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Christina Santi | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Starr Davis.

What recent writing accomplishment(s) are you most proud of? Was this accomplishment shared and supported by your children?

I have a personal essay titled “Humming for a Hero” in the upcoming inaugural issue of Gladiolus Magazine. My son is only five years old, but he is the center of the essay, and it covers our music listening sessions, which are a source of joy that powers my ability to mother, work and write amid living with major depression and anxiety disorder. 

Tell about a time mom-guilt emerged (or emerges) in the midst of your writing process.

Mom guilt encapsulates my existence– it’s 76% of my therapy sessions. My writing process is non-linear and never has been. I jot down ideas and piece together bits of my life weeks, months, and even years out. I feel the guilt most when I am in one of my rabbit holes and reading pages on pages of references that may amount to one sentence in a piece. I often feel like I could better utilize my time playing with my son or giving him attention so that he’ll have those memories to hold close in the future. Especially if I end up scrapping the work or it never leaves my journal. 

If you could go back and give yourself advice before becoming a mom, what would it be?

Though there are many ways to do something, you know your child best and sometimes it’s necessary to cut out the chatter. It will alleviate a lot of the outside stress or worry from people making comparisons to how you mother that can sometimes become overwhelming. Trust that you can figure things out and utilize advice only when you absolutely need it. 

What topics, artistic channels, or forms have become present that were not there before in your writing since becoming a parent?

Since I became a parent I began to write poetry and test the waters of my prose style with writing long-form pieces. I find myself writing more about generational cycles. As the mother of a Black boy, I also give more grace to Black male figures in my work because I often grapple with how the patriarchy will still shape my son despite all the work I do as a feminist momma. 

Do you ever find yourself dealing with censorship as a mom-writer? Explain your thoughts on your children eventually becoming acquainted with your work.

I am the daughter of hip-hop, censorship is not in my lexicon. Because I mostly write personal essays,  I let go of the idea of shame or the pressure of what others think about my writing. Otherwise, I would never be able to do what I do. When my son comes of age to understand my work, I hope it gives him a glimpse of the whole woman that I was/am outside of being his mom. I cannot wait to sit down with him and talk about my life and ideas. People are complex, layered, and contradictory and it’s one of the lessons I want him to learn.

How has parenting bolstered or inhibited your creativity?

Parenting has been the greatest bridge for my creativity. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever done and as my partner says it often feels like an unpaid internship. My son is the jolliest and most innovative person I know and he has become a mirror for me to stretch an idea or write the things. I have learned that almost nothing goes according to plan but you can make everything work.

Was there a noticeable shift in your writing before and after parenthood? If yes, how so?

After parenthood, I began to write more creatively and submit things that would often just live in my notebook. I have also become more introspective and analytical of the world I want my son to inhabit. A noname quote that guides my writing now is “I feel like someone dreamed the world that we’re in, so why can’t we dream of something else?”

How has the internet influenced you as both a writer and parent?

The internet is where I found my community (think back to Blackplanet and Sconex). In my teens, I would make daily visits to the B2K forum to read and write fanfiction. It was a place for me to find people who were into the vast array of things that I was into, and that birthed my professional writing career. As a parent, it is also where I have found my community of mothers who are gentle parenting, advocating for our kids and just being resources for it all. 

How have other mother figures you have encountered in your community influenced your parenting? Your writing?

The former head of my department at work, Krishana Davis was also a mom writer and though I never expressed this, her dedication to being an overall badass who reads, writes, and gets things done influenced my passion to want to make a career of writing again. She also made me feel seen in a way no one has seen me and trusted my work before. In terms of parenting, other mother figures such as my mentor Michelle Martinez have influenced me to understand that motherhood is not a limitation but rather a window to what you can achieve.

How do you balance motherhood/parenting and finding the space to write?

In 2019, when I was a culture writer at EBONY, I asked Gabrielle Union this question about balancing motherhood and her career. She told me: “I talk a lot about the myth of ‘balance.’ You can’t be everything to everybody because [one of those things] isn’t going to be amazing.” Ever since then, I go into each day setting a priority of what needs the most and best from me. Often times it’s my son and when it’s my career or my writing, I also know that those pathways will lead me to create better opportunities for him. 

