Queens writer Stephanie Jimenez recently published her debut novel, They Could Have Named Her Anything, with Little A. Stephanie answers a few questions for us about Queens and how growing up in Woodside influenced her book. She can be found online at stephaniejimenezwriter.com, and on Twitter and Instagram.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
Eating mango with lime on a summer day under the 7 train at Junction Boulevard.
How did growing up in Queens influence your writing (style, subject matter, etc.) in comparison to other Queens writers who may not have been raised here?
I’ve read some phenomenal books by writers who know Queens intimately. Patricia Park’s Re Jane, Bushra Rehman’s Corona and Marianna's Beauty Salon, and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling are among my favorite Queens books.
Growing up in Woodside has made me associate that place with childhood and adolescence in a way that becomes transparent in my writing. In They Could Have Named Her Anything, Maria Rosario is a seventeen-year-old girl who is full of doubts and insecurities about who she is in the world and who she is allowed to become. She knows her house in Queens doesn’t compare to the palatial country homes her Manhattan friends visit in the summer. And yet, Maria’s most life-affirming experiences never happen far from home. She experiences the sublime by walking down Queens Boulevard, amazed at how much it sounds like an ocean. Her love for where she’s from is intact because she experiences it on her own terms, and that eventually becomes instructive for finding a way to love herself, too.
How did you come to write They Could Have Named Her Anything?
I first started to write the novel while living in Colombia. I grew up in New York, but my mother was born in Barranquilla and after college, I accepted a Fulbright fellowship to Colombia in part because I wanted to see where half my family came from. Ironically, during this yearlong trip that was supposed to be a homecoming, I became more homesick than ever. I began writing this novel as a way for me to recreate New York City. I populated the book with characters who I started to understand so thoroughly by writing and rewriting them, they eventually became as familiar as friends. When I returned to New York from Colombia, I began working in book publishing and it was then that I felt I had an obligation to the characters, especially Maria, to get the story published.
Your novel is set primarily in Queens and the Upper East Side in 2006. The locations are significant in illustrating the chasms in class Maria is trying to navigate; what considerations brought you to set the story at that point in time?
In 2006, there were far less online communities as there are now, and apps and social media platforms were in their most basic, bare-bones stage. There’s a moment toward the end of the book when Maria becomes curious about where her parents were born and she tries to place herself on the streets of Puerto Rico using Google Maps, but she can’t. Nothing pops up.
I wanted to use that specific time as a tool to heighten Maria’s sense of loneliness and confusion. She couldn’t just go on Twitter and use a hashtag to find music or books or other people that might help her make sense of the world around her. Of course, online communities can be very isolating and insular, too, but having Maria exist almost entirely offline was a way for me to put some parameters around her world and keep it contained, which then became a reflection for the way in which Maria herself feels contained.
I also think that when I first set this book in 2006, I had a sort of naïve presumption that some of the themes the book tackles—racism, misogyny, abuse—just wouldn’t be as relevant in high school classrooms today, in what I perceived to be this very-woke, very-progressive era. But when you have white supremacist violence bubbling up all over the country and a state that not only does nothing to prevent it, but actively condones it, how much has the reality of being a young Latinx girl in America really changed? I had been too hopeful.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
The last piece of writing advice that made me laugh came from an author I interviewed for a panel. She is very accomplished, has published over 14 books in both English and several other languages, and I asked her how she does it. She basically said that she sticks to her rule of writing only what she cares about, but the hard part now was continuing to find things to care about. I loved that because it speaks to how the hard part is actually the part we love most. The puzzle is figuring out what we most need to say.
What does your writing process/routine look like?
My writing process is messy. I have a full-time job so that means my writing happens sporadically. Before publishing this book, I had a fairly consistent writing group. We’ve been on hiatus for almost a year now though, which means I do not have a regular revision schedule anymore.
I am not great at routine. I recently remembered that when I was twelve years old in a very selective preparatory program, I was singled out in class for having poor time management skills. They wanted me to schedule out my day hour by hour so I wouldn’t keep missing homework assignments. I hear that’s fairly common, but it didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work for me now, either.
What works for me now is listening to myself when I want to write and heeding that call when possible. I work slowly, but with devotion.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
Right now, I’m working on a second novel. It’s a much weirder book than the first. Research for this novel has led me to browsing the archives of UC Berkeley, taking a class at the New York Botanical Garden, and doing a whole lot of other stuff I wouldn’t normally think of doing.
It’s fun to work with the very unfamiliar. At the same time, I’m cautious of putting too much novelty into a novel. In a recent review of my book, a reader complimented the “brazen simplicity” of my plot. I loved that. I think writers are increasingly pressured to write books that are entirely original and new. You see a lot of overly ambitious books that span four hundred years or hit every hot-button issue or are otherwise somehow “high-concept” with many different plotlines that never satisfactorily converge.
I recently learned of the concept of writerly restraint from Weike Wang. The idea is that restraint is necessary to avoid using lots of descriptive words when only a few suffice. I think it’s a useful concept to also apply to plot. What can you achieve by paring down your plot? And will a simpler plot allow you to better articulate what you most want to say?
What is your favorite bit of Queens trivia?
Did you know that Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn while living in Woodhaven? Did you know A Bronx Tale was filmed in Astoria? Did you know that every trendy new book you’ve had to wait 10 months on hold for at the New York Public Library is available this very moment at your local branch in Queens?