AN Interview with Elizabeth Acevedo
Kukuwa Ashun, Issue 43
In her Twitter bio, Elizabeth “Liz” Acevedo takes the time to faithfully tell the world exactly who she is: “Afro-Dominicana | Womanist | Writer | She/Her.” This description, which has to be a maximum of 160 characters, is compressed, yet it meticulously embodies the identity and integrity of this thirty-year-old author, educator, and National Poetry Slam Champion.
Acevedo’s appetite for words and language originated from her childhood mi- lieu. As the sole daughter of Dominican immigrants, she was raised in a household and metropolis full of storytellers. In New York City, narratives are conjured everywhere—whether it be in a hair salon, at a local basketball court, or on public transportation. As early as the age of twelve, Acevedo turned to poetry to express her own personal experiences and the state of her community. While slam poetry started in Chicago, Acevedo was influenced by the impressive lyricism and verses associated with hip-hop music. The author received her BA in Performing Arts from George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland, but she credits her love for language as coming from both within and outside of academia. Acevedo’s passion for storytelling has awarded her previous fellowships at Cave Canem and CantoMundo.
Acevedo’s debut YA novel, The Poet X (HarperTeen, 2018), has won recogni- tion across the country, appearing on lists such as Kirkus Reviews’ Best YA Books, Remezcia’s Best by Latino & Latin American Authors, Entertainment Weekly’s 10 Best YA Novels, Best Riot Best Audiobooks, Amazon’s Best Young Adult Books, New York Times Notable Children’s Books, and many more. The novel became a New York Times Bestseller and received the Boston Globe–Hornbook Award Prize for Best Children’s Fiction of 2018. On November 15, 2018, Robin Benway present- ed Acevedo with the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In her acceptance speech, Acevedo concluded by sending gratitude to her avid readers: “Thank you so much to the readers who, time and again, remind me why I took this leap, why it matters, and why books matter.”
The Poet X certainly does matter; the reader witnesses a dynamic journey that explores the adversities and intricacies behind a first-generation, Afro-Latinx teenage girl. In the novel’s opening pages, we are delivered to Xiomara Batista’s stoop in Harlem, where we watch her absorb the place she refers to as “home.” Within these pages, the institution of home is reexamined by the fifteen-year-old protagonist as she warily begins to confront her feelings towards her religious mother, new crush, and twin brother. Acevedo gives Xiomara the power of authorship; we receive Xiomara’s narrative through verses and other modes of communication, including text messages, poems, and written assignments. Beginning at the end of summer and ending in the beginning of March, we see Xiomara’s character come alive with each obstacle she faces. What defines Xiomara is the amalgamation of her experiences and how the power and intensity of poetry, religion, love, womanhood, and family will continue to shape and reshape her future.
I found myself listening to Acevedo narrate the audiobook in its entirety one night before also picking up a copy of the novel and consuming the words myself. Then, I found myself re-listening to Acevedo’s narration while following along, word for word, and reflecting on how each chapter is unique as an individual segment in preparation for the larger text. I was no stranger to the author’s delivery and New York-Dominican accent; I remembered coming across several YouTube videos of Acevedo’s spoken word performances at places such as the Bowery Poetry Club and the National Slam Poetry Finals. Over the course of several years, Acevedo’s original poetry and talks have been showcased on both local and national stages, each incorporating their respective themes and narratives on culture, identity, race, sexuality, family, politics, and resilience. At the end of each performance, Acevedo’s onstage presence leaves her audience energetic and applauding loudly in reverence.