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

Of course, the enigmatic Toni Morrison, who taught me to wake up before the sun and kids to get my freshest thoughts on the paper. Jamaica Kincaid, whose novel The Autobiography of my Mother I go back to time and time again. Nefertiti Austin, Candice Braithwaite, Lauryn Hill, Solange – really any writer-mama who has been able to use their pen to tell enticing and emotive stories. 

Christina Santi (she/her) is a multimedia communications specialist and creative non-fiction writer whose work centers on advocating for equality and equity for Black people, particularly Black women, and the complex waters of navigating the intersectionality of race and gender. She received her MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School. Her work has appeared in Ebony Magazine and more. When Christina is not writing or reading, she’s museum hopping with her 5-year-old or obsessively explaining to others why Frank Ocean’s music is masterful.

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Ten Questions for LaToya Jordan

RAISING MOTHERS:     What inspired you to tell this story?

LATOYA JORDAN:    The idea began formulating in my head in 2016, after I read a news article about the first uterine transplant being performed in the US. Because my mind always goes to the worst-case scenario, I thought about the urban myth surrounding black market organs and waking up in a hotel bathtub filled with ice and a kidney missing. I thought about the lengths some people will go to to have biological children and wondered about what a future black market for uteruses might look like. Later that year, I had uterine surgery to remove a fibroid. I’d had many talks with my doctors about my uterus, surgery, and preserving my fertility. Then, the first Woman’s March happened in January 2017. What began as a kernel of an idea morphed based on what was happening in my life and what was happening in the country around medical advances, reproductive rights, and racial justice.

RAISING MOTHERS:     What did you edit out of this book?

LATOYA JORDAN:    This book was more about what I added to it instead of edited out. It began as a short story and grew from about 8,000 words to 20,000+. I added a lot more about my protagonist Jada’s world in 2040.

RAISING MOTHERS:     How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?

LATOYA JORDAN:   It was hard to be done because the story isn’t over. This is a novella, so I had to find a place to stop that was a major turning point for Jada but could also segue into a part two. Jada’s story isn’t over and I’m looking forward to exploring what happens next.

What I discovered about myself when I finished this project was that mapping out a revision schedule helped immensely when I felt overwhelmed. I used to primarily write poetry, so moving to longer works felt daunting. While revising my novella, I created a process for myself that I’m continuing to use for revision. I wrote down everything that needed to be revised and would take it step by step. In a bullet journal, I mapped my revision schedule out with dates, times to squeeze in revision, and what exactly I was going to work on. For instance, if I needed to add more dialogue, add backstory, and change the tense in the story, I’d sit down to a scheduled session and only work on improving dialogue throughout the story. It felt less overwhelming to know I was working on fixing one issue in the story in a certain session or sessions. Once I finished improving dialogue in the story, I’d move onto the next issue. Working in passes and taking the time to plot this out set me up for success. So, I learned I’m not as much of a seat of the pantser as I thought I was.

RAISING MOTHERS:     What was your agenting process like?

LATOYA JORDAN:    I don’t have an agent but if an agent wants to slide into my DMs, they’re open. I’ve been focusing on trying to finish my short story collection.

RAISING MOTHERS:     What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

LATOYA JORDAN:  Anytime I can learn something new about writing is the best money I’ve spent. Getting my MFA and taking writing classes and workshops has been money well spent.

RAISING MOTHERS:     How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

LATOYA JORDAN:    There is no typical writing day for me. When I’m really busy with work and family stuff, my writing might be using my phone on my commute to jot down ideas, dialogue, or whatever comes to mind for a story I’m revising or a new draft. Sometimes I write after my family is asleep. Sometimes I make Zoom lunch dates with other writers and we’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour together but off screen, writing. When our weekends aren’t packed with social activities, I’ll write when my husband takes the kids to the playground or I lock myself in a room for 30 minutes to an hour. In the past couple of years with the pandemic and a whole lot of family togetherness, I’ll go to a hotel in our city once or twice a year for a weekend and hunker down to write. I’m currently focused on being more intentional and creating an office hours schedule that becomes part of my family’s routine.

