Loosely drawn from her own experiences, debut author Stephanie Jimenez writes about friendship in an engaging coming-of-age novel for teens and adults in “They Could Have Named Her Anything.”

Stephanie Jimenez’s debut young adult novel They Could Have Named Her Anything tackles the subjects of sex, class, and race through the complicated relationship of two teenage girls. Despite its young audience, Jimenez crafts a complex narrative that touches on many issues relatable to adult readers.

The book, released Aug. 1, follows 17-year-old Maria Anis Rosario as she toggles between her working class existence in Queens, New York and private school culture on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Through a friendship with Rachelle “Rocky” Albrecht, a rich white girl in her class, Maria is exposed to a world of privilege that she eventually loses herself in. Writing about race relations, strained or not, mighty be timely, but Jimenez is quick to deconstruct that limiting notion. 

“If our stories are being considered timely, that’s only because people weren’t paying enough attention to us before,” Jimenez told Boundless. 

“We’ve always needed stories that reflect the true extent of diversity of experience, race, and gender in this country, and that will remain true forever.”

Jimenez, a Queens native whose parents are from Colombia and Costa Rica, drew on her own experiences while writing Anything. She has been involved with organizations like Planned Parenthood, champions reproductive justice and sex education through her work with Rewire, a publication that reports on sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice. Her realistic portrayal of race relations, and how class and gender influence it, permeate the entire novel but the main characters’ youth allows her to explore these themes with an intimacy and naivete usually absent in adulthood. 

“I love Queens and I think Maria and I share a genuine love for the place we come from,” Jimenez said. “And like Maria—and many other young women of color—I’ve often had to navigate a world where I couldn’t feel most authentically like myself.”

Early in the novel, Maria has an encounter with Rocky’s father, Charlie, and as their relationship develops, so does Maria’s concept of consent. Charlie’s evident interest gives Maria the sense that she’s been “seen;” she finds the feeling intoxicating and yearns for Charlie’s approval despite knowing that pursuing anything would be deemed wrong by Rocky and her family. Their relationship is also informed by his wealth, and what Maria is willing to do to attain it.

“We live in a society that still stigmatizes female desire, yet glorifies the same behavior in boys. We also live in a society, sadly, in which sexual assault is all too prevalent.” Jimenez said. “When I was growing up, I never had a single discussion with anyone about consent. We urgently need to be having those conversations, and we need to be willing to hear from young people, too, without rushing to judge them for their behavior.”

Jimenez believes that representing teenage sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and writes Maria’s sexual experiences, as well as her and Rocky’s burgeoning sexuality, with blunt honesty. Anything opens with a scene of Maria preparing to have sex with her boyfriend, Andres, who explains how “virgins always suffer the most.” True to the experiences of many young, inexperienced women, Maria’s attempts at sex with Andres prove unfulfilling. 

Depicting complex thoughts and feelings about sex and sexuality are not common in young adult literature, nor is the idea of teenagers enjoying sex. Maria is introduced to the idea of sex being pleasurable through Rocky, and consequently begins to question the machista behavior she grew up with, influenced by her family’s religious views and the idea that sex is something she shouldn’t enjoy let alone try. 

Jimenez also has no qualms about exploring the awkward, ugly, and painful realities of teenage sex and what young women, in particular, go through. While Maria’s may feel like she has agency as her relationship with sex evolves from feeling like a requirement in her relationship to a source of power, her ideas about consent are likely to change as she gets older. 

“I think that sometimes people are upset by reading descriptions of sexual abuse about teenagers. But both for myself and many of the girls I knew growing up, sexual attention and sexual threat was just a part of navigating our lives,” she said. “If we refuse to acknowledge that, then we’re doing a disservice to the many girls for which these things are part of their daily reality.”

But as much as sex and sexuality come into play, at the core of the story is a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story) and the true impetus for Maria’s growth is her friendship with Rocky and how they expose each other to different parts of life. While Maria comes from a tight-knit family, Rocky’s hardly speaks to each other and her mother is often absent; Maria’s family struggles financially while Rocky’s family is wealthy; Maria can hardly afford to pay for her own lunch, Rocky can pay for their entire group of friends to eat. 

