Annell López

On Writing About Erasure, MFAs Conversations on Cultural Identity, Newark, and Her Short Story Collection ‘I’ll Give You a Reason’

Cover of Annell López: On Writing About Erasure, MFAs Conversations on Cultural Identity, Newark, and Her Short Story Collection ‘I’ll Give You a Reason’

Annell López’s book length debut is a short story collection that depicts the charms and challenges of immigrant life in America. At its core, this collection comes across as a family drama set in a location that’s often overlooked in literature: Newark, NJ, specifically the Ironbound neighborhood. I’ll Give You a Reason (Feminist Press, 2024) pulls no punches on the joys and heartaches of building a life away from the home you know, where comfort and ease can be hard to find. López’s characters weave in and out of these stories, complicated families, comic heroines, strong mothers, struggling teens, grieving wives, and ultimately of loving families hoping to thrive. These stories champion and challenge the concepts of family, of class, of race, of achievement, and more. 

López, daughter of manufacturing workers, migrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. I met López over lunch at AWP, where we chatted about NOLA, about Newark and other NYC adjacent cities, and about being Caribbean immigrants, and about the variety of stories in her collection. Her passion for the project was clear, revealing an eagerness to show the families of the Ironbound with honesty, complexity, and richness through this collection. Through our conversation, there was a promise that this book would describe varying dimensions of womanhood, of the many physical and emotional journeys embedded in migration, and of our connection to place. López migrated with her parents and younger brother at a young age, and I wanted to explore the concept of place, particularly as immigrants moving through very new and different cultures and environments. IGYAR did not disappoint, nor did our ensuing conversation, below.

 

Zabe Bent: I’ll Give You a Reason reveals snippets of life—life in New Jersey, life in the Ironbound, life as Dominican immigrants, life as women and men, life as children of immigrants in America. Tell us about the decision to give us these snippets, rather than say, a multi-POV novel. 

Annell López: When I began writing short stories, I felt compelled by setting, particularly by what surrounded me. The decision to hyperfocus on Newark came from personal reasons, including dealing with what I felt was the erasure of people like me, who are very similar to the characters in the collection. I felt this erasure deeply, from the reputation that plagues Newark to the lack of literature representing the city. 

IGYAR is expansive the way a novel is expansive, though it is definitely a collection of short stories. A multi-POV novel wouldn’t have done the city justice, I think. I needed a multitude of narratives to paint the picture of a contemporary American city where its people, at times, live on the margins. I find the novel form restrictive in this particular case. The novel wouldn’t have allowed me the panoramic view of this place as I wanted to. The short story form felt more expansive.

The stories in IGYAR were always supposed to be part of a larger whole. From the very beginning, I was aiming for a narrative about place. I wanted to tell a story about Newark. I wanted to paint a picture of the city. The best way to do that was through short stories. The city, in many ways, is the main character. 

ZB: One of the elements I love best about this collection is not just the cohesiveness of the overlapping people and places, but in the neighborhood. Place as the unifying element isn’t new, but you show us the Ironbound in a sometimes understated way. It’s there, but we get it through the way people interact with it, rather than all at once. We get the foods of key nationalities in “The World as We Know It”, the difference in infrastructure between the Ironbound and the suburbs in “Thirty Miles West,” the quality of schools and environment in “Boxes,” the weather in “The Fake Wife.” How purposeful was that? Did you start that way, or did it come to you later?

AL:  I love that you are asking this question. I pictured the Ironbound and Newark as a whole, as a quilt, so to speak, made up of individual and distinctive swaths. As I wrote the stories, I was working on a mosaic or a collage. I knew every detail needed to belong to this larger piece of work, but I wanted to ensure that every detail could stand on its own. But like a quilt, and forgive me for stretching out this metaphor, I wanted to ensure a variety of swaths.

ZB: That’s a beautiful analogy, especially with the history of quilting in Black communities and the mosaic that blended marginalized neighborhoods become. It feels almost like you had this in mind in crafting this collection. You give us many dimensions of what family looks like for these characters, both connected and disconnected. And you don’t hold back on parents navigating grief or illness, children managing their parents, women and men struggling through complicated romantic and platonic relationships, etc. What does it mean to show these particular dimensions of family and womanhood?  

AL: I tried my best to ensure that every story stayed true to the idea of the Ironbound while also offering a new perspective on the neighborhood. I kept asking myself, what else does my reader need to know to understand this place? What else can I show to enrich my reader’s understanding of this neighborhood? 