RAISING MOTHERS:     What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

LATOYA JORDAN:   Write, get that first draft on the page no matter how much you think it sucks. First drafts are the hardest. I have to constantly remind myself that the story in my head won’t look like what I imagined the first time it’s on paper. Join or create community with other writers. Have an accountability partner that you can send pages to and get feedback on your work. Writing is a solitary practice but we need community. Read often in the genre you’re writing and also read in work that’s completely the opposite because you could learn a thing or two from what those writers are doing. I think all fiction writers should read poetry.

RAISING MOTHERS:     What does literary success look like to you?

LATOYA JORDAN:    My idea of success has changed so much. Of course success looks like a book, multiple books out in the world. But that’s not all literary success is for me. It also means the continuous return to writing. There is so much in my life that pulls me away but I will not let that voice that wants to write quiet. I also feel success when writers I admire read, enjoy, and respect my work. I love it when people write to tell me how much a story or a poem touched them or that they’re teaching my essay in their classes. A minister once reached out to me via Facebook to tell me she shared a poem of mine with her congregation and how much the poem moved her and them. That’s success. 

RAISING MOTHERS:     What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

LATOYA JORDAN:    I’m friends with a lot of writers, some have published books and some haven’t. I love that I have so many writers in my life. They help me become a better writer by giving feedback on my work and I learn from them by reading their work. We have discussions on craft, on the world of writing, rejection, acceptances, and yes, some literary gossip.

I think every writer I know in person and via social media is my friend whether they want to be or not. I do want to say that I’m forever grateful for Tyrese Coleman for pushing me to write short stories. And to Kate Maruyama who has been my longtime friend from grad school that always cheers me on. Over the last few years as I transitioned to writing short stories, she’s been showing me the ropes and guiding me within the speculative fiction genre. 

RAISING MOTHERS:     Who are you writing for?

LATOYA JORDAN:     I write for myself. My protagonists are all Black girls, women, and mothers so I write for them, too.

LaToya Jordan (she/her) is a writer from Brooklyn, NY. Her novella, To the Woman in the Pink Hat, was published in March by Aqueduct Press. Her writing has appeared in Anomaly, Literary Mama, Shirley Magazine, MER, Raising Mothers, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and more. Her flash story “Offering” was a spotlight story in Best Small Fictions 2021 and named in Wigleaf’s Top 50 2021. Her essay “The Zig Zag Mother,” appears in My Caesarean: Twenty-One Mothers on the C-Section Experience and After and another essay, “After Striking a Fixed Object,” published by The Manifest-Station, was notable in Best American Essays 2016. She is also the author of a poetry chapbook, Thick-Skinned Sugar. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is wife to an English teacher and mom to two amazing kids.

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As new parents, Dia and Neel had often heard from older couples in their families that the early years of marriage are rosy rosy rosy. True colors of a couple come out once they have a child. That’s when you have to adjust adjust adjust. This last line, aunties recycled more often, eyeing Dia.

Adjust, she told herself while locking the seatbelts around their one-year-old daughter, Taarini, in her child seat. Neel’s dad’s cousin brother was hosting the Diwali party for all of her extended families-in-law, the Samskaras, at his house in Mission Viejo. Dia and Neel hadn’t recovered from their fight over their vacation plans for Hawai’i but it was their first Diwali outing with Taarini so they decided to play social that evening. While driving, Neel turned on the sports channel. He knew how much Dia disliked the male anchor’s whiny voice alternating between a commentary on sports and politics with predictable quips on women celebrities. While driving in their pre-baby days, they’d mostly talk about their day at work, their latest with friends, travel destinations topping their list, post-retirement dreams, or listen to music they both enjoyed—The Beatles, Queen, U2, Bob Marley, A.R. Rahman—Neel cracking her up with his loud singing, mostly out of tune. Now, she couldn’t recall the last time they’d checked in with each other, held hands while driving as they used to, or looked into each other’s eyes before that habitual goodnight peck—blame it on the baby, the sleep deprivation, and the fatigue; blame it on five years of marriage and the monotony of seeing each other day after day after day, “midlife crisis” as goras would call it; blame it on the anger and frustration seething within from bumping into the same issues over and again, he accusing her of being antisocial and indifferent to his family, she accusing him of intimacy issues in marriage and an overattachment to his family.

