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Girls, Monsters by Jaquira Díaz


From Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz ©2019 by Jaquira Díaz. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

This essay as it is reprinted here first appeared as a flash piece in Tin House, 12 December 2017, in their Flash Fidelity section.


In her memoir-in-essays Ordinary Girls (Algonquin Books), Jaquira Díaz uses not only first-person narrative point of view to tell her story of growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, but also second person (“You’ll be arrested, sent to juvie again.”) and first-person plural. “Girls, Monsters,” first published in Tin House in this flash form, and later part of Ordinary Girls, tells the combined story of five teenage girls in first-person plural, centering mostly on one summer. “That winter, we watched New York Undercover on group phone calls, Boogie and China and Flaca and Shorty and me, all of us on the party line, screaming at the TV when Malik Yoba, Michael DeLorenzo, and Lauren Vélez took off down the street chasing some drug dealer.” Frequent references to popular culture situate “Girls, Monsters” in a particular time period, and also represent shared experiences cementing the bond between the girls. “We measured out our life in songs.” They sing together, break into “fits of spontaneous booty shaking,” play on the monkey bars at the playground, go to the mall, dance at all-ages clubs, hang out at the beach.

When two of them are assaulted by “some dudes we’d just met,” the narrative POV alternates between first person (the narrator) and first-person plural (the narrator and Shorty, the narrator and “every girl” who’s experienced assault): “How I pushed back, kicking, reaching for the ashtray, the remote, anything, until finally, the bottle, and I was Shorty and Shorty was me and we were every girl, we had not been alone, all of us in that apartment, in that bathroom, all of us breathing, alive, lightning in our limbs, banging on that door for minutes, hours, a lifetime, and for a moment I thought it was possible that I could lose her, that I could be one of those girls.” The narrative arc moves from winter to spring to summer, and ends with two more summers, the girls’ strength and resilience as they go “right back to drinking, smoking, fighting, dancing,” survivors and “ordinary girls” on the brink of becoming women who “would’ve given anything to be monsters.” The innovative use of first-person plural POV becomes a crucial component in a relational memoir written about and for “girls who were black and brown and poor and queer,” Díaz says: “For the girls they were, for the girl I was, for girls everywhere who are just like we used to be.… For the girls who never saw themselves in books.”  —CRAFT

Content Warning—sexual assault

 


When we were twelve, we taught ourselves to fly.
—John Murillo, from “Renegades of Funk”

All of us girls, now women.
—T Kira Madden, from “The Feels of Love”

That winter, we watched New York Undercover on group phone calls, Boogie and China and Flaca and Shorty and me, all of us on the party line, screaming at the TV when Malik Yoba, Michael DeLorenzo, and Lauren Vélez took off down the street chasing some drug dealer. We watched Janet and Pac fall in love in Poetic Justice, and we all wanted to be Janet, scribbling poems on the margins of our textbooks, strutting into school in baggy jeans and combat boots. We watched The X-Files, imagined ourselves solving paranormal mysteries, having alien babies, turning into monsters. We speculated about the size of Mulder’s dick. We felt the warmth of that place between our legs and there was nothing monstrous or strange about it.

We measured out our life in songs, singing as we put on eyeliner in front of the mirror, as we passed each other in the halls at school, as we waited for the bus across from Normandy Park. We belted out Mariah’s version of “I’ll Be There” in Boogie’s mother’s car. We broke into fits of spontaneous booty shaking as we walked along West Avenue, when a car drove by blasting “Shake Whatcha Mama Gave Ya,” as we rode the escalator in Aventura Mall. We knew all the lyrics to every single DJ Uncle Al song—“Mix it Up,” and “Hoes In This House,” and “Bass Is Gonna Blow Your Mind.” Uncle Al, who was known all over Miami for promoting nonviolence and peace in the hood, but was shot and killed outside his house in Allapattah. We dogged each other to “It’s Your Birthday” while hanging from the monkey bars, lightning in our limbs, while drinking orange sodas at Miami Subs, while tagging the handball courts. Everywhere Boogie, China, Flaca, Shorty, Jaqui.

That spring, we paid tecatos at 7-Eleven to get us bottles of Strawberry Cisco, took the bus to the all-ages clubs, Pac Jam, and Sugar Hill, and Bootleggers, where they sold no alcohol but everybody smoked weed. We passed the blunt across the dance floor, all of us sweaty and smiling. Onstage in the club, older girls dusted with baby powder shook and shook their asses, flashing us, girls booing, boys screaming, cheering, fists in the air. We smiled nervously, recognizing some of the girls we knew from school, two years ahead of us, three years ahead of us. Our friends’ cousin, a girl my brother dated once. One day that spring we heard about one of those girls, saw her face on the news, about how she and her best friend were found floating in Biscayne Bay, strangled, tied together. Their school pictures all over our TVs for days, for weeks, their story on the front page of The Sun Sentinel with the headline, “They Were Inseparable Friends—And They Were Slain Together.” We remembered their dancing, speculated about the who, the how, the why. We talked about how they were so young, had so much life left to live, as if we knew anything about life and living it. We knew nothing but what eyes could see.

