Elizabeth Acevedo’s Literary Realizations
As a grownup, Elizabeth Acevedo realized that the books she had needed as a child still didn’t exist. So she wrote them herself.
Elizabeth Acevedo is a celebrated spoken word poet and bestselling author. Her young adult novels explore the interior loves of young Afro-Latinas. They have received numerous accolades, including the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Born in New York to Dominican parents, Acevedo began performing as a slam poet in high school. She was a National Slam Champion and performed at Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center, and South Africa’s State Theatre, among other venues.
She completed a BA in performing arts at George Washington University and an MFA in creative writing at the University of Maryland. While teaching eighth grade English in Prince George’s County, Maryland, she noticed a paucity of books reflecting her students’ background and experiences and set out to write such stories. Her second young adult novel, The Poet X, was a New York Times bestseller and a multiple award winner. Her fourth book, Clap When You Land, was released in May 2020.
It can be difficult to pinpoint when a journey begins, but for the National Book Award-winning young adult author, Elizabeth Acevedo, a daughter of Dominican immigrants who spoke little English, this story starts with a three-year-old and her mother.
Elizabeth Acevedo: My youngest memory that I have is sitting in this auditorium with my mom after work, trying to learn English, that I learned English because my mom sat me down and was like, we’re gonna read this book together in a language she barely spoke, even though it was hard for her, even though she had done all of this work all day and then still sat down, and is like, “This is an important thing for you to learn.” So, English is my educational tongue, English is my expressive tongue, English is my storytelling tongue, and I think it’s because of that moment.
The English language gave her power, but it also brought responsibility. At some point, we all find out that our parents are just people, fallible human beings, but as the designated household spokesperson, she discovered this earlier than most.
Acevedo: So, I knew young that my parents weren’t always gonna be the teacher, that sometimes I was the one who had to convey information, and explain things, and read the letters, and then say this is what it’s saying, and what it means to want to turn to someone and say, “You should know, you should know. You’re the adult,” but then also knowing that that would be hurtful, and when you’re a kid moving through all of these feelings and wanting to lash out, but this person is relying on you, then it’s this also sense of guilt and like, “I owe you, I owe you at least this.”
It was in high school that Acevedo fully embraced her own voice, and for the following decade she made a name for herself as a poet, winning prestigious spoken word competitions and building a fan base.
But poetry alone wasn’t enough. While teaching English at a DC middle school and a juvenile detention center, she realized that the books her students were assigned didn’t reflect their lived experiences. So, for six years, she worked towards a private dream that she could become part of the solution.
Acevedo: Fiction was what I wrote on the Metro. It was this secret thing that I was working on to see if I could do it, but I didn’t know what it would become. So, it was still for me, and I think that that’s a different pressure.
This time and pressure culminated in Acevedo’s 2018 debut, The Poet X. It tells the story of a young poet named Xiomara, who in many ways resembles a young Liz. In the story, a Dominican-American, New York City-raised teenager butts heads with her traditional Catholic parents and other kids in her neighborhood.
(Excerpt from The Poet X)
I am unhide-able. Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said was “a little to much body for such a young girl.” I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong. The other girls call me conceited, ho, thot, fast. When your body takes up more room than your voice, you are always the target of well-aimed rumors, which is why I let my knuckles talk for me. Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced by insults. I forced my skin just as thick as I am.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s novels are informed by her own life, but they’re not based on it. Her second novel for young adults was the bestseller, With the Fire on High, which tells the story of a teen mom from Philadelphia who doggedly pursues her dream of becoming a chef. Just three months after the book hit shelves, the film rights were purchased by the same company that made the Oscar-sweeping film, La La Land. Her next novel, out May 5th 2020 from Harper Collins, is called Clap When You Land. It explores the lives of two girls who discover they’re half-sisters following the death of their father. And even though she hasn’t lived everything she writes, Acevedo believes fiction can still communicate something real, something candid and sincere.
Acevedo: There’s a difference between the pursuit and display of truth as a curious fact versus here is honesty, here is an honest emotion, here is an honest conflict, here is a character who is not sure, and you are not going to be sure about her, because sometimes we are not sure about people, that that feels a little bit different. There’s a way that we can say this is the best form that I can depict this emotion and it might not be true, but it is honest.
Elizabeth Acevedo sets a powerful example, writing what she knows the world needs, and in the process reframing reality.
(Excerpt from The Poet X)
We are not here to save lives. We are all just working on our own mosaic of aches. So when the girl at the detention center asks you again, “Why we gotta write these damn poems anyways?” Tell her we write to remind ourselves we are still here and that we can still heal.