An Interview by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Jaquira Díaz is an acclaimed multi-genre writer and contributor to the literary community. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami Beach, Díaz’s many cultural experiences have informed her creative work and literary activism. When Díaz begins a piece she “[starts] with a place….” and she considers her efforts to revitalize and reenergize the Miami literary scene “…the most important and rewarding work [she’s] ever done.”
Díaz’s writing has connected and impacted audiences widely. She has been anthologized in Pushcart Prize XXVII: Best of The Small Presses and noted in Best American Essays and Best American Non-required Reading. She has also been published in The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Salon, The Rumpus and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. Presently, Díaz is judging creative non-fiction for AWP’s 2016 WC&C Scholarship Competition. She is also a Contributing Editor to the Pushcart Prize anthology and Associate Fiction Editor of West Branch.
Here we discuss writing about place, diversity in the publishing industry and crafting a short story, among other topics.
You’ve said that many of your stories begin with place. You were born in Puerto Rico and live in Miami. How have these environments influenced your creative work?
I’m sort of a wanderer. I move a lot, mostly because I never feel at home anywhere. When I travel, I observe the places I visit for signs that I belong there, as if my place—the place where I’m meant to be—will someday reveal itself. It hasn’t happened yet, but you never know. This fall I’m packing up my apartment in Miami Beach to become a tractor-trailer roadie. I’ll be living on the road, which has always been a dream of mine. As a teen, and at various times in my life, I was a runaway. I spent a lot of time on the road, and I always thought I’d go back, write about kids who are like I was—out there on their own, looking for something.
In Puerto Rico, my family lived in one of the island’s government housing projects—what locals call a caserío. It was a difficult place. Notorious. There was violence, shootouts, things like that. We watched a guy get stabbed on the street. The SWAT team, or what we called los camarones, often came in and raided places for drugs and guns. A man chased us kids with a machete once. In a lot of ways it was like the Wild West, but at the same time there were plenty of hardworking people there who just wanted to raise their families. And people told stories. Not just my father and mother and grandmother, but people all over the neighborhood. El caserío is still a place I love fiercely. It’s where I learned about danger and violence and death, sure, but it’s also where I learned to love stories, to imagine them, to dream. It’s the place I return to when I need to remember why I ever wanted to be a writer in the first place.
Miami is a little different for me. I just came back, though it seems I’ve been coming back again and again over the last ten years. I grew up here, but my Miami was different. I lived in Miami Beach—or the Beach, which is what locals call it—during the city’s urban blight. It was a ghost town of sorts. A lot of abandoned, rat-infested buildings. A lot of drugs. Miami Vice was in production at the time, and they’d take these crumbling buildings and fix them up just for the show. Then investors started coming in. You know the story. The city was transformed. There’s not much left of the Beach of my childhood, and truthfully it’s heartbreaking. So I write about my Miami, the way it was when I was a kid, a teenager, in my twenties, maybe because I’m trying to recapture what it was.
In your beautiful essay “Girl Hood: On (Not) Finding Yourself in Books,” you write, “When you fail to find yourself in books […] 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.” Are you satisfied with the representation of Caribbean and Caribbean American experiences in contemporary literature? Do you feel young people of color would be able to easily find themselves in books today?
Satisfied? Not even remotely. Take a look at the mastheads in your favorite magazines, both literary and commercial. Take a look at the faculty and administrators in a majority of the creative writing MFA programs. Who’s on staff at the literary agencies? The publishers? Who are the book reviewers? Who is calling the shots? It’s exhausting to even think about, truthfully, but I think that young people of color (and LGBTQ people, and poor people, and disabled people, you name it) are not finding themselves in books. As a kid who looked to books as a way of saving herself, a poor kid who often didn’t have TV, the books that somehow ended up in my hands didn’t reflect my world. I noticed the lack of diversity, as I’m sure young Latina/o and Black and Muslim and Queer readers do today. It’s now 2015 and not much has changed. What’s selling right now? Young adult? Dystopians? Where are all the Latino/a YA Dystopian books? Where are all the Latino/a vampires and zombies? And while we’re at it, where are the characters with disabilities? Where are the queer people? If the real world reflected what the publishing industry reflects, then we’d be living in a world with more supernatural creatures and aliens than people of color, and that’s really fucking sad.
But let’s talk about solutions. What do we do about the lack of diversity in publishing? Or what can you do? There’s plenty you can do. If you’re a reader, you can start by reading widely and diversely, by looking for books written by writers of color, for example, by putting diverse books in the hands of young readers. If you’re a reviewer, you can read and review books by people of color. If you’re an editor, you can publish more people of color. And if you don’t have any/enough submissions from people of color, start soliciting! Reach out to writers of color and queer writers at conferences, at readings, at residencies. Put out a call on your website, on social media. But that’s not enough. Not even close.
