While coronavirus dominates the headlines, a Miami writer got some of the best news a writer can get – which is good news for readers everywhere. Puerto Rican-born Jaquira Diaz, author of the memoir “Ordinary Girls,” has won a prestigious Whiting Award for emerging writers.
Diaz, whose harrowing book details her early childhood in Puerto Rico and her troubled adolescence growing up in Miami Beach, is one of two nonfiction winners (the other is Jia Tolentino, whose debut collection is “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion”).
“Ordinary Girls” deals with Diaz’s impoverished childhood and her eventual coming out, her mother’s mental illness and the violence of a South Beach that barely resembles the glamorous wonderland seen on screen.
Diaz, who was forced to cancel half of her book tour events due to the coronavirus pandemic, says she still can’t quite believe it. “To be honest I thought it was a prank,” she says, laughing. “When I got the call, I was getting on a plane flight to Miami. I was in the middle of my book tour. . . . I was walking and trying to put my luggage up and I was like, ‘What?’ “
On a serious note, she hopes this award helps to shine a light on the hard work of Latinx writers, just two months after the literary controversy over the publication of Jeanine Cumins’ “American Dirt” brought many Latinx writers together. “I hope that it means that people are taking us seriously and paying attention to Latinx writers, seeing us for who we really are and not one homogeneous group,” she says. “We’re different people from different cultures, with different histories. We come from different backgrounds. This is just one story. I’m just one writer.”
The $50,000 prize was also awarded to Andrea Lawlor, Ling Ma and Genevieve Sly Crane (fiction); Will Arbery (drama); and Aria Aber, Jake Skeets, Genya Turovskaya and Diannely Antigua (poetry).
The Whiting Award, which was established in 1985, offers one of the largest monetary gifts in the literary spectrum. More than 300 writers have received a total of $8 million in awards. Previous winners include Colson Whitehead, Tony Kushner, August Wilson, Susan-Lori Parks, Alice McDermott, ZZ Packer, Mary Karr, Ocean Vuong, Deborah Eisenberg, Tracy K. Smith, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides.
As for what’s next for Diaz, she’s doing what writers do: self isolating – and writing. “I definitely feel it’s important to remember we were working and writing before and after ‘American Dirt,’ and we’ll keep working and writing before and after this pandemic.”