Elizabeth Acevedo remembers the way her mother’s childhood stories would transport her from her New York City apartment to the rural areas of the Dominican Republic. “When I was young, a lot of the stories that I heard about growing up in my Manhattan apartment were about my mom riding horses and my grandfather, you know, chopping mangoes with [a] machete,” she recounts.
The National Book Award winner and New York Times bestselling author describes these accounts from her mother’s childhood as some of her favorite fairy tales, where she was able to hear stories about an island that to her “felt so distant at times.”
It was these narratives that sparked her love for writing and led Acevedo to want to tell her own stories—ones that reflected her reality and the multidimensional lives of the people she encountered while walking through the streets of Manhattan.
“I wanted to write about my community. I wanted to wonder about culture, and what it means to be first-generation, what it means to have distance from something that you really love. And even the personal, even when I was writing love poems, they were very much in my voice.”
She is doing just that. The Dominican-American author is the winner of numerous literary awards. She was the first writer of color in 83 years of history to win the Carnegie Medal in the United Kingdom for her critically-acclaimed debut young adult novel, The Poet X—a story written entirely from the point of view of a young, Afro-Dominican-American poet growing up in Harlem named Xiomara, who struggles to find her own identity until she falls in love with spoken word. The novel went on to receive praise for its portrayal of a young, Afro-Domincan-American teen and for its use of poetry.
Acevedo’s latest venture, Clap When You Land, is no different. The novelist’s third young adult book follows two Afro-Latinx sisters—one in New York City, and another in the Dominican Republic—who are unaware of each other’s existence until their father tragically dies in a plane crash. Acevedo describes it as a story of loss and grief, but also as a story of gain.
It answers the question of: “What does it mean when your heroes die? When he’s left a mess behind, and the only hero that you may have ever had or will have to have now, is yourself,” she said.
This third novel is loosely based on Flight AA587—a 2001 American Airlines flight to Santo Domingo that never made it past New York and resulted in the death of 260 people. The notorious event was America’s second-deadliest plane fatality to date, but remains unknown to many outside of New York City. Just a few minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy airport, it plummeted to the ground claiming every life on board and profoundly impacted the Dominican community in both New York and in their native Caribbean island.
“I remember how that jostled our entire community, how people that we knew were on that flight, how kids that I played with had a parent on that flight. And the ways in which it felt like the second deadliest crash in U.S. history was only really acknowledged by Dominicans,” recalls Acevedo.
“I’ve wanted for a long time to think through that moment of very public grief. That was also personal grief in some ways, even if it wasn’t necessarily one of my family members, but it felt like a community grief, we felt something that the rest of the world outside of [the Dominican Republic] didn’t really recognize.”
The main characters in this third novel not only publicly grieve with their community, but also mourn the passing of their father. Acevedo describes their relationship to his character as a look into manhood and parenthood and, “how parents fail us, and what does it mean to forgive someone when they’re not there to ask for forgiveness?”
“One sister is desperately trying to get back to the Dominican Republic. She wants to accompany her father’s body when it’s buried. And the other sisters desperately try to get to the United States. She needs to remove herself from a situation that she’s in that may prove, you know, harmful, if not deadly. And so, while it is reflecting on a lot of true-life events, it’s the story of two girls who have to slay dragons,” says Acevedo.
She calls it one of her most ambitious projects—tackling womanhood, sisterhood, race, gender, culture, and more throughout the intricate web that ties these two sisters together who, while related by blood, are very different from one another.
That’s the beauty of Acevedo’s characters. She’s created what she describes as a pantheon of different women in her literary world. These Afro-Latinx characters might all share a cultural background, but they’re nothing close to stereotypes. They are all unique in their own way.
“They’re all different representations of how you can grow into yourself. And so, that is important to me. How would they sit in a room together in ways that feel like they’re actual people? So that when young women are reading these stories, they just get all of the different affirmations of however you walk through the world is good enough. You got this. That’s what I think I’m trying to do with these different depictions,” she said.
Acevedo knows what it’s like to finally see yourself represented in film, music, television, and books. She still remembers the pride she felt when watching Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, In the Heights.
“I wept through the first two songs because I could never have imagined merengue, bachata and hip hop on a Broadway stage talking about the heights. That to me was unfathomable—that you could get a Broadway theater to celebrate a community in a way that felt genuine.”
It’s this feeling that she wants to provoke in others when diving into the worlds she has created.
“I also want to be thinking through creative ways of ensuring that whatever next generation is coming up, doesn’t feel that same hunger because they have had a lot of different stories that affirmed them.”
But she also knows that being a vessel for representation in her community comes with responsibility.
“What my job is, is not just to create stories that I love and that other people love, but my job is also to open the door. I don’t want to be the single voice. I don’t ever want the pressure of, if you need a Dominican book, you got to go to Liz or there’s no one else. And I’m lucky enough—I’m not the only voice. There are so many Afro-Latina writers and Dominican writers who are either coming up or have been writing forever and just haven’t gotten that shine.”