I could write a whole essay about this, but instead, I’ll refer you to Daniel José Older’s “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” and the official campaign site for We Need Diverse Books.
Your short stories have been published in many renowned magazines, including The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares and the Pushcart Prize anthology. In your writing you tackle a number of weighty themes—war, cultural divides, poverty, loneliness and Latino culture—to name a few. Would you talk a bit about the challenges of exploring such complex themes in the short story form?
I don’t set out to explore themes. I start with a place, and then think about that for a long time. Then I think about the characters, what they want, what they struggle with. Then I envision the ending, and when I know how the story ends, I start writing. The writing becomes like the building of a bridge to get to the end. Sometimes—more often than you’d think—the ending I originally envisioned changes, the story takes over and becomes what it needs to be. Themes emerge on their own. Often it’s difficult to say everything I need to say in a short story, because you have a word limit, and sometimes a time limit—though stories can be about a moment or a lifetime or multiple generations.
Sometimes the difficulty depends on the theme. What else can you say about war that hasn’t already been said by much better writers before you? This is when the characters save you, because you’re not writing about the theme, not really. You’re writing about these characters, their stories, and that’s the one thing that those other writers haven’t touched.
Writing about poverty is another thing altogether. I’ve had pieces published (fiction and nonfiction) that are about living in poverty, among other things, and I’ve gotten emails from readers. Some readers want to thank me, or want me to know that I touched them in some way, that they enjoyed the story/essay/memoir. And I’ve also had readers write to say that they’re glad I turned out okay, that they were afraid for the girl in the story (me), that they’re glad I was able to overcome my circumstances and make something of my life, etc. They say things like “resilient,” “brave,” “courageous.” Although it makes me really happy that you’re glad I’m not in jail, or dead, or homeless, I’d rather hear that you like the writing, not how my life turned out. But don’t get me wrong, I appreciate readers reaching out—it means the world when someone lets you know that your art has touched them.
You’re also a highly involved literary activist. You’ve worked with The Miami Book Fair International, Orange Island Arts Foundation, The Rumpus, West Branch, Sunday Salon South Florida, and you’ve recently edited the 15 Views of Miami (Burrow Press, 2014) anthology. Why is it important to you to pursue literary projects outside of your own writing?
Although I work my ass off, I owe someone for every single one of my accomplishments. It’s taken a lot of people to get me where I am. I’ve been lucky to come across writers, also working their asses off, who are generous with their time and their talents, and believe, as I do, in lifting as they climb.
And thank you, but I don’t know that I’d call myself a literary activist. When I think of activists, I imagine someone like Kathie Klarreich, the founder of Exchange for Change, an organization that brings writing and collaborative writing workshops to incarcerated men, women, and juveniles throughout South Florida. (Prison-writing programs help improve an inmate’s chances of getting a job after release, and of not returning to prison, among a bunch of other benefits to prisoners, their families, and the community.)
I do it because I love books, because I love reading, writing. Reading for magazines mostly involves going through tons of slush, but sometimes you find a story that shakes you to your core or makes you laugh out loud or begs to be read again and again, and then you remember why you do it.
Editing 15 Views of Miami happened by chance, actually. I ran into the series editor and the publisher at a conference, and they’d already published 15 Views of Orlando and 15 Views of Tampa Bay, so I said, “Are you putting out 15 Views of Miami? I WILL DO IT!” I really wanted the Miami I know to be represented—a city that’s diverse and dynamic, with a wealth of literary voices and stories and styles and backgrounds.
Helping to put together a reading series in collaboration with Sunday Salon and Orange Island Arts Foundation was rewarding in its own way. I co-founded a reading series in Tampa when I was a grad student there, so I had some experience. We’re in the process of getting Sunday Salon Miami up and running, but Sunday Salon Ft. Lauderdale is well underway, which is a good thing. There are plenty of literary events and readings happening in Miami (the Miami Book Fair, O, Miami) and Palm Beach (the Palm Beach Poetry Festival) and Key West (the Key West Literary Seminar) but Ft. Lauderdale really needed something. Now, Sunday Salon and OIAF host a reading in Ft. Lauderdale every two months. The city (and the people out there who love books) really needed it.
I moved back to Miami hoping to become part of the movement to revitalize the city, to make this a mecca for artists and writers and musicians. While there’s still a lot of work to be done here, this city is already well on its way. There are movers and shakers here, innovators and educators (and a wealth of organizations) who love this city and have worked hard to rebuild it. But to answer your question: for me, what I do, which includes helping to revitalize and rebuild a city through its community of writers and artists, is the most important and rewarding work I’ve done.
Jaquira Díaz has work noted in the Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading, and anthologized in Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of The Small Presses. Her stories and essays appear in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Sun, The Southern Review, Salon, The Guardian, TriQuarterly, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, The MacDowell Colony, and The Kenyon Review.