Adjust, Dia told herself as she clasped an oxidized choker around her nape. She resisted the urge to turn down the radio volume, and the strong air conditioning in the car, another one of their frequent points of contention. Dia was always cold; Neel was always hot. Adjust. Dia wrapped a cashmere stole around her silk kurti and glared at her husband. The way he seemed focused on the road, she knew he wasn’t ready to call it a truce over Hawai’i. She wouldn’t either. Let him get it once and for all that his wife wasn’t a pushover, the dutiful daughter-in-law, eager to oblige. She deserved downtime, and she wouldn’t apologize for not wanting company during their trip, especially as a new family of three. She switched on her phone and logged into Instagram.


The party in Mission Viejo was the usual intergenerational affair, the older men discussing Trump’s America or Modi’s India in one side of the living room, the older women discussing the Mahabharata in the new TV production on the other side, the younger men discussing the Lakers by the bar, the younger women cooking in the kitchen, and a few others chaperoning their kids playing hide and seek or board games in the upper floor’s living room. As Neel took Taarini out of her car seat, his family took her and started passing her around, everyone doting upon the latest family addition. Since Taarini was born, Dia had grown invisible to her family-in-law, a feeling she’d grown to welcome, especially in these large parties where she’d trouble remembering everyone’s names and the ways in which they were related. She looked around for Neel’s younger cousins they were both close to, Kiran, Sherry, and Dia’s former roommate from her San Diego days, Maya, the one to introduce the new parents at a Halloween party in greater L.A.

After greeting different members of Neel’s family, Dia sat by the base of the staircase in the living room, sipping a Kingfisher. Neel joined her with an old-fashioned, bored quite likely with the sheer number of unknown faces at the party and the absence of his younger cousins who were stuck in traffic. As they watched the Lakers game on the TV, one of Neel’s older cousins sauntered toward them, a mango margarita in hand. Dia joined the small talk between the two—how California was facing yet another drought, how they never saw the new parents at Samskara parties anymore, how the turkey kababs wouldn’t last, they should run for their share, how the cousin should’ve made more samosas, three more families decided to join them last minute.

Neel praised the crispy dough of the spinach-paneer samosas.

“The girls have been cooking for a week, you know?” the cousin said, glancing at Dia.

In the kitchen, women continued to labor over cutting boards, by the stove, the side buffet, and the sink, and in the backyard, the men hovered over a temporary bar with their drinks and appetizers in hand.

“Phew.” Dia wiped the corner of her mouth with a paper napkin. “Why not have it catered next time?” she said, knowing the hosts had the ease of middle-class American families. “I know someone who does Indian food for cheap.”

The cousin snickered. “In our family, we believe in helping each other.” She nodded at another cousin serving chai to the guests. Dia remembered the line from the first family-in-law party she’d attended. She’d asked one of the women why Samskara ladies hung out exclusively in the kitchen at family socials while men relaxed over drinks and food, never offering help.

The woman shrugged. “It’s always been this way.”

Growing up in Mumbai, Dia had imagined American desis to be more liberal than those in the motherland. She was stunned to see no woman question the gendered division of labor and leisure at Samskara parties, not even those educated in America’s elite schools.

“Must be nice to just sit here and enjoy yourself.” The cousin eyed Dia and slurped her drink.

Dia wagged her finger between Neel and herself. “Are you telling this to us or to me?”

Neel cleared his throat. “You guys enjoyed the islands?” He asked the cousin about her family’s recent trip to the Indian Ocean region.

They had to cancel two of their flights because Mauritius and Reunion were hit by a cyclone, the cousin said. So they stayed in Seychelles throughout their vacation, and boy, when has another week in paradise hurt? “Until, of course, you open your wallet,” the cousin said.

