Annell López’s Debut Short Story Collection Explores Lives of Dominican Immigrants

"I'll Give You a Reason" explores colorism, Blackness, body image, and gentrification

Annell López I'll Give You a Reason

Photos courtesy of Annell López; The Feminist Press

Writer Annell López is shedding light on a topic that doesn’t get enough coverage: the Dominican experience in the U.S. A Dominican immigrant herself, López explores issues of assimilation, immigration, and Black identity in her creative work. Earlier this month, she published her debut short story collection I’ll Give You a Reason, which takes place in an immigrant neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey where López grew up. Each story in the award-winning collection centers on a different resident: a young widow who goes bear-hunting on her first date since her husband’s death; an unhappy wife who tries to repair her strained marriage; a self-conscious college student who discovers her doppelgänger is a porn star and loses herself in the woman’s freedom and comfort with her body. Told with care, intrigue, and a dash of humor, this is a powerful book about colorism, gentrification, political unrest, and the pursuit of the American Dream that centers on much-needed immigrant voices.

“I always knew it was going to be a collection,” she tells HipLatina. “I had a writing club with some co-workers where we would informally share our writing. Once, a co-worker made an observation that I always named the streets and places in Newark. Once I moved out of my neighborhood in New Jersey to New Orleans and was away from that neighborhood, I started processing my time there, how much I loved it, what it meant to me as an immigrant, and what it did for me. That distance inspired me, so I wrote a couple of stories with the location as a central theme. It wasn’t the same plot or the same characters, but to me, it was the same world with similarities and cohesiveness. Then I knew that I wanted a collection and I set out with that intention from the start.”

In a way, the story of López’s writing journey really started with her immigration. She always knew that she wanted to be a writer but when she was 14 years old, she moved from the Dominican Republic and started high school. Even though she was still learning English, she had teachers who picked up on her writing skills, becoming supportive and encouraging of her talents. As the years went on, she especially found herself falling in love with the short story form, which can generally range in length anywhere from 1,500 words and 10,000 words. Though she read novels too, short story collections really piqued her interest and inspired her to write her own, playing around with plot and experimenting with characters.

At first, however, she thought she wanted to be a journalist. In her undergraduate studies, she even majored in journalism, only to find herself not loving the work as much as she wanted to. After graduating and moving to New Orleans in 2019, she was going through an important transition and was at an interesting crossroads in her life. Not only was she in a new place, but she was also about to turn 30 with no real passion for her work. She thought back on her time in her writing club too and realized that she had postponed her dream long enough. It was time to take it seriously.

From then on, she poured everything she had into her creative work, dedicating herself to learning how to write a short story, attending workshops to give her an instructional foundation for writing short stories, and publishing her completed drafts in journals and magazines. She also decided to apply to an MFA program, which would give her time to write and allow her to solicit feedback from her fellow writing peers. In the end, she attended the University of New Orleans where she was able to craft the collection and grow exponentially as a writer before graduating in 2023 with an MFA in Fiction.

“I had an idea of what my own sense of craft was but everything became solidified in the MFA,” she says. “Before, a story would take me two years to write, The MFA accelerated everything so I could generate, not necessarily a final draft, but all the material in just a few weeks because the homework I had to turn in put pressure on me. But it helped me get a better sense of craft and lots and lots of feedback.”

When it comes to her creative process, López starts off her drafts wanting to explore a character and be inspired by their voice. She likes punchiness and intrigue, and will often kick off with a strong, direct opening sentence. This way, the reader is put into the world of the story and knows what’s going on right from the get-go. There are many short stories in the collection that start out this way, such as “Bear Hunting Season,” which begins by saying, “The problem was that Nina’s husband was dead.” Or take “Thirty Miles West,” which starts, “Danny spends most of Spanish class thinking about how his dad can’t get hard.” “The Other Carmen,” which follows a young woman discovering that her doppelgänger is a porn star, opens her story this way: “We are in the study room in the campus library working on a group project when it happens.”

Throughout the book, some of these opening lines are more surprising or attention-grabbing than others but they all fulfill their purpose of drawing the reader in, stating the problem or conflict, and taking us on a fascinating journey.

She was also intentional about the order, beginning with “Great American Dream Machine,” which follows a woman finding out truths about her immigration status, as a way to set the theme and tone for the rest of the collection. The stories in the middle were organized based on their point of view, while the last stories are also the shortest in order to pick up the pace and help the reader reach the end. She had already established this structure when she began to write a new story completely separate from the book. It began as a short flash piece, which she then rewrote and expanded. It soon became “The Fake Wife,” a story about a man who is a former marine vacationing in the D.R. where he meets a woman and they become romantic.

