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Claire Jiménez on her new novel 'What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Ramirez family is incomplete. There's a hole in the middle where Ruthy used to be - Ruthy, the middle daughter who disappeared from a Staten Island bus stop when she was 13. Years later, her sisters see her beauty mark, her laugh, her way of speaking in a woman named Ruby on a reality TV show. Could this be Ruthy found at last? That's the question driving the novel "What Happened To Ruthy Ramirez?" It's Claire Jimenez's debut novel. She teaches English and African American studies at the University of South Carolina, and she joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

CLAIRE JIMENEZ: Thank you for inviting me. I'm so excited to be here.

RASCOE: Even before page one of your novel, Ruthy Ramirez is missing. You know, the thing of it is this is a family, like, dealing with this collective grief. How did you grapple with how that sort of loss - how it affects the family and how it affects the dynamics of how a family processes pain?

JIMENEZ: Man, I knew that I wanted - when I wrote this book, I knew that I wanted it to have all of the perspectives of the family, and I wanted it to be really woman-centered. Like, it had to have all of these women's voices - sort of like a chorus, right? And one of the things that I was thinking about - yes, how loss and grief and trauma wear on this family, wear on, you know, them emotionally and physically, too, right? But also, like, what is it that they know or don't know about the situation - right? - and how does that build towards, you know, the final revelation?

RASCOE: There is this idea of this Ruby who's on a reality TV show. You know, this is a very specific type of reality show, so it's kind of like "Bad Girls Club." They're fighting and the - you know, the name of the show on the - in the book is "Catfight," and that's what it's all about. What drew you to that type of world?

JIMENEZ: Yeah. Well, I mean, I'm really interested in reality TV. And I think that one of the things it reveals about the United States specifically is, you know, there was this obsession, almost, with watching people get humiliated, right? And then when you think about that in terms of what happens when it's, you know, the bodies of Black and brown women who are the sites of that humiliation, who are the sites of that violence - right? - I was really trying to play around with that tension of representation. When are we represented? When are we misrepresented and distorted? And how can that question about reality - right? Is this really Ruby? How does that resonate as I think about, what are real representations of Black and brown women in pop culture and media?

RASCOE: Do we really - are we really seeing ourselves? But is it also - because I watch a lot of reality TV. You know, when you have shows and there are a lot of, you know, white women fighting with each other, people don't necessarily think, like, oh, this makes white women look bad.

JIMENEZ: Yeah.

RASCOE: Like, is that - like, that dynamic.

JIMENEZ: That's right. That's right. That's right. You know, it's interesting. You say - you were like, I watch reality TV. And I was like - I watched a lot of reality TV in my 20s, and there's this question of, like, you know, but why? Why am I obsessed with this? What is happening here? And so that also is a question that gets played inside of this novel. Like, there's really a moment where Nina is watching an episode and they're all fighting each other and she's like, why can't I stop watching? Who's choreographed this violence, and why can't I stop watching it?

RASCOE: You know, this story is set and very much shaped by the fact that it's set in, you know, Staten Island. It's right after the Great Recession. This is a Puerto Rican family. Why was it important for you to, like, give it just this very deep sense of, like, place and time?

JIMENEZ: Well, I'm from Staten Island, so I know Staten Island very well, you know? And so I knew that I wanted to put it inside of that landscape. I also think that Staten Island is kind of, like, the stepchild of New York, you know? I thought it would be fun to also use the Staten Island Mall. And in terms of time, I was really interested at the '90s, and I was also really interested in this moment of 2008 - right? - 'cause there's the crash. And, you know, there's this way in which the American dream is tested and it's dying - right? - but then we also have Obama elected.

RASCOE: You know, you mentioned the mall. Like, do you think that this country is losing something by not having that space? You know, mall after mall closing. I guess less Victoria's Secrets and stuff to...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: ...Work at which is the - Nina worked at a lingerie store.

JIMENEZ: Well, I mean malls are spaces where, like, teenagers kind of come of age, you know? You don't have to have a lot of money to walk around and, you know, just buy some tater tots and, like, window shop, right? It's a cultural time and moment that doesn't really exist anymore. Whether it's for the better or for the worse, I'm not sure. But it's definitely something that, you know, I kind of enjoyed capturing inside of the novel.

RASCOE: What do you want - I mean, obviously, this is about - this is a novel about a loss and dealing with a loss. But, I mean, what do you want the audience to gain from reading of this book and gain from learning about this family, the Ramirez family?

JIMENEZ: This is a book - it's a book about loss. It's a book about grief and everything we've talked about. But it's also a book about storytelling - right? - and in each way, you know, these are first-person narratives where the women are telling their stories and letting you know about their life, right? And they're controlling a narrative that for - has been taken away from them. And I think that my hope is that somebody reading this feels empowered to tell their own stories and to take control of their own narratives.

RASCOE: That's Claire Jimenez. Her novel is called "What Happened To Ruthy Ramirez?" Thank you so much for joining us.

JIMENEZ: Thank you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.