That summer, on the last day of school, me and Shorty cut out after lunch, headed to the beach for National Skip Day, the two of us in Daisy Dukes and chancletas, our curly hair wild and frizzy and sun-streaked. At the South Pointe Pier, high school kids in bathing suits and shades, seeing each other’s bodies for the first time. When a fight broke out, one dude holding the other underwater, arms swinging wildly, we ran toward the shore to see it. When he was finally able to get free, none of us saw it coming: the walk back to his car, the gun pulled from his glove box. We lost each other in the madness, Shorty running down the shoreline, and me, heading for the water. Later that night, we would watch ourselves on the news, all those teenagers loose on the beach, on the pier, no parents anywhere, the faraway spray of whitecaps breaking.

Just weeks later, we were back on that beach, me and Shorty, knocking back Olde E with some dudes we’d just met. The sun on our faces, bikinis under oversized T-shirts, we walked a couple blocks to their place. And once we were there, fifteen and sixteen and in a stranger’s apartment, Playero’s “Underground” on the radio, it was so clear, so easy to see. How they separated us, knew exactly what to say. Shorty in the bathroom, me in the living room, the bottle, half empty, on the floor. How I never thought to ask how old he was—old enough to buy alcohol, to have his own apartment. How he ripped my bathing suit, the banging on the bathroom door, his hand over my mouth, the music so loud. How I pushed back, kicking, reaching for the ashtray, the remote, anything, until finally, the bottle, and I was Shorty and Shorty was me and we were every girl, we had not been alone, all of us in that apartment, in that bathroom, all of us breathing, alive, lightning in our limbs, banging on that door for minutes, hours, a lifetime, and for a moment I thought it was possible that I could lose her, that I could be one of those girls.

It was the same the next summer, and the summer after that: we went right back to drinking, smoking, fighting, dancing dancing dancing, running away. We wanted to be seen, finally, to exist in the lives we’d mapped out for ourselves. We wanted more than noise—we wanted everything. We were ordinary girls, but we would’ve given anything to be monsters. We weren’t creatures or aliens or women in disguise, but girls. We were girls.

 


JAQUIRA DÍAZ was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami. She is the author of Ordinary Girls: A Memoir, winner of a Whiting Award, a Florida Book Awards Gold Medal, and a Lambda Literary Awards finalist. Ordinary Girls was a Summer/Fall 2019 Indies Introduce Selection, a Fall 2019 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Notable Selection, a November 2019 Indie Next Pick, and a Library Reads October pick. Díaz’s work has been published in The GuardianThe FaderCondé Nast Traveler, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and The Best American Essays 2016, among other publications. She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, an Elizabeth George Foundation grant, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Kenyon Review, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A former Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and Consulting Editor at the Kenyon Review, she splits her time between Montréal and Miami Beach, with her partner, the writer Lars Horn. Her second book, I Am Deliberate: A Novel, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books.

 


Notes:
We knew nothing but what eyes could see. From “Renegades of Funk” in Up Jump the Boogie by John Murillo.

Lightning in our limbs. From “Renegades of Funk.”

All of us. “The Feels of Love,” by T Kira Madden.

 

Author’s Note

In lieu of an author’s note, we’ve compiled a few quotations from recent interviews with Jaquira Díaz in which she discusses her memoir.  —CRAFT


“Ordinary Girls is in some ways about navigating a certain kind of black and brown girlhood. So many of the details that were present during our girlhood are erased or disparaged in our literary culture. The details of my life are the details of a working-class life, of growing up in poverty in Miami Beach and in the Puerto Rican housing projects. The music I reference, the music that was the soundtrack to my life, was music of the streets. Hood culture is not considered high art, but what is hip-hop if not poetry? 2Pac was a poet. So was Nas. The old salsa I grew up on was made up of storytelling and myth and poetry. Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón and Lucecita Benítez were storytellers and poets as well as singers. Music taught me to write sentences. I learned more about writing from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill than I ever learned from Hemingway.”

—Jaquira Díaz speaking about Ordinary Girls to Rebecca Godfrey for The Paris Review, December 19, 2019


“I definitely wish that there were more writing about girlhood and navigating a certain kind of home. I definitely wish there was more writing about girls growing up in poverty. Queer girls, black and brown girls. I didn’t have any books like that growing up. I mean, I certainly looked for them. I went to a library and what the librarians handed me were books about white people written by white people, written mostly by white men. I wish that there were an abundance of books about brown and black girlhood, about girls who grew up working class or in poverty. I also wish that there that there were just more books about Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora. When I was writing this book, I mean, I searched out almost every book written by a Puerto Rican in English that I could possibly find. And there weren’t that many.”

—Jaquira Díaz speaking about Ordinary Girls to Ashley N. Perez for The Millions, February 24, 2020