Press photo by Maria Esquinca
On Wednesday night, former Orlando resident and UCF grad Jaquira Díaz won a prestigious $50,000 Whiting Award, the U.S.'s largest literary award for emerging writers.
Ten writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama are chosen each year. Díaz won for her nonfiction work, Ordinary Girls
, which the Whiting Foundation called a "devastating memoir ... packed with indelible images of violence and tenderness that evoke landscapes and neighborhoods, families and strangers, drink and drugs and junk food and beach sand and the bodies of lovers and friends."
Her story of biracial identity includes her maternal grandmother mocking her for her Blackness, even shaving off her “bad” hair, while her paternal grandmother, who is "unapologetically Boricua, unapologetically Black" instilled in Díaz her pride in being Black.
The "ordinary girls" are her friends, "the loudmouths, the troublemakers, the practical jokers. We were the party girls, hitting the clubs in booty shorts and high-top Jordans, smoking blunts on the beach. We were the wild girls who loved music and dancing. Girls who were black and brown and poor and queer. Girls who loved each other."
The New York Times calls Díaz
"a girl who stabs her brother with a knife, but also one who is enrolled in Honors English class and wins writing contests."
In that October 2019 Times
review, Reyna Grande wrote "it takes courage to write a book like Ordinary Girls
," calling it "a testament to resilience in the face of scarcity, a broken family, substance abuse, sexual assault, mental illness, suicide and violence."
The award is a particularly good sign for a burgeoning writing career, and a predictor of future literary achievement. Vanity Fair
called the awards the "Crystal Ball of the Literature World."
Indeed, previous winners of the 35-year-old award include some of the most famous authors now writing. Díaz joins a list that includes Tracy K. Smith, Colson Whitehead, Mary Karr, Tony Kushner, Jeffrey Eugenides, Alice McDermott, Suketu Mehta and David Foster Wallace.
I asked Díaz through the Whiting Awards if she remembered anything or anyone from UCF who fostered her career.
"I knew, when I started taking Creative Writing and Literature classes at UCF, that I would be a writer some day. I was already a writer, though I hesitated to call myself one, and I wouldn’t admit it to anyone except myself," says Díaz. "My time at UCF was life-changing. More so than anything, it was the support I got from the faculty — especially Dr. Cecilia Rodríguez-Milanés, Terry Thaxton, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and Dr. Kathleen Bell. They made me feel seen, like they understood my vision, like they believed in my work. Honestly, even though it wasn’t my best work at the time — I was an undergrad, all ambition and drive and bravado — they helped me see that what I wanted (to be a writer) would take hard work, and time, but that it was possible."
The winners will be announced Wednesday night via the Whiting Foundation's Twitter
accounts, one by one, beginning shortly after 7 p.m. The traditional ceremony was canceled to avoid possibly spreading COVID-19, "but the Foundation looks forward to rescheduling a celebration of the winners once restrictions on public gathering have been lifted."
In a release, the foundation described the award as "giving most winners their first chance to devote themselves full-time to their own writing, or to take bold new risks in their work."
In a world that could increasingly use more "resilience in the face of scarcity," it's a good sign that Díaz will have a lot more to say.
For a complete list of winners, visit whiting.org
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