The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo ・Pub. Date: March 6th, 2018 ・YA/Poetry
“A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.”
WOCreads: Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for writing The Poet X?
Elizabeth Acevedo: As someone who was a writer and performer as a teenager, there was so many fascinating facets to participating in poetry slams that I wanted to capture, but as I got to know my character more I realized that slam was a vehicle, but that the main point of the story was to tell the story of what it means to struggle with your family, your faith, your body, and the societal expectations people have of you.
WOCreads: You’re a slam champion with amazing video poems and the fierce chapbook Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths. How did you come to the novel form and how did your process differ from writing poetry?
EA: I’ve always been a big reader of fiction and had aspirations to write a book but I had to write several manuscripts before I was able to teach myself how to write this narrative. Writing a poetry manuscript is a bit different than a novel because in the former, the poems are often self-contained, even if they are in conversation with one another. But a novel requires a plot arc and character development that forced some of the verses to be transition pieces; I had to learn how to keep all the different pieces balanced.
WOCreads: I love Xiomara’s character and the way her voice just leaps off the page. How did you go at creating her character, did you draw inspiration from different media or people you know?
EA: Xiomara is an assemblage of a lot of girls I know, some that I’ve taught, some that I went to school with, and of course, myself. I wanted to ensure she had an authentic voice and I borrowed from parts of my life to make a character who felt and sounded real.
WOCreads: Your poetry is fiercely feminist, tackling issues like hair, sexualization and anti-Blackness central to the intersection of Afro-Latinidad. How did you have Xiomara engage with these issues?
EA: Xiomara doesn’t always name that she’s engaging with these issues; more often the reader sees her questioning gender roles, rape culture, beauty standards, and the symbolism of white saints and saviors and what that means for dark-skinned congregations, but I think I keep her engagement with these issues central but subtle. She is still figuring out the language to name those things.
WOCreads: Young Adult literature is currently experiencing a much-needed rise of diversity, but there’s still a lack of Afro-Latinx stories. What particularly appealed to you about YA and do you have some favorite YA books?
EA: Growing up I wished for more representation, for characters that looked like me. And then when I was a schoolteacher (I still work closely with teens), I realized that although I had grown older the canvas of literature in regards to its representation of a diverse Latinx experience had not expanded enough. I really wanted to help bridge that gap, especially for such a critical age where young people are affirming their self-importance in the world.
WOCreads: Do you have any advice for LatinX teens on writing and navigating the publishing industry?
EA: I think I would advise teens to form good relationships with other teens that are writing; my best critique partners have been my peers. I also strongly advise mentorship. So much of the publishing industry can be confusing, but having one or two writers who are one step ahead of you really helps shine light on what you can be doing to better your craft. I think this can be done by taking online or in-person workshops, and engaging with writers, agents, and editors on social media. Demystifying the industry is the first step to learning how to navigate it.
WOCreads: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new project?
EA: Yes! My second novel is slated to come out with HarperTeen in Winter of 2019!
WOCreads: I can’t wait! Thanks so much for answering my questions!
The giveaway is open internationally! Enter till March 26th!
Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel The Poet X is a coming of age story told in verse. The main character Xiomara Batista is an Afro-Dominican teen living in Harlem with a twin brother, devout Catholic mother and emotionally absent father. She doesn’t fit the space which society and her parents have designated for her, but X is determined to carve out her own place in the world. It’s from filling her notebooks with all the words she cannot utter freely to finding her way to the world of spoken word poetry that Xiomara comes into her own.
The Poet X deals with sexualization, rape culture, religion and complicated families. While Xiomara’s mother is very religious, she’s also taken in the virgin/whore dichotomy that Catholicism espouses and attempts to mold her daughter accordingly. I found these scenes difficult to read, but we also get X’s memories of an earlier version, of mother as heroine, who takes her children ice skating and loves them fiercely.
Xiomara feels that her body as “un-hideable,” growing curves and being sexualized make her feel ambiguously about her body and she learns to make her fists do the talking instead. She comes to question religion, especially the whiteness of Catholic figures, as “not one of the disciples look like me: morenita and big and angry.” X also criticizes the patriarchal nature of Catholicism: “When I’m told to have faith/ in the father the son/ in men and men are the first ones/ to make me feel so small.”
It was great to see how close Xiomara is with her twin and their childhood friend Caridad. I loved her relationship with her gay brother Xavier, who is super smart but who she grew up protecting from others and with whom she builds a unit against their parents. And while Caridad chafes less against her family and the good girl role, she’s a wonderful friend. X’s crush Aman is Trinidadian and shorter than her.
I love how X’s voice just leaps off the page and you can almost hear her perform as you read. I adore spoken word, so I will be rereading this one in the audiobook version. It was amazing to see X come into her own, to find a place where she fits and which she makes fit her. This is a powerful work, loved the Brown girl feminism! It’ll mean the most to Afro-LatinX folx, as it should, but I found a lot to connect with. Give this book to all the marginalized teens you know! Suffice it to say, I was absolutely blown away by this book and I hope you will be, too!
TW: Sexual harrassment, abuse, body shaming, homophobia.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to the publisher and Karina from Afire Pages for the opportunity.