RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The writer Jaquira Diaz has a story about escaping the disasters of her own family. Born in Puerto Rico, she spent her early years in a public housing project. Her mom worked all the time, and her dad...
JAQUIRA DIAZ: My father was a drug dealer.
MARTIN: As a child, she would see him counting out the wadded dollar bills he had earned in that deadly trade. Later he moved the family to Miami and found work that was lawful. But Jaquira Diaz says her mother was temperamental, violent and finally diagnosed as schizophrenic. The writer describes their life in a memoir titled "Ordinary Girls." She talked with Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: How did you understand what was going on around you?
DIAZ: At first, I didn't really. I thought everyone lived like this because there were so many other families in el caserio that were dealing with similar things. It wasn't until I was a grown woman looking back at these things and realized how much violence made its way into our everyday lives, into our childhood games, how much we thought that was normal.
INSKEEP: What kinds of violence were there in your home or around your home?
DIAZ: There was a lot of drug-dealing. There were fights. There were raids. The cops would often show up and raid places for drugs and guns. When we were young, my brother and I saw a guy get stabbed in front of our building. That was very common. And so now I look back and I realize how not normal that was, how lucky we are to be alive.
INSKEEP: Although you tended rather quickly into violence yourself.
DIAZ: I did, when I was a teenager. So I was a juvenile delinquent who spent most of her time on the streets. At 11, I attempted suicide for the first time. Then a few months after that, I ran away from home for the first time. And then I started getting arrested, mostly for fighting. I was in a state of rage also. I was so angry, and I couldn't really explain why. I didn't have the language for it. And so I turned to what I knew. I remembered the kind of woman my mother had been - in a lot of ways, I was acting out; I was performing the same thing.
INSKEEP: I wonder if I can get you to read a bit of this memoir.
DIAZ: Of course.
INSKEEP: And what's on my mind is Page 171. At what point in your life are you describing yourself?
DIAZ: So this is when I'm 14. This is from a chapter called "14, Or How To Be A Juvenile Delinquent (ph)."
(Reading) Learn to fight dirty, to bite the soft spots on the neck and inner thigh, to pull off earrings and hair weaves. Slather your face with Vaseline before fights so you don't get scratched, so the blows slide right off without leaving a mark. Keep five or six razor blades tucked in a loose bun on top of your head. In a girl fight, they will always pull your hair. Learn that anything can be a weapon - pencils, bottles, rocks, belt buckles, a sock full of nickels, a master combination lock. Eventually, you'll carry other weapons - brass knuckles and pocketknives - but never a gun because what you really love is the fight. Besides, you're not crazy.
INSKEEP: This passage of the book is all the more startling because the young woman who had that experience grew beyond it. For all of her family problems, Jaquira Diaz says her father loved books. She aspired to be a writer. And gradually, haltingly, she found a way to be one. She joined the Navy and says, for the first time, she was surrounded by people who expected her to succeed. She also met a young man who, for a time, became her husband.
DIAZ: He took me home to meet his family, and I saw what a family was actually supposed to look like. These were people who loved each other and weren't afraid to tell each other all the time, who hugged each other, who sat down to dinner and asked each other about their day. And they were loving and happy, and he was happy in it. And I looked around and I thought, this is what I want; I want a family that loves me and shows it.
INSKEEP: You know, when we think about your turnaround or comeback from that, it would be easier, I guess, if you told your story like the hymn "Amazing Grace" - I once was lost but now am found - like a progression from bad to good. But it doesn't feel that way as I read this story; it feels to me like you are in some ways the same kid in different circumstances, and the person you are now was in existence back there at age 8, and maybe there's still a little bit of that family trouble with you now. Is that true?
DIAZ: I'd like to say no, but I think you're right. It definitely didn't feel like I turned my life around; it felt like I was always, from the very beginning, trying to turn my life around. And it took a lot of people and a lot of stumbling and a lot of mistakes until, finally, there were fewer mistakes. It wasn't one thing that turned my life around; it was many different things, many different people who saved me again and again. And I also suffer from major depression, and so every day is a struggle. Even though every day is a blessing, I still feel like I could very easily go back to being that person. But I don't.
INSKEEP: The public housing projects in which you grew up...
INSKEEP: ...Are they still around?
DIAZ: They're still around, yes.
INSKEEP: Have you been back in recent times?
DIAZ: I have. So I was there a couple years ago. It wasn't a pleasant experience. I hadn't been there in a very long time and - because, I mean, everyone who's ever lived there who has been lucky enough to get out knows that you don't go back. And I did go back, and I wanted to get a look at our house. I went back to my old elementary school, and I walked around. And then while I was there, a boy - sorry, this is very emotional.
But a boy on a bike came up to my car and told me to leave, basically, approached me and said I didn't belong there. And I told him I used to live there, I grew up there and that I know my way around. And he was like, no, you have to leave; you don't belong here. But the truth is that I don't. As much as I love el caserio and as much as it feels like home, it's not my place anymore.
INSKEEP: Jaquira Diaz is the author of "Ordinary Girls," which is a memoir. Thank you.
DIAZ: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF JUAN RIOS' "BUHO")