Neel laughed. Dia cheered for the Lakers; they’d scored against the Clippers.

“I should see what the kids are up to,” the cousin said. “Pleasure meeting you.” She bowed in front of Dia. “Madam.”

Dia bowed her head in return, theatrically. “Enjoy.”

“Couldn’t you relax?” Neel turned toward Dia, once the cousin was out of sight.

“She could’ve done the same.”

“But it’s not about her.”

“When will you stop getting defensive about your people?” Dia asked. Your people, that’s how she’d started calling Neel’s endless extended family in Southern California, all within 50 miles of their home in Long Beach.

“I thought we were done with the Hawai’i story?” Neel said.

After three years of dating, Dia moved in with Neel in his house in Long Beach. Instead of developing her own circle of friends in the new city, almost every weekend she’d hung out with Neel at a party planned by his people: a baby shower in Newport, a birthday party in Cerritos, an anniversary party in Marina del Rey, a funeral in Irvine. There was hardly an opportunity to enjoy downtime of her own without landing into a fight with Neel who’d mansplain the importance of family roots to the uprooted immigrant in her. Three years later, Taarini was born, giving her a breather from social responsibilities of a wife and daughter-in-law, but as soon as Dia recovered from childbirth, the cycle started all over again. Between feeding and burping the baby, changing diapers and clothes, folding laundry, washing and sanitizing bottles, and alternating night shifts with Neel, the occasional free time she had during her maternity leave was taken up by her in-laws visiting or hosting a get-together for someone or another’s special occasion, Neel, desperate for fun outside the house, Dia desperate for the same by wanting to stay in and slow down, read, watch TV, or do nothing by the beach. Even when they decided to take a vacation to Hawai’i after Taarini’s first birthday, a parental milestone, Neel had gone ahead and invited two cousins and their families from the Bay Area—the conversation casually came up over the phone, he told Dia afterward, who was livid about not being asked. It’s not like she didn’t enjoy hanging out with his people; she got along well with most. What frustrated her was Neel’s need for good times that constantly needed Dia’s presence among his people while her own family lived oceans away in India, so Neel never had to choose between his leisure and spousely duties the way she constantly had to. Worse, as a man in the role of a son or a son-in-law, he would never be judged by his family or hers in ways that a desi daughter-in-law inevitably is when she chooses to honor her needs over those of her adopted family—a gender dynamic invisible to Neel and hypervisible to Dia.

She wiped the samosa crumbs on her fingers with a napkin and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. “We are done,” she said. “But if you can’t hear sexist sarcasms from your people, don’t blame me for noticing.”

“Yo, babe. Can we have a drama-free evening?” Neel drank the last of his old-fashioned. “For once?”

“Cool, dude.” Dia took a big sip of Kingfisher. Another one of their classic drills: If husband is upset over something, he deserves empathy. If wife does the same, ain’t she a drama queen? “Me play your social Barbie,” she said.

Neel stared at the Gaia Yoga commercial on TV and the ubiquitous bliss on gora faces. “I’m getting another drink.” He got up and left.

“Happy hour, folks.” Dia raised her beer bottle toward the elders in the living room. Beta, try not to think so much, ekdum cool you stay, she heard an auntie in her head.


For the rest of the evening, Neel hung out by the bar in the backyard with his cousin brothers including Kiran, who arrived without his wife, Gul, as she was travelling for work. Dia went to the backyard to say hello to Kiran. She wanted to chat longer with him but decided to stay out of Neel’s sight. Benefit of doubt, always give the other the benefit of doubt, another auntie spoke in her head as she entered the kitchen. She placed nonalcoholic drinks on a large tray and served them to the elders in the living room: mango lassi, coconut water, watermelon and pomegranate juice. Maybe Neel’s cousin sister didn’t mean to be sarcastic. As she helped herself to the last coconut water resting on her tray, she spotted Maya and Sherry in the farthest corner of the living room sipping a Kingfisher. She rushed toward them and they exchanged a giddy, girlie hug.

“You surviving my cousin?” Maya asked.

“Him more than the family,” Dia said. “No offense.”

