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USC professor wins PEN/Faulkner award for debut novel

Claire Jiménez's novel "What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez" named top novel of 2023

“Felicidades,” the first text message said.

Claire Jiménez was teaching, so she placed the phone aside. When she finally got to read the new message, she assumed it was congratulations for an interview she’d done about her debut novel, What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez

But when the University of South Carolina professor opened the message, she saw that her friend had sent a screenshot of a social media post saying her novel was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award, one of the highest prizes in American fiction. 

“I had no words,” Jiménez says. “I started to giggle. And then all of a sudden, I kept on getting all these congratulations. My phone just started to light up.”

Her phone may keep lighting up for a while. On Tuesday (April 2), the PEN/Faulkner Foundation announced that Jiménez is the winner, recognizing her book as the top novel of 2023. In addition to a cash prize, Jiménez has earned validation for her longtime dream of professional writing. 

“I am honored and full of so much joy to receive this award!” Jiménez says. “I began writing this story a decade ago, the strange tale about the disappearance of a Puerto Rican girl from Staten Island and the women in her family who cannot stop looking for her. This novel is not only about a missing girl but also missing stories. 

“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.”

“How lucky am I that this gets to be my livelihood. I get to talk to other people about writing, and we get to talk about the books we love and share our stories. I feel incredibly honored to be here and to work with the students."

Claire Jiménez

Joel H. Samuels, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, congratulated Jiménez for the award.

“This honor from PEN/Faulkner reaffirms what students, faculty and staff at USC already know: We are incredibly fortunate to work alongside and learn from Claire Jiménez," he says. “In addition to being recognized for her extraordinary work, Dr. Jiménez is a compassionate mentor for her students. I am thrilled to see the recognition that her transformative writing has received.”

What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez is the story of a family grappling with the traumatic, unexplained disappearance of middle daughter Ruthy. A decade after she goes missing, her sisters spot a Ruthy lookalike on a reality TV show and, convinced it’s her, hatch a plan to find her.

For Jiménez, the story began in a Nashville, Tennessee, coffee shop where she wrote the opening lines, in which a character named Nina relates her family’s history by describing how someone could sketch it: “Draw Ruthy in pencil, lightly, because you’re going to need to erase her,” Nina says. 

“I liked the voice of it, but I didn't know where it was going to go,” says Jiménez. “I knew that there was a disappearance.”

One night, when Jiménez saw the spitting image of a high school classmate on reality TV, she landed on the idea that propelled the opening sketch into a widely acclaimed novel.

book cover with a drawing of the back of a woman's head and words that says What happened to Ruthy Ramirez A Novel Claire Jiménez

What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez has been named a “must read” or “favorite” by more than a dozen publications, including USA Today and Time. Jiménez has crisscrossed the nation doing readings, signing autographs and giving interviews.

At USC, local book fans can hear from Jiménez at 6 p.m. April 10 in the Campus Room of Capstone Building, at The Open Book literary series. 

The book’s reception is gratifying for Jiménez. Her love for reading ignited at book fairs at her Staten Island elementary school, and an after-school poetry program during high school fed the fire by introducing her to writers sharing her Puerto Rican heritage. In college, she loved her writing classes the most.

“I just never thought that there was a path to doing that as a career,” she says. Graduating just before the global economy shrank in 2008, Jiménez worked in various jobs until finally deciding to attend graduate school and pursue her dream of writing. In 2019, she published her first collection, Staten Island Stories.

Jiménez joined the USC faculty in 2022 with a dual appointment in the Department of English and the Department of African American Studies. She enjoys teaching courses such as Afro-Latinx literature, Caribbean literature and graduate writing workshops. Her students have been some of her most enthusiastic supporters as accolades have rolled in for her debut novel.

“How lucky am I that this gets to be my livelihood,” Jiménez says. “I get to talk to other people about writing, and we get to talk about the books we love and share our stories. I feel incredibly honored to be here and to work with the students."