What Can We Steal From Jaquira Diaz’s “Section 8”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Section 8,” short story
Author: Jaquira Diaz (On Twitter: @jaquiradiaz)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short short story first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of The Southern Review, a highly prestigious journal that is also a lot of fun.  “Section 8” was subsequently nominated for an won a Pushcart; the story can be found in the 2013 Pushcart anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Restraint

Discussion:
Nena is a young woman who has some problems.  She was sent to juvie for stealing beer and doesn’t exactly have the most attentive parents.  Nena is also coming to grips with her sexuality; she has feelings she doesn’t quite understand for her “homegirl” Boogie.  Nena is also concerned about a strangler who has been targeting “professional, openly gay men.”  (Folks who don’t understand the importance of proper grammar should take note of the extreme importance of that comma!)  Unfortunately, others at Nena’s school believe that Boogie is a lesbian and take the time to spraypaint epithets on her locker.  Nena does nothing.  In the climax of the story, young men spray Boogie with bleach.  This time, Nena confronts them and the assault ends.  The relationship between Nena and Boogie is irrevocably changed.

Ms. Diaz puts a lot of balls in the air.  There’s a killer on the loose, a young woman is learning about her sexuality, there is crazy bullying in her school…all kinds of great story threads are tied together in the story.  As a guy who is pretty focused on the structure of stories, I would ordinarily want to talk about what a writer can steal from the way Ms. Diaz organized her story.  (Each section of the story contributes to the overall narrative, but Ms. Diaz does deal with the dramatic present in an interesting way.)

Instead, I think Ms. Diaz gives us a lot to steal in terms of narrative restraint.  Nena is an outspoken character who doesn’t allow others to push her around.  In narrating her story, however, Nena holds a lot back while still providing the reader with the clues we need to read between the lines.  Halfway through the story, after describing a sweet scene she shared with Boogie, Nena offers a flashback:

The first time had been in juvie.  It was Ethel, a girl from an Opa-locka crew.

Nena is confused about her desires and possibly ashamed and scared of what they mean about her.  Ms. Diaz allows Nena to make her confession (she committed lesbian acts) without making that confession complete.  Yes, this kind of tactic puts a lot of distance between reader and narrative.  Sometimes, that can be a bummer.  In this case, however, it feels perfectly appropriate when you consider the character and her psychology and social situation.  Nena never explicitly describes why the Strangler means so much to her, allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusion.

And look at how Ms. Diaz has Nena handle the climax of the story.  When the jerks are painting slurs on Boogie’s locker, Nena thinks:

I thought I should hug her, say, “Fuck those assholes.  They don’t even know you.”

But I didn’t.  I didn’t say one word.  Just turned and walked away.

Nena is clearly having complicated thoughts about the incident, but we are not allowed access to them.  The information we DO get is enough for us to understand how the event makes Nena feel.

And look at the calm narration during the climactic fight:

I lunged at him.  Pushed him back as hard and fast as my body would let me.  He took a few steps, tried to steady himself, fell on his ass.  The crowd backed off, but Nestor turned his water gun at me and sprayed.  I didn’t care.  I went directly for him.

Even though the narrator primarily gives us sparse reportage, Ms. Hill has built the emotional stakes enough that we can cheer for Nena as she stands up for Boogie (and for herself.)  There are times during which your narrator should editorialize and should make explicit confessions, but the end of “Section 8” is more powerful because of Ms. Diaz’s restraint.

The ending of the story is also extremely important.  After Nena relates a little bit of what happens in the future, she returns to the dramatic present to tell what happened after the jerks took off with their bleach guns:

She grabbed hold of my shoulders, her eyes narrow.  “Don’t you fucking touch me,” she said, before pushing me back against the bus stop.

That night, right outside of the Section 8 projects, someone set another woman on fire.

Wow…am I right?  The last sentence is a gut punch.  Some might say that it’s extraneous because it doesn’t directly relate to the characters or the moment.  On the other hand, the last sentence brings the story to a new level, connecting the violence committed against Nena and Boogie to the Strangler and beyond.

What Should We Steal?

  • Calculate the proper distance between narrator and reader.  Most teenagers are guarded about their inner truths; concealing information from your reader is appropriate when your narrator would realistically do so.  Establishing a vast narrative distance can also allow you to zoom in for additional effect.
  • Punch your reader in the gut by bringing in the world at large.  After spending several pages immersed in Nena’s perspective, Ms. Diaz offers us a sentence that doesn’t need to have come from her narrator.  The statement is really a rhetorical question that makes a personal story about even larger issues.

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