I wanted to be panoramic, which allowed me to remain expansive in showing Newark. 

I wanted these stories to resemble real life. These characters are affected by the same political unrest as the world at large, but they are vastly different people. The best way to showcase this world I was aiming to portray was to strike a balance between what was expected/commonality and crucial differences. Showing these dimensions felt true, felt right, and felt like I was writing from a place of truth, honesty, and sincerity. 

ZB: That comes through in these stories, especially as the collection progresses. Several characters appear in other people’s stories. I found myself flipping back to double check, and feeling details and nuance click into place. Did those overlapping characters stay with you, or was it a craft choice to support the stories? Both?

AL: Those overlapping characters stayed with me. They needed their own stories, so I gave them more time on the page. At the same time, I also remembered that readers enjoy collections with recurring characters. 

ZB: We often get immigrant stories as sweeping tales, with clear objectives, and a long story-arc. In IGYAR you show us moments, ambitions, longings, essentially, you show us experiences rather than objectives. Were any of these stories difficult to write? Which?

AL: They were all difficult to write. I’d say “Bear Hunting Season” was probably the most difficult to write because it deals with grief. As I wrote, I found myself revisiting my own grief over and over. It was emotionally taxing but also very rewarding. 

ZB: There are some stories where the DR is front and center, and others where we might assume the narrator is Latine, but you’ve normalized both the Ironbound neighborhood and Dominican-American culture so well, it fades while remaining present. I’m assuming you wrote some of these stories during your MFA or other workshops. What was the reception to that treatment, particularly the stories where culture might be interpreted as more subtle? 

AL: There were some stories where identity, specifically my Dominican identity, felt integral to the plot. For instance, in stories such as “The Other Carmen” and “Dark Vader,” where the main characters deal with colorism, their Dominican identities were culturally relevant. 

During my MFA experience, I was asked (just once) to racialize or specify a character’s cultural heritage and ethnicity. This was well-meaning feedback, but it wasn’t necessary for the story. As I was workshopping some of these stories, I kept reminding myself that they would work to complement one another once they were assembled and organized into a collection. So, I had to balance some themes, situations, and descriptions to ensure all the stories fell into place. I had to trust my readers. I had to trust the process of assembling a cohesive collection, where, ideally, stories are in conversation with one another. 

ZB: Let’s talk about the order of these stories. I feel like there’s a pattern to them, to the changing points of view or simply the progression. What did you have in mind as you were setting the order? I’m particularly interested in the decision to end with “The Fake Wife.” You give us this strong, satisfying conclusion, yet there’s still so much complexity and longing in this piece. 

AL:  I played around with the order of the stories quite a bit. Ultimately, it came down to POV. I wanted to alternate POVs from one story to the next. In addition to that, I was playing around with rhythm. Some of the short pieces follow one another, which I imagine would speed up the experience of the collection before concluding with the final story—“The Fake Wife”—which is considerably longer than the other pieces. 

I felt “The Fake Wife” encompasses many of the themes explored in the book—themes of a political nature, like immigration and the pursuit of the American dream—as well as universal themes that relate to life, such as love, heartbreak, and grief. It’s also the longest piece in the collection, so I wanted the reader to once again sit with the overarching ideas of the collection, one last time, in one big bite, so to speak. 

The first few stories ground the reader. You’re introduced to the Ironbound right from the beginning and to the changes that the neighborhood is undergoing, which was important to me. The first and last stories illustrate the complexity of these political points, which affect real people in their authentic lives. 

ZB:  As an urban planner, I love that you’ve put place first and allowed this place to take on so much life and energy, to even dictate the form of this project. As a reader, I felt well-grounded, in the place, in the characters and in their stories. What’s next for you and for the Ironbound? Will we see these characters again? Or more stories set in this place? 

AL:  We’ll definitely see some of these characters again! My novel, which I’m still writing, is based on Nina, the widow from the story “Bear Hunting Season.” I imagine that some of the other characters might return as well. I haven’t ruled that out. As for the Ironbound, I’ll write about the neighborhood again. I’m open to exploring it through nonfiction, too.

 

 

Annell López is a Dominican immigrant. She is the winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize and the author of the short story collection I’LL GIVE YOU A REASON from the Feminist Press. A Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, her work has also received support from Tin House and has appeared in Guernica, American Short Fiction, Michigan Quarterly Review, Brooklyn Rail, Refinery29 and elsewhere. López received her MFA from the University of New Orleans. She is working on a novel. You can follow her work via @annellthebookbabe or @AnnellLopez2.

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