At this point, the book had already won the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize from The Feminist Press. It was already in the midst of the publication process. But she was so passionate about it and believed that it would round out the collection in a better way than the story that came before it, that her editor allowed her to add it as a closing bookend. For her, that was important because it was one of the first short stories she had ever written entirely for her own pleasure.

“I allowed myself to have a good time. There was less pressure because it wasn’t in the manuscript and it was written after my MFA, so it wasn’t a story that I had to do for homework. It wasn’t a class assignment for a degree,” she explains. In an MFA, you have a lot of direction. You have people who give you feedback, advisors, and professors. Post-MFA, I had to ask if I learned everything I thought I learned. Writing this story was validating because I realized that I did. So I just let myself go and enjoy it.”

For her, the title of the collection was also an intentional choice. I’ll Give You a Reason is named after one of the short stories in the book. For her, it was partly because of the story itself, which follows a young girl who begins stealing things from her classmate Maria who cries all the time for no reason or explanation. For another, it was the most intriguing-sounding title. It made López laugh while allowing her to reflect on her life.

“The phrase itself is so funny because it’s slightly threatening. But also, within the context of the book, someone saying ‘I’ll give you a reason to cry’ speaks to the immigrant experience,” she says. “We grow up repressing a lot of feelings because we have to be tough, especially as part of the Latinx identity. We’re taught to work hard, be resilient, and not have anything to complain about because of what we have. It’s an attitude that’s passed down culturally to us and stops us from being able to be soft with ourselves and show vulnerability. We hold back because of cultural expectations that want us to be grateful and not embrace our feelings. So there’s repressed emotions for a lot of characters, which I thought would sort of echo with that story and with the title.”

Ultimately, it’s been a long journey for López to get to this point where she has a book out in the world, as the process demanded a lot of her patience and emotional maturity. Initially, she found out she was a finalist for the Prize in August 2022, then found out she was the winner months later in December, only to find out that her book wouldn’t be published until 2024. For any author, that can be a long wait, but that’s especially true of a debut, for whom this whole publishing process is new. At the same time, however, she’s grown through this experience of working with others at the publishing press and learning to embrace the opportunities for connection and growth as they come.

“It’s a long process but it’s also a collaborative process,” she says. “I had to remember that the book is not just a thing that lives in my head. It becomes the best group project where everyone has their role in it. I had to trust that people would do their part and do the best they can. That’s what they set out to do. And it’s been the best group project of my life because it belongs to all of us and that’s a really good thing. It meant so much to me to be validated by the results of the experience and know that other people are really enthusiastic about my book. That felt like a hug.”

The project was so collaborative, in fact, that López had a lot of say in the creation process for the cover. Featuring images including a suitcase, candles, rosary beads, an airplane, the New Jersey skyline, and a setting sun, the custom artwork was created by Ecuadorian artist Layqa Nuna Yawar, who is of Kichwa-Kañari descent and lives in Newark where the collection takes place. He’s also an immigrant and López happened to see his mural work in Terminal A of the Newark Airport, which features Black and brown workers who actually work at the airport.

“His art was so meaningful to me because it felt like it would be the thing that would just truly encompass visually what I was trying to do on paper with words,” she explains.

After meeting in-person, the pair began working together on the concept for the cover through conversations about their respective immigration experiences as Yawar took down notes and sketches. In the end, the cover became a love letter, incredibly representative of Newark and its inhabitants through its individual elements that create a unique, cohesive picture of a city. López describes the process as “life-affirming,” and credits Yawar for his brilliant visualization of her work.

Looking ahead, López is currently on her promotional book tour for I’ll Give You a Reason. But she’s also working on a novel project that expands on one of the stories in the collection titled “Bear Hunting Season,” which follows a young widow named Nina after the death of her husband. As her creator, López was intrigued by her and wanted to know more about her as a character. While there are unique challenges that novels in general present, she’s excited by the experience of getting to explore a single story for a longer period of time. Ultimately, she’s enjoying getting to follow her creative interests on her terms and center the voices of a community she’s loved for her whole life. She notes:

“It brings me joy to write about what I want to write and be political the way I want to be and take risks when I want to take them. Given the context and themes that are explored in the collection and the way that the world of publishing works, I don’t see a lot of people running to read about immigrants. It is important for me to render these stories with as much authenticity as possible and to honor the stories of people who are not often on the page. Stories of people whose lives are often taken for granted. Outside the craft or short stories, I’m really proud that the themes that are explored are things that matter to me on a personal level. It’s cool when you get to write about the things that are close to your heart. Not everybody gets that, unfortunately, but I’m lucky that I did.”

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Afro-Dominican Afro-Latina authors Annell López Dominican authors Dominican culture Dominican Republic Featured immigrant stories
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