Girls who never saw ourselves on bookshelves, but were still writing poems when we talked. And we’ve been called teeth-sucking, of snapping eyes, born bitter, brittle, of tangled tongues, sandpaper that’s been origami’d into girls not worthy of being your hero, nor the author. But we were always Medusa’s favorite daughter…
These are the opening words of poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo on the night she introduces her debut novel to her native Uptown, New York City neighborhood. A brilliant Dominican girl’s coming-of-age, The Poet X stands as an ode to “Afro-Latinas, negritas and morenitas” worldwide.
Holding court inside Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center, Acevedo is Medusa. In her own serpent curls and tangled tongue, she summons the muses and us round-the-way shorties for a soul-shaking, finger-snapping spectacle of spoken word worthy of all the collective yaaas! and whaaaaa! orchestrating the room.
On this wintry March evening, before she takes the stage, Acevedo – who currently lives in Washington, DC with her husband – nestles in a secluded corner as she waits to engage a brief interview. Like her book, her presence is familiar. And I want to know how she’s arrived here.
VIBE: What parts of the book are biographical?
Liz: A lot of the emotional truths. Being a young woman who had to walk through a city where I was continuously sexualized and objectified, and had to feel fear of my body while also encountering my sexuality, trying to figure out how to do I express this but also protect it. Having tension within a family dynamic where you’re first generation and you are trying to consolidate what you’re learning in this country are your rights and who you can be and should be. And then what your parents are trying to hold on to that are very traditional… How do you as one human carry all of these different values, and also figure out what are your own? Those are all true. That said, there might be some poems I used from when I was a teen. [Laughs]
Besides that you’re a poet and spoken word artist, is there a reason why you chose to write your novel in verse rather than prose?
This is actually my third manuscript, and my first two were in prose. I think because the character’s a poet, but also because this character has this toughness. How she displays herself in the world is fierce and bold and hard, but then on the inside she has all this flowery language and these insights and this ability to see in such a manner where she sees in images. And I love that contrast of this girl who walks through the world with her fists clenched, but is also super thoughtful — but you don’t know it. No one knows it, because she doesn’t show that part of herself.
Who did you write this for?
I was a teacher, and I taught a predominantly Latinx school. I wrote it for my students, after they asked me to write a book for them. I wrote this for my younger self and young women who reflect my younger self. I wrote this for Afro-Latinas, negritas and morenitas who are like, “I don’t see myself on TV, in the magazines, I most definitely do not see myself in books.” And I wrote this for just young women who are trying to take up space and are repeatedly made small because they are told they have to be small.
How have your students reacted to the book?
One of my performance students will be opening up today. So I’ve had students open up for me everywhere, because part of creating space is also saying, “If I have a room, I want you to also be in the room speaking up.” So every single show on my tour has a youth poet opening up, which I felt really strongly about.
They’re just proud, to be real. There is so much that we imagine that can be done with language. You come into poetry and you think, “Okay, this is what a poet can do, this is what a teacher can do.” But then when you’re like, “Wait, we could write books, we could write novels, we can get book deals, we can be on TV?” I think for a lot of folks it’s the possibilities of it all. It’s like that for me, too. I’ve had all kinds of partnerships come through that even my publisher is like, “We’ve never had a writer with announcements.” Like word, and I just have to play that off. [Laughs] I really just think it’s about being able to reimagine the things that are actually possible.
What does it feel like coming back home, presenting this gift, this kind of joy to your ‘hood?
There’s a lot of pressure.
Because you want to get it right, and this is the community that would be able to check me if I didn’t get it right. So there’s the pressure of God, I hope this sounds like them, I hope this feels like them, I hope this is familiar. [But] my best shows are always in New York; people get in a way that I don’t have to explain. And I’ve toured the country, I’m continuously meeting a lot of people. But in New York, I don’t have to give disclaimers.