In the interview below, Acevedo discusses authenticity, representation, The Poet X, and her forthcoming book, With the Fire on High (HarperTeen, 2018), which is set to be released in May 2019.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’ve followed your slam poetry for years now and was even forwarded your poem “Hair” through a close friend while I was in high school. What made you decide to begin using the stage as an outlet to critique societal topics on a local and national scale?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I don’t know if it was ever a conscious decision. I came to poetry through hip-hop and I got used to cyphering on the street, hanging out with my friends who were also poets standing up to read to one another, and memorizing our work. Performance felt very natural. When I discovered that you can say these poems out loud on a stage in front of other people, it was almost a really natural progression from what I had already been doing. It didn’t feel outside of the spaces that I had occupied.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: There are specific meaningful tropes that follow through in both your written work and performances, most of them including matters of race, gender, identity, and religion. The way you incorporate intersectionality within these themes is refreshing, especially in a time when the political climate is unsettling and painful to witness. What motivates you to continue shaping your words in these ways?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I try to tell the most authentic stories I can about womanhood and Dominican-ness and Afro-Dominican-ness/Afro-Latinidad that I can. Then I go back in and edit with the eye of who sets the table in this book, who gets left out, what am I saying, and what am I not saying right? I lean in or be more intentional about that. For me, it’s trying to be authentic and mindful of my own biases and questioning those while also just being incredibly truthful since truthfulness is inherently intersectional, right? I can’t not be woman and Black-descendant and culturally Latinx. Everything I write will have that in it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your academic background seems to be liberating. By this, I’m saying that your time obtaining your BA in Performing Arts and MFA in Creative Writing must have allowed you a certain freedom of expression that most students don’t choose to chase. Can you share some highlights during your time at George Washington University and the University of Maryland that made you proud to realize that you’re pursuing the trajectory of your dreams?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: [Laughter] I laugh because I had to be very firm in finding my freedom within my artistic voice in these spaces. It was affirmed in some ways, and, in other ways, you’re still in an academic institution that has certain beliefs about what art is, right? GW doesn’t actually offer the Performing Arts degree. I created that major and I was lucky enough to have realized that you can do a special interdisciplinary major. I had the academic backing of several professors to say “Okay, yes, we’ll support you as you try to make this up.” We really just did try to make up a performance-poetry major, and call it a thing. So I was lucky in that way, but in other ways, school . . . they didn’t know what to do with me! There wasn’t a formal department that was helping to support me. I had to know what I needed and who to ask.
Maryland was tough because I came from a performance-poetry background, I had done poetry that was very much to live on the stage and I was in a space where it often felt like I was being told, was it for me? Like this wasn’t the space for my work? I had to find the classmates and professors that I trusted, who I thought had the best interest of my work at heart, but it was a process. Who is here that I know will nourish my work and completely turn an ear to folks who would have me leave? I really struggled in some ways. This is all to say that, with both of these schools, I was able to carve my own. I figured out a way to carve my own and there was space to do that and it’s why I was able to lean into performance, lean into fiction, lean into poetry—because I was given elbow room to try a lot of different things.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can I ask if GW was a predominately white institution?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Yes, GW is predominately white, as was Maryland.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think it’s incredible that you were able to carve your own path. Were you an incoming student doing this?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: At GW I was. You had to declare as a sophomore. I had put my proposal together my first semester of sophomore year.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Wow. You were doing work that professors should’ve been doing, so all the kudos to you!
