Can you talk about the “ordinary girls” you wrote about? What did you learn about yourself from writing Ordinary Girls?
More so than any of my girls, I’m someone who has had access to education, to creative writing programs, to fellowships and writing conferences and the publishing world. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get here, but that doesn’t erase the fact that I’ve had these opportunities and my girls—the girls I wrote about who are now women—haven’t. The world isn’t kind to Black and Brown girls, or Black and Brown women, especially when they come from working-class communities or from poverty. My girls taught me that it’s possible to make our own families, to find our families. They helped me believe in love and friendship and hope. But more than anything, after they had girls of their own, it was their girls who taught me the most important lessons: they helped me remember the girl I was. They helped me remember that there are girls out there who are just like I was, just like we were. My story wasn’t unique — somewhere there is a teenage girl with a mother who suffers from mental illness and addiction, just trying to get through the day. Maybe seeing herself in this book will make life a little bit easier.
What is an ordinary girl?
The idea of the “ordinary girl” or “ordinary girls” changed for me over the course of writing the book, just like it has for me personally, outside of writing this book, over the years. When I was a kid, I never felt like I fit anywhere. I felt like an outsider in almost every situation, like an alien in my own family. There were times when being queer and closeted, when being Black and Puerto Rican, meant I felt hyper-visible and invisible all at once. You can see some of this in the book. I spent most of my adolescence hiding who I was, pretending to be someone else. There were times when I thought that what I wanted most was to be ordinary. An ordinary girl.
And then something shifted. As I fell deeper into depression, as I got angrier and angrier, I thought an ordinary girl was the worst thing you could possibly be. It was much more about negotiating girlhood, a certain kind of girlhood, and what that meant. By the end of the book, there’s an acceptance, as I embrace the kind of girl I was, and realize that these ordinary girls were capable of amazing feats. They saved me—their friendship, their love. They anchored me.
Why did you decide to write about girlhood? And why was it so important to you to write a book that dealt explicitly with sexual violence and racism?
Men, particularly cishet white men, write about whatever they want and they’re called geniuses. They write about grown men lusting after twelve-year-old girls, they write about having affairs with students, they write about their boyhoods, about manhood, and their writing is always considered relevant. Women, femmes, trans men and trans women, genderqueer people, we’re implicitly taught that our writing about anything having to do with the self or coming-of-age or gender or desire or sexuality or our bodies or trauma is just “navel-gazing.” Cishet men are always considered intellectuals, even when they write domestic novels or memoirs about boyhood.
While writing Ordinary Girls, especially when I was writing about sexual violence or trauma, I wrote against these ideas. I found myself deliberately resisting this silencing, and often it felt like I was revealing secrets I was meant to be keeping. It felt necessary to keep working, to remind myself—and readers—that our stories and ideas are just as valuable and important.
What books or authors have most inspired you? What books did you read while working on Ordinary Girls?
There were so many books! So many. Ordinary Girls took twelve years to write, and there were a lot of books during those years. Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, for starters. It felt like she was speaking to me. (Some of my early memories involve my father telling stories of how my godfather was killed by police. His murder was something everyone in El Caserio talked about.) But also, I think of Jesmyn Ward as one of the best thinkers and sentence stylists working right now.
Definitely Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican. It was one of the very first times I saw myself in a book written in English. Before then, to me, it seemed like Puerto Ricans didn’t even exist in American publishing. As a kid, I went to the library and everything the librarian handed me were books written by white people about white people — mostly by white men. When I Was Puerto Rican still feels relevant and iconic for me.
I read Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Caramelo, Woman Hollering Creek. I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and it changed the way I saw the world and what was possible in fiction.
What was your favorite part of the book? Was there anything that found its way into the book unexpectedly?
Writing about my abuela and cooking. I didn’t know that I would actually enjoy writing about food so much. We cooked together a lot—she taught me to cook. And now I cook almost every day and love it. It’s a huge part of my life. Writing that piece about cooking with my abuela made me realize how much I actually enjoy food writing. Also, writing about my best friend’s quinceañera—I realized I hadn’t written about it before—that moment when we felt invincible, when I really felt how much we loved each other.
What are you working on now? What’s next?
My next book, a novel called I Am Deliberate, which will be published by Algonquin Books. I’m also working on a super-secret young adult project, and a (fingers crossed) television series. And I’m always writing essays, so at some point there will be an essay collection.