Her work is a true reflection of the variety of characters that exist in her imagination and her everyday world. But these narrative projects are not Acevedo’s first attempt at storytelling. The author is also a known and beloved spoken word poet who found her talent for literary writing at ten years of age. As a young girl, she loved singing and was a part of vocal groups at school and within her apartment complex. But Acevedo says that she didn’t have a great singing voice, yet instead of giving up her dream altogether, she turned to rap and hip hop as a way to tell stories about her experiences through music, prose and poetry. She wanted to talk about the subjects that mattered to her as a teen, but unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for a female rapper to talk about her love for anime and her grandmother’s desserts.
“I think people were impressed that I could rap, but there were certainly questions about what I was choosing to rap about. I mean, I’m watching Dragon Ball Z and want to write about anime and want to write about the Abuelita, who sells me pastelitos.”
That’s when Acevedo discovered slam poetry.
“When I began performing, I mean, it was a game-changer. I was someone who was raised so particular about, ‘What will people think?’ That was always the biggest question—what would the neighborhood think? […] To get on a stage in front of hundreds of other teenagers, strangers, who I don’t know, and decide to take that moment and tell people, ‘I want you to look at me, and I want you to listen to me on my own terms.’ That was super powerful for me as a kid.”
For Acevedo, slam poetry allowed her to take ownership of herself, her experiences, and her words. It pushed her to be confident in every word she put to paper. “If I’m going to put this on a stage, then I really need to believe it.”
This confidence took her all over the world and helped her achieve various feats. She won titles such as the coveted National Slam Champion, her performances went viral across the web, she has been featured in numerous poetry collections, performed on television networks like BET and Mun2, and she has graced the world-renowned stages of the Kennedy Center, Madison Square Garden, The Lincoln Center, and more.
But it was not until Acevedo took a teaching position in Maryland as the only Afro-Latinx teacher in a predominantly Black and Latinx school that she began to nurse the idea of writing a novel.
“I wanted to put all of these books in their hands and I had this one kid who just wasn’t with it,” she said as she recounts the moment that would lead her to write Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths and Poet X. “It didn’t matter what book I gave her; she just wasn’t interested in any of the big popular stories at the time. […] I remember the day when I’m trying to hand this kid a book, and she straight up looked at me and was just like, ‘Yo, I’m tired of these books. None of them are about us. They don’t look like us. They don’t sound like us. Where are the books about us?’ “
Acevedo said those words from this student heavily impacted her. It was the moment that she felt that her talent and her experience as an Afro-Dominicana was enough to write the type of story that she wishes had been around when she was in school. “[I] remember being her age in a classroom and wondering the same thing, ‘All right, I read Julia Alvarez, Before We Were Free, all right I read Jacqueline Woodson and now what else?’ “
She wanted her students to see themselves represented in literature. In books that would remind her students, “Yo, you are thought of tenderly, and we believe and dream big for you, and we see you.”
Acevedo later pursued a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Maryland, where she would constantly push back against criticisms of her writing.
“I wrote a poem about a train, and people break dancing on the train, and the question was like, ‘Is it legal to breakdance on the train? Were these people fined.’ Time and again, it felt like it wasn’t just, ‘We don’t want to hear what you’re writing,’ it was, ‘We don’t believe that what you’re writing is real. We think that the actual things you’re looking at are made up. The actual speaker you’re creating is unrealistic.’ Even though that speaker, in many ways, was reflective of me.”
She worked at becoming confident in her voice as a poet for years, and credits this work for keeping her grounded. Acevedo says it allowed her to double down on the voice she was trying to create that would eventually become Xiomara, Emani, Yahaira, and Camino.
Acevedo has most certainly had an unconventional path, but it has also allowed her to identify with her audience.
“I hope that folks realize that there are many journeys that you can take in order to figure out a dream, and it doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s. And I think one of the lucky things that I’ve had in my career is that I’ve been very okay with detouring when it felt like time to detour. When I knew that I no longer loved the job I was doing as a teacher, I realized, ‘Okay, well, what do I love? How do I do that?’ When I was in my MFA program and realized, ‘Yo, I might leave here and hate writing because this is demolishing any love I have for this. Okay, well, how do I flip it?’ Maybe it’s not poetry anymore. Maybe I write for joy. Let me write a thing that no one’s checking for and began writing young adult fiction.”
Her journey has taken her on many detours, but her goal always remains the same—to amplify her community’s voice, and make sure they feel seen and understood. Whether it’s through her own work or through paving the way for others—Acevedo will continue to do just that.
You can pick up or order a copy of “Clap When You Land” wherever books are sold.
Lead image courtesy of: BGPR