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: [Laughter] It was fun!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I can imagine, but also taxing as well.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Yes.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Are there places outside of academia that also serve as momentous breakthroughs for your writing?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Yeah! I’ve been lucky to have been offered fellowships from CantoMundo, which is a Latinx retreat. I was a participant of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop as well as Cave Canem. I think these spaces—because both of the institutions of higher education that I went to were predominately white—were spaces that were more in tuned to what I was writing about culturally and where I could free myself of feeling like I had to explain things to folks. People here will do the work to figure this out and to accept the premises I’m giving them without determining whether or not I can exist, or it can exist. You know what I mean? You’re coming in with, “Okay, yes, whatever the poem is saying can happen, now let’s figure out the craft.” I feel like in some other workshops it was just like, is it even possible for this kind of person to walk the world? I was lucky that those were fellowships that I received. I’m based in D.C. which I think is special—the poetry community here is special and so is slamming in this area. Also, being on a team that won the National Poetry Slam—a lot of those folks still being friends that I engage with. My first beta readers were people who came to my work with a lot of generosity. That’s not a very common type of institution or program, but those are people I still turn to. I’ve had a lot of non-traditional groups that have supported my work.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The anecdote that always sticks with me whenever I mention your name to someone is the origins of “Rat Ode.” As a current MFA-goer, what advice would you give to emerging writers, especially writers of color, who feel like they are struggling to preserve their narratives?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Part of it is finding your readers. Sometimes your readers don’t look like you, or come from your same background, but you get a sense of like, they know what I’m trying to do. They’re not telling me what they would do or telling me what their favorite poet would do. They’re telling me “Okay, based off the work you brought into this room, this is what I’m hearing.” That, to me, is such a generous way of reading because it’s reflecting back what you’re doing and you can figure out if it’s working or not. So, figure out who are your people. Also, be fully committed as to who and why you write, you know? I’ve been rereading Kiese Laymon’s most recent book Heavy. He says, “I write for and towards my people.” For me, I think the moment I realized the poems I needed to tell, needed to be told—whether or not the people in this workshop got it—was so freeing. I could take what was necessary and what was helpful, and then I could let the rest go. Ultimately I knew the door is cracked open, if you want to walk through you can. But if you don’t, there are people who are gonna join me in this room—and that’s paraphrasing a Hanif Abdurraqib quote. I know why I’m writing and so I think people have to know, who is this story for? If those folks are not in the room, then you can’t take to heart what they say. You don’t know how it would be received by the people you actually want to read it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I definitely understand, especially as the only black fiction writer in my last workshop.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: It can be hard! You’re in that space and you want to make sure that you’re getting the workshop worth of input on your work, and also have to be mindful of if my characters are of color and if I’m speaking in a certain way that folks don’t have access to. I can’t just strip that back because they might not get it. There are people out here who hunger to see and hear themselves.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: As a writer of both prose and poetry, you lapse both of these literary genres into your best-selling novel, The Poet X. Can you tell us about how your initial idea grew into fruition? Is the dynamic between religion and slam poetry the way you had always planned to frame Xiomara’s story?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I always knew that Xiomara’s story was going to be majority in verse. Then I discovered the little conceit of, okay, well what if what she says in verse is her most honest self and now here are these prose pieces where she’s pretending. That was a fun thing for me to play with, in terms of how much does she show, how much does she hold in. I didn’t know that until I was already in the process of writing and discovering her voice, that it was gonna be this mix.
The initial concept of the story was more, here’s a young person who discovers poetry slams and discovers that she can speak up and own her body. Religion didn’t come until much later and I think with fiction it’s always like, there’s this first story and then there’s this second story, which is the undercurrent. I didn’t have that second story until much later. I started this book in 2012 and it was probably 2015 when I was like, oh there’s this mother who is trying to push her [daughter] in a particular direction. But I very rarely liked books that are heavy on religion so it was odd to figure out that I was writing one [laughter]. I just tried to make it one that I would wanna read, which is just very honest. I wanted to know what spaces with other people listening, affirming, and thinking about our humanity looked like.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You definitely hit the nail on the head with that, especially in regards to being first-generation, immigrant parents. While reading, I was like, “Wow, this is my mom.” One of my favorite concepts, among many, in the The Poet X are the “Rough Draft” versus “Final Draft” assignments that Xiomara has to turn in for Mrs. Galiano’s class. Honestly, while Xiomara alters the subject matter between these written works, both stories give us the same level of interiority into her character. You spoke about this a little bit, but what inspired you to show readers Xiomara’s thought-process like this?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I really don’t know. I wish I could pinpoint the day that I made this small discovery. The one piece that she has about getting her period existed before a lot of the stories. I feel like I had this moment where she’s responding to a momentous day. But I knew a kid wouldn’t turn this in! You wouldn’t say your mom slapped you for using a tampon, even though it was true, and even though a lot of people in the class were like, “It sounds about right.” You wouldn’t turn that in! I knew a young person would not be this forthcoming because they know this has repercussions. They know how it depicts where they’re from and also there’s a lot of embarrassment. So what would she turn in instead? But that was the honest answer. I tried to figure out how you navigate what you wish you could say, but then what needs to be said because of the circumstances around you. When I did the first one, I realized, “Oh yeah, she wouldn’t turn in a poem because it’s class, she doesn’t feel like she can and oh, what if this is how she kinda goes through it?” She has her initial thoughts and then she has to clean it up for school. It just became a thing [laughter].