“I was tired of the pervasive media narrative about interracial friendships. In the movies, these kinds of friendships lead to healing and understanding, and everything is alright in the end,” Jimenez said. “There are real divisions between the rich and the poor, between race and ethnicity, including very tangible things like access to quality education and secure housing…. Rocky and Maria’s friendship is borne out of that context.”

Maria’s Ecuadorian-Puerto heritage comes into play throughout the novel, her sense of Latinidad changing as she tries to assimilate. Maria feels “ashamed about what her parents do and don’t have” and avoids having Rocky over so that she doesn’t see where she lives. She also resents having to get a job to help her family. The way Maria’s economic burdens lead to  her pursuing wealth through sex also reflects the emotional weight of classism and racism teens carry when navigating predominantly white spaces.

“I think that economic struggle is often part of immigrant narratives, and I particularly think a lot of Latinx are hyper-aware of the hard decisions their parents have made in order to secure their future,” Jimenez said. 

As the title suggests, Maria’s name is of import because it is symbolic of her divided identities and conflicted interests. As Maria becomes more comfortable with her Latinidad, her relationship to her name evolves over time. “For the entirety of the book, Maria’s name is at once a symbol of her bifurcated life as well as the conflict between what she wants. As she oscillates between wanting acceptance from her peers to shifting toward self-acceptance instead, her relationship to her name gradually changes.”

Jimenez relates to this feeling of being othered, but it wasn’t until she lived in Colombia that she experienced life as an immigrant. It was the first time, she added, that she experienced true loneliness as an adult. She developed a newfound appreciation for what her grandparents and parents did when they first came to this country in the 1960s.  

“I was finally able to see not just hard it was on them, but how absolutely brilliant, savvy, and gifted they were to have made a life in the United States at a time when being Latino in America was no less difficult than it is today,” she said. “When I was writing my book, I wanted to keep that sense of otherness that I experienced in Colombia in mind, and to write with compassion about Maria’s family.”

Jimenez ultimately created a  layered, authentic Latina protagonist that faces “society head-on.” While Maria isn’t always likable, like real people, she makes mistakes to help her grow. 

“Maria’s exercise throughout the book will be to constantly tread that line between being herself and performing identity, until she finally finds the place where it merges,” Jimenez said. 

“If [these topics] start a conversation about Latinx culture and what it means to be the child of immigrants in America, especially at a time when we need to be questioning the normalization of white supremacy, I think that would be a wonderful gift.” 

Jimenez joins the ranks of acclaimed YA writers of color including Elizabeth Acevedo, Lilliam Rivera, and Tehlor Kay Mejia, all of whom who center their stories around Latinx female protagonists. Jimenez worked with Little A, the literary imprint of Amazon Publishing, where she worked with an editor who is also a woman of color. 

“One of the things you quickly realize as a writer of color is that there really aren’t all that many people who look like you who work in the publishing industry,” Jimenez noted.

In 2015, Lee & Low Books, an independent publisher of multicultural children’s and young adult literature, launched the first major study of staff diversity in publishing. The findings revealed that nearly 80 percent of publishing and review journal staff self-identified as white. In marketing and publicity, 77 percent of staff are white. 

Despite a lack of representation, the successes of authors like Jimenez help open doors for more writers of color. The book is now a No.1 Amazon bestseller in Hispanic American literature and Jimenez is proud to have helped fill a void in portrayals of young Latina characters in YA literature.

“I saw a need for more literature about how difficult it can be for young Latinx people to assert who they are in a society that can only conceptualize Latinx identity through a few worn stereotypes,” Jimenez said. “I wanted to write a book for any Latinx young person who was coming up against those caricatures for the first time. I wanted them to know that they can be whoever they want.”

Virginia Isaad is a writer/editor based in Los Angeles currently freelancing for Latinx publications HipLatina and We Are Mitu. She writes lifestyle/culture content for millennial women and has contributed to Bustle, Elite Daily, Upworthy, Los Angeles Magazine, and Hello Giggles.