Stephanie Jimenez, Debut Novelist, Covers Being the Other
Stephanie Jimenez was in Columbia on a Fulbright scholarship when she started writing a book.
That book became her first novel, They Could Have Named Her Anything (paid link). It’s the story of a Latinx girl in Queens, N.Y. who commutes to a private high school in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
They Could Have Named Her Anything came out in August.
In the interview below, Jimenez talks about why she wrote the novel. And she discusses how it feels to be underprivileged but surrounded by wealth and power.
It’s an experience Jimenez knows well, having grown up working class while attending prep schools in New York. She wrote about this in a recent piece published on Catapult.
Jimenez also talks about her preferred writing process, and how she’s happy to have an address of her own.
Enjoy the interview. Consider purchasing a copy of They Could Have Named Her Anything (paid link). And perhaps also share this interview on social media, or with someone you think will enjoy it.
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Q&A with Stephanie Jimenez
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in Queens, N.Y. I live in Long Island City now, which isn’t too far from where I grew up in Woodside.
It’s the first time I’ve ever had my name on a lease. Up until now, I’ve been bouncing around the city, renting rooms from friends and Craigslist strangers. I’m glad to finally have my own home in the borough I call home.
My main hobby right now is unpacking boxes and decorating my new apartment. But regularly, it’s writing. Aside from writing, which is what I spend most of my free time doing, I bike and I jog and I do fitness classes – the constant movement helps me feel sane.
I’ve also started snowboarding and rock climbing this year, both of which are rewarding and exhilarating. I love to read and even though I have a hard time watching movies, they tend to inspire me whenever I’m stuck.
Movies teach me a lot about plot and how to keep momentum going in a story. Plot is hard for me. I don’t think I’m precious about my work, but sometimes I’m more interested in language than story, and movies remind me how to stick to the point, and how important it is to have a point to begin with!
I’m really very shy at heart, but I work in communications and publicity, and the expectation is that I’m always talking to people. I think this is good for me, both as a writer and a person who otherwise has a tendency to withdraw.
Stephanie Jimenez on Writing
When did you first start writing creatively and why?
My interest in writing has steadily been growing since I was a little kid collecting gel pens and Sanrio planners. But I was a teenager when I first realized writing was a hobby, and I think it was in large part thanks to a blog that I shared with a friend, a Blogspot where we posted all our early teen poems. That blog taught me the importance of making art collaboratively.
We gave each other support, encouragement, and even critique. We used to read each other so often that we would borrow phrases and styles from each other. Sometimes I wouldn’t know who wrote what until I got to our names at the bottom of a post.
I think writing for me is just part of that inherent human desire to create. If I were a great singer, I would make music. If I were an amazing painter, I would paint. Part of that desire to create is just the desire to interpret my daily life in a way that feels comprehensible to me. The other part is just to pass the time.
Do you have a preferred writing process?
I like to write whenever I have time. I do not set strict routines, but I do clear my weekends whenever I can. I write at home because I don’t like using public restrooms! I can write at any time of the day, but I notice that at night, it’s hard to keep my eyes open.
I also write when I’m procrastinating. That’s how I know writing is truly something that brings me joy. Instead of sending an email that’s been due for weeks, I’ll open up my laptop and write for three hours.
Scarlett Thomas, a writer I admire, advocates for total immersion when working on a new project. The idea is that you spend as much time as possible each day creating your project – whether that’s by reading books about the subject matter, plotting in your phone notes during commutes, or minimizing social time.
I’m a fan of this method because, while I hardly ever have the opportunity to truly be immersed in writing, I am innovative about creating time for my projects. A lot of my writing happens in transit, for example.
I think about my works in progress constantly, and I write my ideas down in whatever I can find (I found myself writing on a napkin the other day – not recommended, I think I ended up blowing my nose on it). But whenever I do have a long period of time I can devote to writing, I always have something to reference to help get me going again.
Feeling like the other
You recently wrote in Parade Magazine about growing up underprivileged surrounded by people with money. How has that experience impacted your writing?
I wrote my first book reflecting on my experience as a person for whom graduating from a selective four-year college is a low probability when you look at demographic data. The book is about class and wealth and what it’s like to witness privilege from an unprivileged position, and specifically from the viewpoint of a racialized other.
In my book and in my life, these spaces of privilege have been white-majority and wealthy, and have been most stark in the schools I’ve attended. Everyone knows opportunity shouldn’t be based on your race or ethnicity, but not everyone knows what it’s actually like to be an anomaly in those spaces and all the guilt and confusion that comes with it.
I recently read a poem by Elisa Gonzalez about this very topic – about what it means to have to adjust to an environment where so much about us must change. I wonder what we are losing when we do that, when we adapt, especially for immigrant children who may have already experienced loss through the assimilation of previous generations.
Education is supposed to make you more cultured, and Maria, my protagonist, learns how to dress to match her peers, and she learns how to properly steep a tea bag. But at the same time, there’s a culture that she’s being educated out of. And that’s sad because it’s not something she’ll get back easily.
Your debut novel, THEY COULD HAVE NAMED HER ANYTHING, is about a Latina and white teenage girls from different neighborhoods in New York City. Is there a biographical element to the book?
When I first started writing this book, I was living in Medellin, Colombia, on a Fulbright scholarship as an English Teaching Assistant. I chose Colombia because my mother was born in Barranquilla, and I thought being in the country where my family first emigrated from would bring me closer to the truth about who I am.
Ironically, during this trip that I had envisioned as a homecoming, I was incredibly homesick. I started writing this book from a tiny print shop outside the University of Medellin. It was a way to remember and reimagine New York City.
Before I started crafting dialogue or plot, I began with writing setting. I think that makes a lot of sense given that the book is not just about community and belonging, but the physical spaces where we are either denied or granted entry.
Maria is in the unique position of seeing New York City from many different angles – from her ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood in Queens, to the polished doorman-guarded avenues of the Upper East Side. Whether looking down the endless lanes of Queens Boulevard or the skyline from a high rise apartment, she understands that the way she experiences the city is almost entirely dependent on the place from which she views it.
If the book has a biographical element, it comes from me having lived and loved this city since I was a little kid.
How does it feel to now have a published novel?
I love it. I love the community of writers and readers I’m finding. I want to keep writing and learning and being inspired by my peers. I want to keep publishing.
Jimenez on writers and readers
Are there any writers you admire?
Of course! There are so many. I already mentioned Scarlett Thomas, but the books of Dylan Landis, Danielle Lazarin, Natalia Sylvester, Naima Coster, Kirstin Chen, and Devi Laskar have been some of my favorite reads recently.
Have you read any good books lately?
I just finished reading Chloe Aridjis’s Sea Monsters, which was a fantastic and very ambient book. I also have been reading some craft books, including Julio Cortázar’s Literature Class, which contains a series of lectures he gave at the University of Berkeley. Reading about his approach to writing short stories is illuminating and has already directed me toward many ideas.
Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about Stephanie Jimenez?
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