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Turning to your characters, every character in this novel is precisely refined and well-developed. From Mami to Aman, from Twin to Caridad, from Isabelle to Chris—all of them are incredibly essential to Xi- omara’s growth. Which character, would you say, was the most difficult to ex- plore during this production and why?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I think Twin and Xiomara were pretty fleshed out for me early on. I had this brother who was grappling with his own thing, but who was also just a really sweet and a good person that she could turn to but who she was also was frustrated by. I think, maybe, Mami because she’s a central char- acter but in many ways she’s also the antagonist and I knew it was necessary for her to be fully human. At some point you had to empathize with her. So trying to craft that in a way that I knew—young people could be very black and white when they read—and so how can you feel for her while also recognizing maybe she’s not making the best decisions for her family. It meant that I had to show softness and kindness and the goodness of a lot of our parents. Also, the side of them that can’t let go of certain ways that they were raised. Her character, trying to get that down with very few words and just using very specific gestures, moments, and memories made her hard.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yeah the poem/scene that stands out to me is when Mami started burning Xiomara’s journal. My heart was like, oh my goodness!
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Right!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I felt that empathy. It was hard to imagine someone burning your work, especially after putting it down.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Yeah, a lot of folks feel very strongly about that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The poems “After” and “Gay” are examples of lyrical pieces that were so devastatingly relatable because they are conversations that people, unfortunately, still need to defend. I reread and re-analyzed your use of sentence and fragment structure multiple times. Can you talk about advocacy and how you want readers to interpret these moments?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I don’t think I have an answer for you. For me, it was just really important to be honest, like I mentioned before. I remember walking down the street and being catcalled. I had worked with so many young women throughout my life who I would think ten, fifteen, twenty years later would be dealing with something different, and they’re not. So that feeling of, how does it end? That feeling of lack of safety—when do we combat that? It was more just the frustration of dealing with that and growing up in a city and feeling that. I don’t know that I would call it advocacy, or at least it wasn’t intentional advocacy as much as it was trying to be truthful. I think what readers do with that is beyond my scope. It depends on who the reader is and where they’re from. I’ve talked to young folks in Kansas, Maine, and all over where it’s not a walk- in-the-street type culture. It’s not a street corner culture. So the way that these things come up for them is different but also still resonate. It happens this way here. For me, it’s more sparking the conversation. With Twin, this is just a fact of life. A lot of Caribbean and Latinx families don’t wanna talk about the fact that there are gay family members in their life. What do those connotations look like, what does it look like to be someone who is extremely protected but also showing your own bias, and how do you move forward from that? Let’s look at it and acknowledge that it exists and let’s realize that it’s human and real and a part of our story. Which is why, to date, all of my stories have queer central characters because this is just life [laughter]. We want to hide it in real life and we want to hide it in our books, but it’s like I refuse to do either. I have no interest in interpretation, as much as “I said what I said.” What you do with that is on you.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It also speaks to what you said about who is being left out of stories as well. I think it’s extremely important that people are properly represented. Okay, I can’t help but ask, who are some of your literary influences and what books are you reading now? You mentioned Laymon’s Heavy before.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Yeah, I loved Heavy, so I’m rereading that. I love Lucille Clifton. I’m a big fan of Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez. All of the above poets, novelists, and also folks who write for young people. But those are probably the three that are on my Mount Rushmore. Kiese’s book was the last one I’ve read but I’m about to dive into bell hooks All About Love. I’m just trying to really think about a lot of different ways of reading, so a lot more nonfiction than I normally read.