Elizabeth Acevedo has been empowering Afro-Latinas for years by bringing attention to the various experiences of women of color through her powerful words in poetry.
As a Latina, you might remember a certain poem or a book that changed your life, a verse so precise it gave you chills. Acevedo’s debut novel, Poet X, will do just that with its raw emotions that are universal to all young girls, wrapped up in beautiful lyrical verses.
Poet X is a Young Adult novel that follows the story of an unapologetic 15-year-old girl, Xiomara Batista, growing up in Harlem. As a Dominican-American teen stepping into adulthood she takes to her journal to deal with the emotions and frustrations she feels at home and at school. In this three-part novel, Xiomara struggles with her conservative mother, an absent father, her faith in God, her sexuality, and much more. Xiomara’s awakening through slam poetry helps her find her voice but her journey of self-discovery doesn’t come easy.
Born and raised in New York to Dominican parents the award-winning slam champion says the novel may seem autobiographical on the surface but that’s because she has always found writing as a means to talk about the world she knows. And poetry came almost naturally because of the storytellers in her family. A former 8th-grade teacher, Acevedo wanted to write a book about girls who were not represented on the bookshelves in school.
Latina caught up with the internationally recognized poet to talk about the first of her two-book deal with HarperCollins Publishers.
What was it like to write a novel in verse? What were some of the challenges?
I think writing any kind of novel has its unique challenges, but with a novel in verse it was difficult for me to learn that not every single piece had to be a self-contained poem; some of the pieces work as hinges to connect the more self-fulfilled poems. But because I was coming from a background in poetry I wanted all 368 pages to be pure poetry...and that can be a lot of pressure, and weigh down the story arc. So, I had to learn to trust my process!
The narration in your novel includes Dominican slang, code-switching between English and Spanish, and one poem is actually written all in Spanish with the translation on the next page. Why do you think adding this to your novel was important?
I find it important that everything I write be in my most authentic voice--singular. And that means bringing all the ways I speak to the page. Junot Diaz has been such an influential writer in my life and mostly it’s because his writing gave me permission to write using all the vernaculars I wield. I want someone reading this book to see that the fluencies they possess are an asset, are normalized, are welcomed and necessary.
Friendship is an important theme in your novel. A big part of the novel are conversations between Caridad and Xiomara. How does the narrative that they share help define Xiomara?
Xiomara keeps a lot to herself as she figures out what kind of young woman she wants to grow into, but her friendship with Caridad allows her to be pushed out of her comfort zone; Caridad supports Xiomara unconditionally, but she also has no issue with letting Xiomara know when she’s wrong and when she needs to check herself. Because her homegirl balances her own restrained energy, Xiomara grows braver at telling her story and knowing that someone will be there to catch her if she falls.
A big part of Xiomara’s journey is her Afro-Latinidad. What does AfroLatinidad mean to you?
In Latin America and the Hispanophone-Caribbean, there’s been an erasure in our history of Blackness and the Black people who contributed to the creation of our nations and cultures. I fundamentally believe that celebrating my Afro-Latinidad and continuing a nuanced conversation about how racial identity in our varied countries has developed (and, indeed, is developing) is how I remember and re-center my ancestors. I refuse to not put them at the forefront of my own story when they’ve been white-washed out of the popular narrative for hundreds of years.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received that you’d want to pass onto others?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote by Anaïs Nin, a writer of Cuban descent: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” I tend to be someone who would rather say nothing than to say something wrong, but my search for the perfect output often means I force myself to remain silent. I want to be better about taking the risk and saying what is necessary even if it’s not the most popular opinion.
Who is someone you can’t get enough of right now, or what’s a book you’re reading right now?
Like most of the country right now, I’m truly obsessed with Cardi B. She showcases this balance of ferocity and vulnerability that is incredibly compelling. She’s also one of the first women of Dominican descent that I’ve seen really break into American pop culture and it’s inspirational to see how she made it from a small apartment in the Bronx to breaking Billboard records. I’m seriously trying to be her official biographer one day.
Poet X comes out tomorrow, March 6, you can order here.