Girl Hood: On (not) Finding Yourself in Books

by Jaquira Diaz

Growing up, I was always the black sheep of my family—the loud mouth, the troublemaker, the practical joker. I was a juvenile delinquent who spent most of her time on the streets, a habitual runaway, a high school dropout. By the time I was seventeen, I’d attempted suicide and had been arrested at least eight times; I stayed home when it was legally required by house arrest. My family didn’t know what to do with me. And what was worse, I didn’t care. I was the lost kid of an absentee father and an addict mother, being raised by an elderly grandmother who had no clue how to deal with my explosive anger or my recklessness or my drug use or my drinking. I lost count of how many teachers, school principals, relatives, counselors, court-appointed shrinks, juvenile probation officers, police officers, friends’ parents, priests, and drug counselors tried to save me. There was no saving me—I was on a path of self-destruction.

As an adult, I would come to understand that I was angry at my parents—at my father for not being around, at my mother for being abusive, at both of them because they didn’t know me, or even see me. I needed to know that I mattered to someone, that I wasn’t invisible. So I turned to my homegirls who were escaping their own lives, trading the chaos of home for the chaos on the streets. One of them had left home after being sexually abused by an uncle, and lived with her brother most of the time. Another had two babies before she was a junior in high school, and decided they were better off with the father, a man in his thirties. And another had five siblings and what I thought was a perfectly good set of parents at home—a dad who owned a restaurant and paid for summer vacations in Spain, and a mom who planned birthday parties and cooked dinner. Yet, she preferred the madness of the streets. Maybe, like me, she was tired of not being seen.

But I’d be lying if I said that it was all about my parents. It was also about me. I was in the middle of a sexual awakening, what my homegirls would call “catching feelings” for boys and girls. I couldn’t talk about that, not to anyone, not in the early nineties, and certainly not in my neighborhood.

It was a high school English teacher (isn’t it always?) who gave me books to read, who sat me down and asked me to think about what I wanted out of life, who wouldn’t accept my lies or my bullshit. It was she who suggested I write about who I was and who I expected to be.

Unfortunately, there was nothing I wanted. I couldn’t imagine a life past my eighteenth birthday.

***

My recovery was not instantaneous. There was no one person or one moment or even one year that made the difference. It was a collective effort that took several years and quite a few people and countless failures, until one day it was clear: not just that I was going to live, but that I actually wanted to.

And yet, even during all the turbulence of my adolescence, one thing remained constant: I was a kid who loved to read. As cynical and angry as I was, I still believed that books were important, believed in their magic and their power. Even before I was a writer, I was a reader. My favorite books got under my skin. I returned to them again and again, gave myself to them entirely, and they kept me up at night. They grabbed hold of me, shook me, and even after they let me go, it would be a long time before I could see clearly again. You could say it was books that saved me.

Growing up bilingual—speaking Spanish to my parents and grandparents, English at school, Spanglish with my friends and siblings—it was difficult to find books that I could relate to. I read whatever I could get my hands on: Dracula, The Catcher in the Rye, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird. The books I read were full of characters who were nothing like me, who didn’t share my experiences, or my background, or my language, or my anything. I didn’t see myself in books, and it was clear that these writers weren’t writing with me in mind. No one was writing for me.

When you grow up poor, sometimes books are the only connection you have to the world that exists outside your neighborhood. You begin to imagine that the people in those books matter. You imagine that they are important—maybe even immortal—because someone wrote about them. But you? When you fail to find yourself in books—or people like you, who live in neighborhoods like yours, who look like you and love like you—you begin to question your place in the world. You begin to question if those people who make up your neighborhood and your family are worth writing about, if you are worth writing about. Maybe no one thinks about them or you. Maybe no one sees you.

***

It wasn’t until I was nineteen that I discovered Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican. In their books at least some of the characters were bilingual, even Puerto Rican, and we shared similar experiences. But Cisneros and Santiago wrote about “good” girls—girls who (for the most part) did what they were told and who seemed much more innocent than me. Girls who didn’t have my problems. Something—I didn’t know what—was missing.

Then, when I was senior at the University of Central Florida, my professor, the poet and writer Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés introduced me to Junot Díaz’s Drown. I was smitten. I read it twice in two days. I’d finally found the book I’d been waiting my whole young adulthood for—a book with realistic accounts of poverty, addiction, longing, difficult familial relationships. These stories were each a study of gender roles, sexuality, and the duality of the immigrant experience. It was the reality I knew, and here was someone who understood. Drown introduced me to characters who were flawed, selfish, troubled, mentally unstable, who found beauty in their world in spite of their dire circumstances, who loved each other despite all the ugliness and suffering. Finally, after all this time, I found a writer who’d written a book for me.

