UCF English graduate Jaquira Díaz ’06 was named Wednesday as one of the 10 winners of the 2020 Whiting Award for emerging writers, earning her a $50,000 prize. Her debut memoir, Ordinary Girls, is about her challenging childhood growing up in the projects of Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, and her coming of age.

Judges for the award, presented by the Whiting Foundation, say the book is “packed with indelible images of violence and tenderness that evoke landscapes and neighborhoods, families and strangers.”

The Whiting Award is based on early-career achievement and the promise of literary work to come. Her book was declared one of the must-read books of 2019 by O, The Oprah Magazine; Time; Publishers Weekly and others.

Díaz, who now splits her time between Miami and Montreal, says that when she started taking creative writing courses at UCF that she knew she would become a writer one day, and that her most important lesson in school was: “I learned to call myself a writer.”

“I didn’t know how, or when, but I saw it as a dream that would eventually come true, because I would never stop working for it,” she says. “I learned discipline, drive, focus. I learned not to wait for inspiration, to keep writing, keep reading, keep learning. Eventually, I was confident enough to call myself a writer, and that changed everything.”

She says all of her UCF professors were supportive, especially recalling the direction of Cecilia Rodríguez-Milanés, Terry Thaxton, Jocelyn Bartkevicius and Kathleen Bell.

‘They (instructors) made me feel seen, like they understood my vision, like they believed in my work.’ – Jaquira Díaz

“They made me feel seen, like they understood my vision, like they believed in my work,” she says. “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 would take hard work, and time, but that it was possible.”

For other students who want to go into writing, her advice would be: “Read. Read. Read. Then write.”

Díaz, also a former visiting assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MFA program in creative writing, won her Whiting Award for nonfiction, but she says her next project is a novel.

“To be a writer, to be successful, you have to want this more than anything else in the world,” she says. “Get used to the idea that ‘success’ might mean you have to work another job to pay the bills. Get used to the idea that you will spend the rest of your life learning. Learning doesn’t stop when you get your degree, when you leave college or grad school. That’s just the beginning.”