Why Claire Jiménez Fought to Tell the Stories of Puerto Rican Women

The full title of this article by Rachel Simon (Shondaland) is “Why ‘What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez’ Author Claire Jiménez Fought to Tell the Stories of Puerto Rican Women.” Simon writes, “Years after their sister, Ruthy, disappears, the Ramirez family hope is rekindled.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

Claire Jiménez has known for more than a decade that What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez, her debut novel about a Puerto Rican family in Staten Island searching for their long-missing sister, was the story she needed to tell. Yet despite spending year after year workshopping the short story upon which the novel is based in grad school and writing programs, she struggled to get the story published — and the feedback she got from some readers only underscored the frustrating reason why.

“Sometimes, people just culturally didn’t understand the language, the way the characters treat each other, and the way they grieved, even,” recalls Jiménez, speaking with Shondaland. “People didn’t know what to do with it.”

As a Puerto Rican and former New Yorker herself, though, Jiménez knew that those readers’ reactions to the book weren’t indicative of how all people would respond, or any reason to change the way she wrote.

“I never was one of those people who got gaslit into thinking like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m doing this wrong,’” says Jiménez, 38. “The way I was writing wasn’t wrong — it was the way they were reading that was deeply troubled.”

As the early success of Ruthy Ramirez shows, her critics were in the minority. The novel, out now, has been called “brilliant,” “stunning,” and a “knockout,” largely for its honest, unflinching depiction of the close-knit Ramirez family. There’s Nina, a struggling college grad who’s quick to pick a fight; her older sister Jessica, an overworked new mom shouldering far too much; and the matriarch, Dolores, a widow who’s turned to religion to deal with the guilt she feels over her middle child, Ruthy, who disappeared as a teen in the ’90s. And then there’s Ruthy herself, a stubborn, whip-smart teen at the center of the book’s mystery, whom readers meet in flashbacks.

The women of Ruthy Ramirez are sharp-witted, tough, cynical, and all too familiar with the institutional racism and sexism that plague their corner of the world. But they also have a deep, abiding love for one another, and when the sisters believe they’ve found the now-adult Ruthy competing on a reality TV show, there is a shared hope that their family’s biggest wound will finally heal.

As one of several sisters in her own family, Jiménez says she aimed to depict the “unique relationship” between female siblings as realistically as possible. “I really wanted to think about what we owe each other as sisters and how you grow up when you grow up with each other,” she explains. “When you grow up inside of a house together, there’s a way in which you share this vocabulary and these reference points. … There will be something that happens on TV, and all of a sudden you’re laughing because it reminds you of Easter when you were 5, or you have these moments that uniquely happen because you lived with each other.”

Jiménez also wanted to showcase the resilience and spirit of Puerto Rican women — especially when faced with dark tragedy, like the loss of Ruthy. “For a lot of different cultures that have been marginalized or have struggled with depression, humor is a big force in surviving those struggles and those challenges,” the writer notes. “And that’s especially true, I think, for Puerto Ricans.”

She continues, “We’re a colonized people, and so I think the fit between humor and tragedy is actually very natural, because I grew up with that happening all around me. Something messed-up happens, and somebody makes a joke about it to survive. You find joy, and sometimes the only joy is through our ability to make each other laugh.”

In 2020, Jiménez co-founded the Puerto Rican Literature Project, a free digital archive that includes more than 50,000 works from Puerto Rican authors, poets, and other creatives. In writing Ruthy Ramirez, she took inspiration from Nuyorican writers like Pedro Pietri and Miguel Piñero, whom she calls “hugely influential” on both literature and other Americans’ understanding of Puerto Rican lives during the ’70s and ’80s. Yet in recent years, Jiménez says, “That attention kind of declined,” making it “really hard” for Puerto Rican writers like her to get their voices heard.

In 2023, though, the tide is beginning to change; as the author notes, this year is seeing new, buzzed-about works from Puerto Rican writers like Jennifer Maritza McCauley, Melissa Coss Aquino, and of course, Jiménez herself. “This is a unique year,” she says with clear excitement. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.shondaland.com/inspire/books/a43272379/why-what-happened-to-ruthy-ramirez-claire-jimenez

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