Years later, I heard Junot Díaz speak at the 2011 AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., where he described his own childhood reading experiences, how he lost himself in comic books and science fiction, how he was an avid reader, but still, he never, ever saw himself in the books he read. So he wrote for that kid he was, who was always searching books for characters like himself and the people he knew and the places he lived, maybe as some sort of validation that these were all worth reading and writing about.

Now, in the middle of several projects, I find myself revisiting my Girl Hood, and revisiting the places where I lived as a kid—the public housing projects in Puerto Rico, a handful of neighborhoods in Miami—and I’m back where I started, hoping to find even a speck of myself in books. I’ve found my Girl Hood in bits and pieces: I fell in love with Patricia Engel’s Vida, Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, Adriana Páramo’s forthcoming My Mother’s Funeral, and (holy shit!) Amina Gautier’s At-Risk. And for the last few years, especially while reexamining my Girl Hood, I keep coming back to Michelle Tea’s The Chelsea Whistle, a memoir about growing up in the rough neighborhood of Chelsea.

And yet it’s not enough.

I’m a queer woman.

This is something I was never able to say as a teenager.

And if you think it’s difficult for a poor high-school-dropout-juvenile-delinquent-Latina to find herself in books, try adding LGBTQ to that equation.

***

These days, as I revise the third draft of my novel, I think about myself as a young reader. My main character is a lot like I was. Although she’s not entirely me—she’s more like a mosaic of a handful of the street girls I knew growing up. Half of them I was secretly in love with. Girls who fought with me, got arrested with me, smoked out with me. Girls who snuck into clubs with me, terrorized the neighborhood with me, got jailhouse tattoos with me. Girls who picked me up when I was stranded and brought me food when I was starving, who sat with me outside the ER after my boy was stabbed in a streetfight, and who held me and cried with me at my grandmother’s funeral. Girl Hoods, of course, who were both strong and vulnerable, and much like the characters in Drown and The Chelsea Whistle, still found love and beauty and hope in the miserable world in which they lived. They are women now—the ones who are alive, the ones who made it. For a while there, we didn’t know if any of us would.

These are the people I write about. These are the people I write for. For the girls they were, for the girl I was. For girls everywhere who are like the girls we were, troubled and angry and lost, who turn to books for a little bit of salvation or redemption or reprieve, in hopes that the story will find them, and that they will find themselves in the story and not feel so alone.

 

Girl Hood: On (not) Finding Yourself in Books

10 thoughts on “Girl Hood: On (not) Finding Yourself in Books

  1. I hear you. My awakening was with Mango Street as well. Not perfect, but it was enough to tell me that not everything in books had to be about preppy teenagers hurting through puberty or the peculiar ways of Southerners etc., etc., etc.

    Did I just read you were: smitten? smitten, really?

    Looking forward to your novel!

    cheers

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  2. Melissa Chadburn says:

    I hope that is the title of your novel. This is so perfect and beautiful and exactly what I’ve been trying to say. I’m blackapino but I spent most of my girl hood in group homes with cholas smoking cigarettes, playing gin rummy, and listening to oldies. I felt flawed and wrong and dreaded (even today still dread) the gynecologist. I had a vacant space between my legs that only responded to other girls. I wore my sagged pants on my hips, underwear, and boxers. Layers upon layers upon layers to cover up my girl. What I wanted more than anything was to disappear and be seen at the same time.

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  3. This is so excellent. While my experiences were certainly different from yours, I can relate to being mixed race, also adopted, also Jewish, a fish out of the socioeconomic water, and similarly wanting to read everything, happily doing so, but also wondering why there were so few people who even shared pieces of my experience (I’m not crazy enough to think there is a novel about being black, white, Jewish, AND adopted – Rebecca Walker has three out of four, though). People underestimate the power of finding a fictional character who has both your personality AND your cultural experience, not just one or the other.

    Can’t wait for your book. 🙂

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  4. Thank you for writing this. I didn’t grow up poor, or Puerto Rican. I did grow up bilingual, but with sign language not Spanish. But as a deaf person, I haven’t always seen people like me in books nearly as often as I would like either. I wish more writers (and TV and movie directors) would listen to stories like yours to understand why it is so important to incorporate more diversity into their stories.

    I wrote about something sort of similar a few months ago: http://ramblingjustice.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/1st-met-me/ I’ve now linked to your blog post here in the bottom section where I link to a bunch of other people who have written about failing to meet ourselves in literature and television.

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