Cover of I’ll Give You a Reason by Annell López (Feminist Press, 2024)

Reading Annell López’s short story collection, I’ll Give You a Reason (Feminist Press, 2024), is like strolling through a neighborhood and getting to know the locals along the way. All the short stories are connected; the protagonist of one story might reappear later in the book as a bit player in someone else’s narrative. The issues they face, some of which mirror those splashed across media headlines, feel remarkably authentic. But López also delves into realms of immigrant experience rarely spotlighted by mainstream narratives. The book was awarded the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize in 2024.

In our conversation, López revealed the deeply personal origins of these stories. Her upbringing in the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, coupled with her own experience immigrating to the United States from the Dominican Republic, informs her fiction. The stories she tells in I’ll Give You a Reason are infused with empathy and insight into the oft-overlooked facets of immigration and the quest for identity and belonging.

Rupal Rao: What inspired you to write I’ll Give You A Reason? And how did the idea for exploring race, identity, connection, and belonging in the Ironbound neighborhood specifically come about? 

Annell López: I grew up in the Ironbound and I am myself an immigrant. I experienced what it’s like to leave a place and go to a new one, go through a language barrier, learn English. And the stories of the people around me were very similar to mine. A lot of us were just new to the country, new to Newark. Those experiences stayed with me for a long time. Then as I learned how to write short stories, the idea of wanting to create something that was linked to Ironbound came to mind and I wanted to write about those experiences and my love for the neighborhood. I felt like I had something to say. And so that inspired a lot of the themes that are in the stories. 

Rao: You said you grew up in the Ironbound neighborhood, and that’s why we have this neighborhood as a background, but would you say if the characters were living in a different city, their stories would have been different? 

López: I rely on setting a lot. It’s my favorite thing in terms of writing. I do believe that you are the place where you grow up, and even if you behave unlike the people that are around you or unlike the place itself, you can’t quite separate yourself from the environment all the way. So I think that Ironbound informs a lot of the ways in which the characters act. The characters are preoccupied with immigration status because the Ironbound has a lot of immigrants who are preoccupied with immigration status. The characters are concerned about their finances because it is a working-class neighborhood. So if I were to place a story collection somewhere else, I think that there would’ve been completely different stories. 

Rao: Your story starts from Blackness, colorism, and gentrification. Can you tell me a bit about the importance of exploring these themes in literature and building a narrative? 

López: These themes are real life, and I think that the best literature will teach you something about life or resemble life. I don’t think that literature has to be realist. I think that science fiction or horror or any other genre can resemble life. I wanted to explore those themes because they feel like life to me, and because they felt authentic to these characters and to the neighborhood. I’m not writing an essay about it, but I am saying something about it. 

Rao: The book dwells on characters searching for their identities: they’re going after the American Dream. How does that tie into people of color and immigrants, and especially for you? You were 14 years old when you moved here from the Dominican Republic.

López: It’s crazy because it’s easy to forget you are a whole person before you are an immigrant. You were someone else. The American Dream is something that I wanted to illustrate in the stories because it’s the reason why people leave their countries: in the pursuit of a better education, in the pursuit of a life with better means, a life that is easier or more comfortable, or just escaping poverty. Even if you end up not believing in it, it’s the driving factor. It’s a thing that makes you uproot your life and start over.

Rao: Were there any particular stories or characters that you are more emotionally connected to? 

López: I am more partial to the younger characters in the collection. Eva from “Great American Scream Machine” I feel very much connected to. Vanessa from “Dark Vader” is a character that is not as young as Eva, she’s in her twenties, but is a character that I feel for. I think I feel the most for Desiree, I feel like I have the most sort of emotional pull towards that character, and this is going to sound weird, but if I could hug my characters, I would hug that character. 

Rao: Can you tell me a bit about your writing process? How do you approach crafting short stories that are both poignant and thought provoking? 

López: I think my writing process is similar to many other people. You get an idea, you become inspired, and then you start playing around with that idea. I tend to get an idea about a character, and then I spend a lot of time thinking—sometimes I journal about what I’m thinking—before I sit down to start the story. I start literally journaling like, Ooh, I’m thinking about this character, and I think that she feels this way, and I feel that she’s in one sort of headspace. Then I’ll sit down and I’ll get started, and then I’ll start again and again and again and revise endlessly over and over.

Rao: Did you ever feel there was more of a need for literature to have more inclusive stories and stories of immigrants? 

López: Absolutely. I think that I’ve always been a reader, but I did not actually start encountering stories that were reflective of people that look like me until college, pretty much. In a lot of my readings in high school, characters were not necessarily diverse. The need for representation was always at the forefront [of how I felt]: I really wish I was reading about different kinds of people or people who are sort of going with what I’m going through. 

Rao: Would you say it has changed over time? Is literature more inclusive now than it was before? Is it inclusive enough? 

López: I don’t think it’s inclusive enough. I think there’s tons of room to grow, but I think it’s much better. I think that there are far more books about people of color or the immigrant experience than there were 10, 15 years ago. So when I started reading short stories and I started to become inspired, I remember in high school I read Amy Tan, and that was different from anything else I had read. The Joy Luck Club was so illuminating to me. It was like, Wow, people of color, different experiences, immigrants, first- generation Americans.. Then I came across people such as Jhumpa Lahiri, and then I fell in love with her Interpreter of Maladies, and I came across writers like Junot Diaz, whose background is Dominican as well, and the work of Danielle Evans, [all] from reading literature that resembled people who looked like me. But at the time, when I was 15 or 16, my teachers were not assigning work that was diverse, with the exception of Amy Tan. Out of all the writers that I was reading—not to blame my teachers, I loved them. I had the best teachers in high school—but there wasn’t such a push and there wasn’t social media or Instagram or ways to really learn about these other authors. I’m not saying that writers of color weren’t around, but I didn’t have access to many. I just didn’t know that they existed.