Stephanie Jimenez‘s debut novel They Could Have Named Her Anything is about a Latinx teenager named Maria Anís Rosario coming into her own sexually as she grapples with racial and class issues that many members of the community are facing today. It is an honest and raw insight into what it’s like to be a girl in today’s world.
Because of the subject matter, some feel the need to label it a YA novel. Others call it literary fiction. Jimenez doesn’t care what you call it as long as, when you’re reading it, you understand this is a true insight into Maria’s life. Nothing is sugarcoated. It’s a sexually-charged novel that both mature teens and adults will be able to enjoy to bridge the gap between their ages.
I spoke with Jimenez about publishing on an Amazon imprint, whether or not her book is adult fiction or a Young Adult book, plus if that even matters, and more.
Your book is coming out on Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was also made available early for readers as part of their First Reads program. Can you talk a little about that?
I don’t think anyone officially called it a soft launch, but that’s what it felt like for me. For a month before the actual publication day, they make it free for Prime users to download for free. Then the hardcover and paperback, which come out at the same time, are discounted. My book got a lot of exposure through the program and it got blasted out to all of the Prime members. There are six to eight books apart of the program and members can download the first for free and then the others are heavily discounted. It’s a great way to start building momentum.
Definitely. You actually have strangers reading your book instead of just friends, family, reviewers, and a handful of winners of giveaways. Have you been paying attention to any feedback left from readers?
I try hard not to. I’m part of a group on Facebook [for debut authors releasing books this year] and I have seen threads from authors who refuse to read reviews. I thought there would be no way I could do that, but as I have had more and more reviews filtered in I have discovered the need to filter the reviews and feedback I will read. It reminds me of being in workshops. I’ve been in a lot with different kinds of people with different kinds of workshops. It’s all about knowing what kind of feedback you want and need. It’s not unlike reading reviews now. Everyone is writing their own kind of feedback and I can’t let that factor into my writing of the next book.
I’ve seen a lot of authors tweet about how some people will tweet bad reviews to them or just harsh criticism directed at them. Has that happened to you?
The response has been more positive than negative. At least what I have been tagged in. A lot of Latinx readers have been finding the book and have been very excited about it. That’s really encouraging for me.
I’m glad. I felt the character Maria — and I am a white male who is not a member of the Latinx community —but I felt she was extremely important to have a strong, young, Latinx girl to read. Was she always a character you wanted your first book to be about?
Yeah. For me, Maria and the kind of family she has was important. There were few books I read that had characters like her. For many years, I think the only book that had a teenage Latina was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Especially Sally who is a headstrong girl who isn’t afraid to embrace her sexuality and speak her mind. I felt that idea of being a teenager, and a young girl, in particular, was important for me to represent.
I think some of the negative feedback I have seen was that people were really uncomfortable with the representation of teenage sexuality. I think this was an honest experience of what it’s like to be a young girl. It was important for me to show a young girl going through things I think are very real and not often represented in literature.
I think whenever there is a character of color who experiences these things in literature, it is labeled as inappropriate or unrealistic, but everyone has heralded Holden Caulfield from Cather in the Rye for almost a century.
I think the other tricky part of it is that is hard to write about a character of color without it potentially being read as a stereotype. When there is a character of color, you run the risk of someone thinking you portrayed them stereotypically. I wanted to write this character who I thought was very realistic in my mind who had a complex relationship with her sexuality, but I had to avoid the trope of a sexy Latina vixen who is seductive. The stereotype many people have in their head about Latina women in particular.
So much of writing the book was this back and forth of how do I write this character while being cognizant of the white gaze but also in a way where I let the character resist that.
It was important for me to show a young girl going through things I think are very real and not often represented in literature.
We have stereotype, trope, archetype. I think certain labels are given depending on who is on the other side of the character. The same people who might say Maria is a stereotypical character might label another white teen character an archetype because they’re more comfortable with that character. Maria for me was very realistic. I never read her as a stereotype.
I’m glad that you didn’t. I’m glad her sexuality didn’t make you uncomfortable.
