This interview with Claire Jiménez is part of a Latino Stories series between our Columnist, Teresa Dovalpage and Latinx editors, publishers and authors. Claire Jiménez is a Puerto Rican writer who grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York. She is the author of the short story collection Staten Island Stories (Johns Hopkins Press, 2019) and What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez (Grand Central, 2023). She received her M.F.A. from Vanderbilt University and her PhD in English with specializations in Ethnic Studies and Digital Humanities from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In 2019, she co-founded the Puerto Rican Literature Project, a digital archive documenting the lives and work of hundreds of Puerto Rican writers from over the last century. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina.
Dovalpage: You mentioned in the acknowledgements that What happened to Ruthy Ramirez started as a short story and then became the novel that readers have in their hands now. Can you tell me more about the process? How hard (or easy) was to turn a short story into a novel?
Jiménez: The difficult part about growing the story into a novel was figuring out its shape. I knew that I wanted to alternate between the different perspectives of the Ramirez women. So I rotated the voices of the mother and the sisters as they took turns moving the story along. The trickiest chapters to handle might have been Ruthy’s. I revised her sections many times. At one point, I decided that Ruthy’s parts should focus on one day of her life—the day she disappeared. Then I strategically placed her chapters throughout the book, ultimately ending the novel with her voice to formally mirror how it has hung over the lives of the women in this family. Focusing on this small amount of time also allowed me to magnify just how enormous one day can feel for a 13-year-old girl. Often adults belittle the emotions of children. But a slight diss during homeroom from a former best friend can feel devastating to a 13-year-old; it can feel like the end of the world.
Dovalpage: You did it wonderfully because, as a reader, I felt I was right there with Ruthy, all the time. At school, I got to know her friends and classmates. Speaking of, the friendship between Ruthy and Yesenia is such a key part of the plot, but so much about it, particularly Ruthy’s feelings, are to be inferred. In the Q & A at the end of the novel, you mention how silence sharpens voice. Silence indeed plays a big part in the story. Could you elaborate more about “the hidden element” in the craft of writing?
Jiménez: I think that authors –good ones anyway – are always dancing with silence, struggling to point towards the mystery beneath dialogue or gesture. So really what we are talking about is subtext. So much of our everyday lives are shaped by these silences, and as a writer, I’m always asking myself what can this character not say? What are the words they say instead?
Dovalpage: Words in English, palabras en español…Hablando de idiomas, Nina pretends to know Spanish to start working at Mariposa but it soon becomes clear that ella no habla mucho español. Then there is a delightful scene with the “resident eighth-grade translator fluent in Spanish, English and 1996 New York City Slang …” And we hear Dolores cursing in Spanish también. Tell me about your own experience with Spanish? ¿Lo hablas bien? Creo que sí.
I recognize that the loss of language is itself a product of displacement and colonialism.Claire Jiménez
Jiménez: I grew up with Spanish spoken in my home; this is why and how the language surfaces in the novel. But actually, my Spanish has never been very good. And when I was younger, I felt deep shame about not being able to speak well, because of course, we know that identity is often measured by language, even when this type of measurement is at times deceiving or faulty. The great Puerto Rican playwright and poet Victor Fragoso explains this better than me in an essay that I love entitled “En búsqueda de lo puertorriqueño.” This was an essay published in a journal called The Rican in 1973, and he writes defending the Nuyorican poets: “Pietri, Victor Hernandez Cruz y otros jóvenes de acá son parte de la realidad puertorriqueña. Existen. No podemos decirles, parados en un falso pedestal de puertorriqueñidad, que son norteamericanos, que no conocen el dolor de la discriminación…Pedro Pietri, sin poder decir más de dos or tres palabras en español, es tan puertorriqueño como De Diego; canta un rabio puertorriqueña que sólo un boriqua puede decir; el dolor de la colonia, la carne viva de una conciencia acosada que no puede sanar así, de repente; el dolor de ser proceso…” Now, that I’m older I’m more patient with myself as I learn to become a better speaker, and I recognize that the loss of language is itself a product of displacement and colonialism, which is actually, very much part of the Puerto Rican experience, as well.
Dovalpage: An important part of the plot revolves around the reality show, Catfight where Jessica and Nina discover a girl named Ruby who looks suspiciously like their missing sister Ruthy. Was there a particular inspiration for it? Do you watch reality shows? Cuéntame…
Jiménez: During my twenties, I watched so much reality TV, binging episodes of, for example, Bad Girls Club. But I also started to feel that there was something deeply problematic about the ways in which these shows frequently used the bodies of women of color as sites of violence and spectacle. At the same time, I was thinking about the (mis)representations of Black and brown women in pop culture and the absence of coverage of missing Black, brown, and Indigenous women and young girls. The novel addresses some of these topics by playing around with the tension created by its premise, the question: Is this Reality TV star Ruby really Ruthy?
Dovalpage: I kept wondering! That’s why I finished reading the novel so soon that I had to reread it. Now, what consejos, suggestion or advice would you give to writers of color that have just finished their first novels and are looking for a way to share it with the world?
Jiménez: There are going to be so many people who discourage you from writing or who make you feel like you’re not good enough. Forget those fools! Ignore them. We need your stories..
To find out more, visit clairejimenez.com.