Claire Jiménez ’06 Wins 2024 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Alumni6 MIN READ

What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez emerges as the best novel published in 2023

Claire Jimenez '06 is an assistant professor and McCausland Faculty Fellow at the University of South Carolina. She was recently awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, which honors the best-published works of fiction by American permanent residents in a calendar year. (Photo: Kim Truett/University of South Carolina)
By Laura Meader
April 29, 2024

All her life, Claire Jiménez ’06 has reached for books by Puerto Rican writers. This spring, people are reaching for her book.

What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez, the debut novel by Jiménez, has won the 2024 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The book emerged as the “first among equals” of the nation’s most prestigious peer-juried literary award.

The award brings national attention to Jiménez and confirms her as a significant American writer, and one who amplifies Puerto Rican stories. 

A gala celebration honoring Jiménez and the other four finalists will occur May 2 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

Book cover for "What Happened to Ruthy Rameriz"

“I’m so honored, and I feel lucky to be in this moment because the truth is that there are brilliant Puerto Rican writers who came before me,” said Jiménez, a writer, scholar, and assistant professor of English and African American studies at the University of South Carolina.

“I am grateful to the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and the judges for honoring the voices of the Ramirez women, and I cannot wait to celebrate the extraordinary books of my fellow finalists at the award ceremony in May.”

Puerto Rican storytelling

“It’s a wonderful time for Puerto Rican writers and the stories of Puerto Ricans,” said Jiménez. “It wasn’t like that for a long time. That’s why when I came to the page, it was important to me to honor the voices of these women and think about my community, making sure that those stories are getting told.”

What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez (Grand Central Publishing, 2023) tells the story of the Ramirez family from Staten Island, three sisters and their mother. Twelve years after 13-year-old middle daughter Ruthy failed to come home from school, the oldest sister spots a woman on the reality TV show Catfight who looks like her missing sister. This woman, called Ruby, has hair dyed red and a beauty mark under her left eye, just like Ruthy. Could they have found her? They decide to take a road trip to the show’s set and find out.

Jiménez reveals her intimate portrait of this family using each woman’s voice, rotating among their perspectives. As each one tells her story, we begin to understand the toll trauma, grief, colonialism, and racism have taken and the redemptive power of familial bonds to pull them through.

“Claire Jiménez has crafted a visceral work of art full of nuance, humor, and humanity, through incisive and loving character work, the finely calibrated unspooling of narrative, and the exquisite deployment of language, ranging from poetic prose to Spanglish to the sociolect of working-class Staten Island,” said this year’s judges.

A gifted writer from the outset

While the book isn’t autobiographical, some elements parallel Jiménez’s lived experience and reflect her interests as a writer and scholar: missing women and girls, the legacy of colonialism, the force of sisterhood, and the sexualization of Black and brown women’s bodies.

Jiménez grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island with her family and four sisters. She traces her love of reading and writing to book fairs and after-school programs in New York, passions she continued at Colby, where she majored in English and was a member of the first cohort of Posse Scholars.

Posse Scholars gather following their Colby graduation in 2006
Claire Jiménez ’06, second from right, and her classmates, the first group of Posse Scholars to graduate from Colby, in 2006. Pictured with Jiménez left to right are Jia Chen ’06, Chelsea Downs ’06, George Williams ’06, Antonio Mendez ’06, and Jarius Steed ’06.

On Mayflower Hill, she took her first Latino literature course and was introduced to authors such as Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana feminist whose writing “transformed what I thought could happen on the page,” said Jiménez. She also took her first fiction workshop, with Susan Kenney, now the Dana Professor of Creative Writing, Emeritus, which increased her love of storytelling.

“She stood out as a strong, resilient personality, already proving to be a gifted writer,” reflected Kenney. “I could see right away there was something special about her and her ability to write fiction based on her own life experiences growing up in America as a Puerto Rican female trying to negotiate the complex world around her.”

What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez began as a short story titled “Catfight.” “I was stunned when I read it. Literally, a knock-out piece that brought tears to my eyes,” said Kenney of an early draft. “It seemed to have so much potential. I advised her not to let the story go.” 

Keeping the story alive

Jiménez took Kenney’s advice while earning an M.F.A. at Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, specializing in ethnic studies and digital humanities. Her first collection of stories, Staten Island Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), won the 2019 Hornblower Award from the New York Society Library.

She kept working on the “Catfight” storyline, with advice from many mentors, including Kenney, who has remained a trusted advisor for more than 20 years. “I’m grateful to Susan for being my teacher even after she was no longer my teacher,” said Jiménez.

During the years “Catfight” blossomed into What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez; Jiménez wrote, rewrote, and practiced the guidance she gave her graduate students, to pay attention to a story’s emotional arc. This aspect is important to Jiménez, who deftly plunges readers into the spectrum of emotions her characters experience, many of which echo her own as a Puerto Rican in the diaspora.

“These are women who are not different than me,” said the writer, who crafted the story as funny and tragic at the same time. “That’s the way it is, right? That’s the way I think of storytelling. And I think that’s inherent for much of Puerto Rican literature and culture especially, that the laughter comes with painful moments.”

A lineage of writers

She should know. Jiménez has read hundreds of Puerto Rican authors in the last seven years as part of the Puerto Rican Literature Project, a digital archive she cofounded to document a century of writers’ voices. Through the project, she’s gained a better understanding of her history, where her work sits inside that tradition, and what she’s inherited without even sometimes knowing.

With the PEN/Faulkner Award, Jiménez can claim her place in that lineage of Puerto Rican authors with her clear and unabashed voice.

As Kenney reads the finished novel, she is proud to see paragraphs and full pages from earlier versions. “And now the plot and final ending she has achieved so brilliantly, it makes me cry.” 

Jiménez brings What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez to a breathtaking and unexpected conclusion, giving Ruthy what Jiménez understood she craved. “To be seen, to be free, and,” she emphasized, “to have her own agency.”

Maybe, that is what we all crave.