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How do you think that’s helping your writing now?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I don’t think I know yet. I mean, I feel like I read and then a year later, it’s like, “Oh! I have this idea” that’s being sparked now. I read as a writer so all of it is influencing how I approach my work and what I think is possible and what I can experiment with.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Recently—a few weeks ago—you took to Instagram and did a little behind-the-scenes segment of your editing process. For those who didn’t watch it, could you explain how printing out your work helps you conceptualize how the words look on the page?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I didn’t do this with my second novel, with the prose novel, but I wish I had. This time around I said I remember doing this with The Poet X and it really worked. But particularly with a novel in verse, or maybe a poetry manuscript, it’s like you can see the whole. The novel in verse is pretty much three hundred pages of poetic lines but sometimes you’re missing actual scenes, like this character hasn’t come up in one hundred pages and you can’t tell because fifty of the pages have been the character just feeling [laughter]. Printing it out and reading it in that way physically makes me feel the gaps of, “Wait this is missing, this never came back, or this character—I haven’t heard their voice in a while.” It gives me that sense in a way that I don’t know what happens on a computer, I don’t get that same kind of push so I catch a lot that I wasn’t able to catch before. I found, with verse, it became almost a necessary process to be able to find the narrative arc.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your upcoming book, With the Fire on High, will drop this May. What do you hope to accomplish with this new narrative?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Some things will feel familiar, as in Afro-Latinx characters. She’s in a city and living a life but making difficult choices and trying to think about what’s best for her family. There’s a little bit of magical realism in this—it is a story that’s based in Philadelphia. She’s a teen mom and it’s prose! I hope that there is that same thread of what does it mean to be a black girl dreaming in this country, in ways that maybe seem incredibly radical where you’re from. It’s really leaning into your own power. It’s just an addition into this pantheon of black and brown young women that I hope to continue centering and saying there are so many ways to be us, and to live joyous lives.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That we are all multidimensional.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Yeah, for sure!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Lastly, I can’t help but bring up your moving acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. In particular, I remember whooping and hollering when you paid homage “to my families, to my homies, and to my hood.” And you say, “I wanna give special thanks to my ancestors, without whom I would not be here.” Honestly, this is more of a comment and my standing ovation for your words across multiple stages. Whether it be Ted Talks or slam poetry or speeches, your words always resonate with me—and for many other readers, of course!
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Thank you!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What does the writing routine look like for you? Do you write every day or do you choose not to? Do you believe it’s essential for your growth as a writer?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: The process changes as you change, so I’m not sure if there’s a definitive answer. The Liz process today is probably going to be different in ten years. Depending on whether I’m writing fiction or poetry, it’s different for me. Even if it’s in verse, if I’m writing a novel I need to sit with that character almost every day. I need to follow them, see what they’re struggling with, and I need to keep their story arc in my head. Because I’m on the road a lot, I can’t necessarily do that when I’m touring so I take two to three months out of the year where I just sit and write every day, or close to every day as best as I can. Just to get the draft and to get the character out and just to think about that story. If I’m writing poetry, I’m a little bit more patient. Poems live in my body and the idea isn’t necessarily precious. I can have a thought and come back to it two to three weeks later and the poem will come out. Poetry will sit with me. In two weeks I’ll write a poem of something that happened yesterday, and in a couple months I’ll write another poem. It means it’s a slower process of getting a collection of poems, but it also means I’ve sat with those words and ideas for a long time before they end up on a page. As of right now that’s my process, but we shall see. Stay tuned!