“Yes offense.”

“Not all family, silly.” Dia picked a food crumb out of Maya’s hair.

“Name the victim,” Sherry said.

Dia told them about their argument over Hawai’i. “Our first holiday in two fucking years! If he could have it his way, we’d have shared the honeymoon suite with his family.” Dia dug a fork into the coconut meat.

“So, wait.” Sherry cupped a palm under her cheek. “It’s bad if we watch you two make a baby?”

Dia and Maya laughed.

“Welcome to the family.” Maya aimed her Kingfisher toward the uncles and aunties. “It’s in our blood. The Samskaras do everything in herds.” She pointed to the kids running around them. “All these were likely made together too.”

Dia and Sherry laughed.

“And the irony of it?” Maya took a sip of her beer. “I move to the East Coast, marry WASP men twice, but look at me now—back to my herd, sipping my Kingfisher.”

“I don’t mind the herd—” Dia tapped her fork against the coconut’s hollow head. “As long as he remembers I’ve married him, not his whole family.”

Girlfriend. What desi chick married her husband alone?”

Dia rolled her eyes.

“Give it time. He’ll eventually cut the umbilical cord,” Sherry said, flashing her teeth so the women could check her smile for lipstick residue.

Dia pointed her finger toward an upper canine.

Sherry ran her tongue over it. “He’s never stepped outside the herd,” she said.

“Until then, deal with the roller coaster?”

“You signed up for the amusement park, babe,” Sherry said. She was casually dating since she broke up with her last boyfriend three years ago.

“So buck up—” Dia scraped more of the young coconut’s meat. “And suck up?” She looked at the girls.

Adapted from Border Less: A Novel by Namrata Poddar (7.13 Books and HarperCollins India, 2022).

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Claire Jiménez on the Interiority of Puerto Rican Motherhood. In Conversation with Amaris Castillo.

In Claire Jiménez’s debut novel, What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez, we meet a Puerto Rican family from Staten Island. It’s 2008 and Dolores Ramirez and her daughters, Nina and Jessica, have been living with a gaping hole for more than a decade. Ever since Ruthy – Dolores’ headstrong middle child – disappeared after school at just 13 years old.

Then one day, Jessica notices a woman on a reality TV show who looks just like her long-lost sister. Could it be the real Ruthy?

As I read this novel, I was struck by the deep care the Puerto Rican author took in building the alternating voices of the Ramirez women. They are unflinchingly honest, funny, and loyal. The matriarch Dolores, in particular, stayed with me. She is a mother who exercises tough love on her daughters, but also questions many of the decisions she’s made as a parent. A mother who, in all of her chapters, speaks directly to her Lord. And she’s a mother crippled by guilt over her missing daughter, yet has hope that they may one day reunite.

I interviewed Jiménez about her depiction of Puerto Rican motherhood in What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez, the resiliency of her characters, and how becoming a mom herself has impacted her writing life.

Congratulations on your baby and also your debut novel. How does it feel to have both out in the world?

It’s so funny because having the baby kind of eclipsed the novel, in that everything became the baby when the novel came out. This is my first child. I knew that having a baby was going to be difficult, but I didn’t realize how much it was gonna take over; not being able to sleep and making sure they’re fed. I had no idea that breastfeeding was gonna be harder than getting my PhD, right? It took over my life.

Then it was like, ‘I have my child. Oh! And then I have this book!’ [Laughs] I was spending a lot of time trying to balance both of those important parts of my life, but mostly I was learning how to be a mother. And I was learning how to be a mother while also graduating from my doctoral program. It was a lot of things at the same time.

I understand you began writing What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez a decade ago, before you became a mom. What was your relationship with time like when you began this story – in terms of carving out time for your writing?

Now I look back on it, and I had so much more time. I struggle to squeeze in a shower at the end of the day, to have 15 minutes for myself. Whereas when I was a graduate student, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have so little time. I’m teaching, and I’m working these extra jobs, and I’m trying to graduate school, and I’m working on this book.’

