-be-diagnosed schizophrenia, and only her loving grandmother provided a stable presence in her life and those of her two siblings. Hoping for better, her father moved the family to Miami Beach when Díaz was in elementary school. But the money ran out, and the family was evicted repeatedly from shabby apartments. As “a closeted queer girl in a homophobic place,” the author couldn’t adjust, kept getting arrested, and ended up in Narcotics Anonymous and a juvenile detention center. Depressed and desperate to end the free fall, she dropped out of high school at 16, married at 17, and made a life-changing move at 18, enlisting in the U.S. Navy. As she aced military tests, her faith in herself grew and led eventually to a graduate degree and a literary career that has earned her two Pushcart Prizes. Using flashbacks, shifts in tense, and other novelistic devices, Díaz weaves impressionistic vignettes about Puerto Rican history and culture into her story, which begins when she watches an activist’s funeral procession in Puerto Rico in 1985 and ends after a recent visit to the island in the wake of Hurricane María. Along the way, she withholds key dates and other facts that would have made it easier to put some events in context. However, the literary bells and whistles give her story a broader interest than many memoirs that are more solipsistic. This book isn’t just about the author’s quest for self-determination; it’s also about Puerto Rico’s.

An unusually creative memoir of a bicultural life.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-61620-913-1
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2019