I think, for many people, sexuality is different than our parents’ generation. We’re more liberated and free with how we talk about sexuality. I think it is important for young people to know what they are thinking and feeling are what older people have thought and felt.
You’re right in saying that, but at the same time, there is a lot of change and progression we are also living in a time where there has never been more restrictions and bans on abortion. There’s an interesting juxtaposition within what the culture is ready for and what policy is still doing to control women’s bodies.
For every step forward we make as a society, there are two steps back from policymakers who are trying to “fix” that progression.
We’re also living through a moment where, for the first time ever, sexual assault is being recognized. The experiences women have had for so long have been told to just take it or internalize it. Now those ideas are being called out and challenged. I wrote this book before the #metoo movement was happening and it has been interesting to see how the movement has allowed for new conversations to happen, but at the same time, I don’t know if we are giving the nuance to the conversation that it deserves.
We have talked a lot about young, strong teens and how the characters in it are a good representation for younger readers. I’ve read comments on Good Reads debating whether or not this is a work of adult literary fiction or a YA novel. What do you think about straddling that line?
I think it’s been very interesting from a marketing perspective. People immediately want to categorize it as one or the other. Shopping the book was difficult for that reason. Editors, in particular, wanted it to be very clearly a YA book or not. When I decided to publish with Amazon, they were excited about that crossover. That was a different response than I had been receiving beforehand.
I would be more excited to see more books that would be willing to be labeled this way. I don’t think there is a clear way to write those books because marketing wants it to be one or another. I wrote it for adult audiences, but I am happy for whoever wants to read it.
It reminded me in some ways of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, which got similar treatment. It’s adult literary fiction, but a lot of people say it has YA elements. I think there is a gap between the two that needs to be written for. When you’re 17, 18, 19, there is so much going on. You’re changing so much, but there are rarely books geared toward them. I think this book is perfect for new adults but I also enjoyed it as a 30-year-old man.
I would say a lot of readers who have reached out to me are in that age range from early-20s to early-30s. I don’t really understand why there needs to be such heavy division between YA and adult fiction.
I feel the division between the two is very arbitrary and I feel a lot of the times it has to do with who the writer is. I can think of books that are written from the teen perspective that are considered YA and others that would be more readily considered adult. I want to know if the identity of the author is being factored into who the book is being classified.
Navigating that YA/adult line must have made navigating your debut even more difficult. I know you’re also featured on the Debutante Ball. Can you talk a little about that?
It is a blog that changes ownership every year to five women or nonbinary authors. It’s a tool for other emerging writers. Every week, we each blog about a topic. The idea is that not only are we building a support group for each other, but we are also building a resource for other aspiring writers.
It was really helpful for me to have four other writers who are my cheerleaders and I am also a cheerleader for. This week, for example, all of us are blogging about the publication of my book. It is also really helpful because it could be very lonely being an author, especially if you are going through it for the first time and don’t know what to expect.
I’m sure there were many obstacles as a first-time author, but what was the biggest or the one that stood out?
The one was the distinction between YA and adult. It was difficult to find an editor to buy the book because it wasn’t clearly for one market or another. Personally, it was really hard to find an editor who I really thought would understand the vision of the book.
The book is an exercise about this one character leaning into or resisting stereotypes. It’s about how she would resist being read by white people — both literally and figuratively. I wanted to find an editor who got what I was playing within the book. It’s tongue in cheek to name her Maria Anís Rosario. It’s like a telenovela name. It’s a classic name I can give a Latinx character. I wanted someone to see that and do what I was doing.
The problem is publishing is so white. I knew that from when I worked in publishing a little over a year before selling this book. The process of trying to find someone who would approach this was hard. I worked with my agent to create an editor list. I had some knowledge of publishing houses and together we came up with two or three women of color that we sent the book to for consideration.
It’s something I identify as a huge problem. That was one of the biggest hurdles.
I will say the reason I found Vivian Lee, my editor, was through Naima Coster, who had her book Halsey Street published by Little A. She wrote an essay in Catapult called “My Editor Was Black” and it was about her editor at Little A who left and Vivian took over her book. She wrote about Vivian as well in the essay and it was about how important it was for [Naima] to have an editor of color.