It was true that I didn’t have a lot of time, but your time when you have a child is so much more limited. You’re tired. You’re up at night with the baby and then, when the baby finally falls asleep, you have to make the choice: Am I going to sleep with the baby, or am I going to get a little bit of writing in? Or am I going to take a shower? You’re constantly juggling and making these choices.

There’s the level of energy it takes to take care of your child. And you have to think: ‘What is my energy level at the end of the night? Do I even have it in me to think of words?’ But now here you are, a whole ass mother when your book is released to the world. How has motherhood impacted your relationship to time and writing? 

I have to make sure that everything is ready to go when I’m writing, and I’m much more intentional now about what that means. That might mean a cup of coffee. That might mean that I’m not gonna sit around and look through Twitter or answer some emails – pretending I’m gonna write. It’s like, ‘You have 30 minutes. You’re gonna make it work. Get a paragraph done.’ I set intentions for that time, and set larger goals.

Whereas before, I was very much like, ‘Oh, we’ll see what happens. I’m gonna sit and write. Maybe I’ll look outside the window for a little bit.’ Now because time is so limited, I have to be very focused. And I’ve noticed that I actually get a lot more done within the time that I have.

You were talking about having the energy. Sometimes it’s a choice of, in order for me to be a good writer, I need to make sure that I get into the shower. Or that I feed myself. Sometimes the work of being a writer when you’re a mother is also making sure that you’re practicing self-care, so that you can come to the desk whenever you do.

Some authors call their books their “babies,” and some mother-writers call their books their “baby” alongside their human children. You spent years nurturing and growing What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez. Do you consider the novel your baby, in a way?

Before I had a baby, I considered it a baby [Laughs]. I was like, ‘I created it.’ Now that I have a baby, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a baby.’ It’s interesting because before I had a child, everything to me was being a writer. Everything was about getting this book done. The stakes felt so high. 

Now that I have a child, it’s what’s important to me. Yes, my identity as a writer is incredibly important to me. But it’s like the focus has shifted in such a way that it doesn’t feel so life or death when it comes to this book specifically, or any writing project. I can’t say for other people, but it’s been healthier for me as a writer because the literary world could be toxic at times. Knowing what is important is my son and my home reminds me of this Toni Morrison quote, where she was describing what her father had told her growing up. Basically it was like, in this home this is the real world. This is what you come to. Everything outside, that’s noise.

If I see something BS happening about the book, or the literary world, or writers behaving badly, that stuff is less interesting to me than making sure my son is fed. 

I want to talk about Dolores, your novel’s matriarch and a very complex character. She’s still struggling with the disappearance of her middle child, all while trying to be there for her other two daughters. She’s also like the queen of tough love. Where did you draw inspiration from for this character? 

From so many women that I’ve met in life, some who are family and some who are found family. When I was writing the book, I spent a lot of time listening to old oral histories. Centro – the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College – has this wonderful archive of interviews from different Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York decades ago – in the 20s, or the 30s. Some of these older women speak, and sometimes the children. I would listen to them a lot to think about how they spoke, because I was trying to understand the mother’s voice. The mother’s voice, for me, is very different than my voice, especially before I had my child. And so I was trying to really understand how is it that she approaches silences? How is it that she approaches grief?

That’s what I was thinking a lot about when I was constructing her character, but also: What is it like to lose your child, and to wake up every single day and not know where your child is? If they’re alive? If they’re dead? If they’re alive right now, and currently getting hurt? What type of hell is that? And now that I have a child, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that would be devastating… How do you live?’

That was the real challenge of crafting her perspective, was thinking about what is the interiority of this woman. For me, the only way that that perspective made sense was that it would be this constant prayer. And it wouldn’t be the type of prayer that was like, ‘Oh, Dear Lord..’ It would sometimes be profane. It would sometimes be angry. Because I think that that’s how I would feel.

Is Dolores symbolic of Puerto Rican mothers?

