I started to go by J9 in high school because it was short enough to tag on walls and less prone to being misspelled. Also, Prince was in his "Artist-Formerly-Known-As" stage, and I thought my moniker would bring me an equal amount of fame. My parents never took to it, though; I was the one who pointed out to my mom that they'd inadvertently written the word "nine" into my name. To this day, they still call me "Yeni."
I was born in 1981 in Hialeah, Florida, the first of my family to be born in this country. My parents came to the United States from Cuba and met as teenagers, and a few years after that I came along. My father worked as an electrician, along with my mom's father, and my mom worked in a doctor's office before my birth. Unable to come up with a decent name for a girl (I was, I think, going to be named after my father had I been a boy), my parents decided to pick a name from that year's Miss America contestants. They settled on the fifth runner-up's name, but they changed the spelling to “Cuba-fy” it, thus establishing what would always be my inherently awkward role as the first Cuban-American in my family.
Spanish was my first language, and I spoke it pretty much exclusively until I started school. In kindergarten, my name magically changed from “Ye-ning,” the only pronunciation I'd heard in my family, to “Je-neen,” which is how my American teacher interpreted my parents' name-spelling creativity. A lot of my writing explores the Americanization of things—of names, of people, of traditions—and I draw a lot from my experience of maneuvering between two languages.
I have always been a writer. I still have notebooks filled with stories, poems, and plays, all of them scribbled in my elementary school handwriting.
I read voraciously; we didn't have a lot of money for books, so my mom used to take us to the library every two weeks, and each time, I'd leave with my maximum allotment of books, devouring them between visits. In school, I guess I was a bit of a nerd, but I was always watching, always listening, to the cool kids—kids in car clubs, kids who didn't have to go out with chaperones, kids rumored to be drug dealers, who cheated off me during tests. I loved them, I wanted to be them, and they eventually let me in their circle in exchange for a clear view of my test paper.
Though college wasn't the typical next step for most of my high school's graduates, I was lucky enough to be accepted to Cornell University, and it was there that I learned what it meant to be a Cuban from Miami. Socially, it was not an easy time, mostly because I'd grown up in a predominantly Latino area and had stupidly assumed we'd infiltrated cities other than Miami. (We had, but Ithaca was not one of them.) In my first week there, I was introduced by a dorm-mate to a group of her high school friends (her school had sent 40 people to Cornell that year!) as her new "Minority Friend." I didn't know it then, but that was the beginning of everything else: leaving Hialeah, I realized, meant facing and dealing with the outside world's expectations of Cubans, Latinos from urban Miami, etc.
Thankfully I eventually ditched the dorms and found my place at Cornell as a member of a brilliant (yet unfortunately named) sketch comedy troupe called the Skits-O-Phrenics. We put on shows throughout the Northeast and worked with John Cleese (who is, we like to say, a member-at-large), Matt Besser (of Upright Citizens Brigade), Amy Poehler (also UCB, now on SNL), and other people worth name-dropping. I wrote and performed for the group, and between the stage and the classroom, I developed my voice as a writer. On the fiction front, I was lucky enough to work with writers such as Richard Price, Robert Morgan, Lamar Herrin, and Helena Viramontes. Helena, more than anyone else, was absolutely vital to my thinking of myself as a writer, to my sense that writing that came from my experience could be an important contribution to literature, and it is a testament to her generous spirit that I continue to work each day on my stories and novel drafts.
Four years after those first awkward days at Cornell, I became the first person in my family to earn a college degree, graduating Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English. Richard Price had been the first to suggest that I apply to MFA programs, and after some serious thinking and a lot of hard work, I found myself in a graduate program a few years later. I worked with Charles Baxter and David Treuer, two writers I greatly admire. I also had the chance to meet with visiting writers Lorrie Moore (who'd had some of my same teachers when she was at Cornell), Lan Samantha Chang, and Edward P. Jones. And I got to try my hand at teaching, which was fun and rewarding; it felt a lot like being on stage. Like Treuer and Baxter, I feel that the best teachers of creative writing are the novels and stories of great writers themselves, and so the classes I teach, much like the classes I've taken, involve as much reading as they do writing, and this has without fail produced better student work.
Throughout graduate school and even now, I've worked with what people call "at-risk" youth, because I realize that by definition, I was one (again, something I didn't know until I left home and learned the words others used to describe my experiences growing up). I have worked as a mentor and a writer-in-residence to middle school students, trying to pass on the generosity of self that I received from so many supportive teachers along the way. I try to show them that they have a right to be heard, that their voices are no less valuable than those of the people in power.
My writing has been shaped by South Florida, its people and its landscape, and by the stories of Cuba repeated to me almost daily by my parents and abuelos. My own stories are informed by my experiences as a Cuban-American woman living within and without her community; I have not lived full time in the Miami area since 1999, though I'm slowly working my way back there. I strive in my writing to give voice to the voiceless, to give stories over to characters not yet readily found in established literature, to give them a place there where they belong. I write for the teenage me out there now, looking for a way into the world, and I write for her future friends and lovers, Miami natives or not, that they be ready to meet her.