Q&A with novelist Stephanie Jimenez, author of They Could Have Named Her Anything
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.