It’s always tricky because there are many different types of mothers, and there are many different types of Puerto Ricans. And so whenever you say, ‘This is the Puerto Rican mother,’ there’s somebody who is like, ‘That’s not my experience.’ So I try to be careful, but I’ll say that for a lot of Puerto Rican mothers I know, she embodied a lot of the struggle that I saw growing up. This struggle of, ‘How do I protect my children? How do I raise them?’ There’s even this moment where she says, ‘How can I bear the weight of my own hands on my children’s bodies?’ This thing of discipline – do I make them more afraid of me than the streets? How do I make sure that they respect me first? But then what is the violence that I’m enacting on them. That is a conflict that comes up a lot when I talk to other Latinx people. They think about their parents and how they were raised, and what are the violences that get passed down, either because of migration, or poverty, or colonialism, or racism. What are the ways in which it affects what happens inside the home?

You do a wonderful job in showcasing the resiliency of Puerto Rican women. What was it like for you to put your community on the page in this way?

This was a very difficult book to write at times, and it was also a very joyful book to write at times. Like the scenes where Dolores and Irene and Nina and Jessica are in this club in the millennium in 2008. Those were fun sections to write, where we see these different Puerto Rican women across generations and how they relate to each other and their current world, and how they approach loss and getting what they want. That was joyful and fun. 

And then there were a lot of painful moments because you know you’re dealing with the real topics of femicide, abuse, racism, and sexual assault. It’s interesting because sometimes I read these ridiculous comments where they’re like, ‘There’s too much happening here.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, welcome to my life. Welcome to the life of a lot of Black and brown people.’ That’s like every single day of their life. When we just want to get up and go get a cup of coffee, and then you have to deal with somebody’s ignorant ass. 

Even in the difficult moments, I was proud to put the stories down. I was proud to get the voices out there, because the truth is, our voices aren’t out there a lot of times.

There’s a part of the novel in which the youngest Ramirez daughter, Nina, confesses that she’s always been afraid of her mom. Of Dolores, she says: “For so many years, it had felt like she was trying to overcompensate, for having kids so young or for growing up poor or for being Puerto Rican.” Can you talk through this idea of performing as a mother, and why you wanted to point this out on the page?

Even if you never become a mother, many young girls and women in Latinx households and communities grew up with the Virgin Mary. There’s this idea of the religious mother, and then there’s the mother inside of your house. 

Being a mother gives you a type of power, right? And, in a way, mothers are revered until they’re not. So there’s this really complicated experience of being a mother, and a complicated power and vulnerability. I’m interested in how women may use that, like Dolores, for example: ‘I know that I’m able to put the baby asleep before you can put the baby to sleep. A mother knows. Oh, I’m the type of woman who will go out and I will fight for you. I will physically fight for my child.’ And that’s real. I know women who will physically fight for their child. 

Now that I’m a mother, I’m still learning and trying to understand and wrap my head around all of this. But that was definitely a moment where there was a kind of clarity about Dolores and about Nina’s understanding of the relationship with her mother, and how she had seen her – that of course was complicated by race, colonialism, class, all that.

Another theme you touch on in your novel is mom guilt, which is such a real thing. Dolores has deep-seated guilt about Ruthy’s disappearance, and the ways in which she has raised her. Talk about this concept of mom guilt and how you approached it in your book.

It goes back to this idea of how do you raise your child? But specifically for somebody of Dolores’ generation who has experienced circular migration… and is dealing with the violence of displacement, being vulnerable, and not having necessarily the cultural currency or capital, at first, to protect your children. So how do you raise or protect your children? For many people, it’s with an iron fist. 

Then there’s this question that surfaces inside the text, when she asks, ‘How can I bear to do that?’ She thinks about how her own mother dragged her out of a shower naked and beat her. And she says, ‘I never wanted that for my children because being beat like that made you feel like you didn’t deserve to fucking smile.’ So it’s navigating what is the degree to which I protect my children. What does protection look like? What is the right way to be? You see that she’s debating that in her head. That’s where that guilt churns throughout the novel.

What can readers expect from you next?

I have three projects I’m working on, and I’m going to see which one will win. Some writers plot before they write, and I’m the type of writer who needs to know how things sound before I write – and then the plot will follow for me. And so that’s what I’m working on right now, is figuring out the voice and where things are gonna go.

Claire Jiménez (she/her) 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.

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