Elizabeth Acevedo, winner of last year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal for her debut novel in verse, Poet X, should have been in the UK this month for the Hay Festival, promoting her next-but-one book, Clap When You Land. Instead she and her husband are in their apartment in Washington DC (where she teaches classes that are all now online), venturing out daily for half-hour walks, and grateful that they have ‘space, an exercise bike, and plenty of food’. We meet on Skype. She smiles a lot, laughs easily, has a warm voice, and expresses herself clearly and powerfully.
The book tells the story, in two voices, of teenage half-sisters who discover each other’s existence after their father dies in a plane crash. They are chess prodigy Yahaira, living with her parents in New York and motherless Camino brought up by her aunt in the Dominican Republic. An inspiration was American Airlines Flight 587 bound for the Dominican Republic (where Acevedo’s parents were from) which came down in Queens two months after 9/11. All 260 people aboard died, but the press quickly lost interest when it emerged that terrorism was not the cause.
Acevedo researched the crash, and found there were passengers leading double lives, as the father in her book does. Others who died had dreams that were not fulfilled; some she used. The story is deliberately set now, however, so that history is not echoed too closely. It is particularly about grief, of which Acevedo says fortunately she has little experience, though ‘I had an aunt pass when I was 11’. But she has seen the different ways other people mourn, used her imagination and her own difficult moments and relied ‘on other folks’ – her editor who had lost her parents, and another writer she met in a Facebook group whose father was on that flight, and who saw a draft. ‘The way the media was captured, and the grief was captured, felt true to her.’
The book is ambitious, too, about other subjects. ‘I am trying to talk about rape culture, sex tourism, child prostitution, as well as the media, and race and privilege and gentrification. I wanted to see how much verse could hold’. This book, like Poet X, is told in blank verse. ‘I am interested in the level of interiority, the inner thoughts of young people. It is not so action-driven. There is rumination. You just have to sit with that for a few pages. We’re not racing anywhere.’ The creative process involves ‘gunning through’ a first draft, though not in a planned order, and many sharpening drafts, ‘until you stop when they rip it from your hand’. Her second novel, With the Fire on High, the story of a teenage mother with a magic touch as a chef, is, by contrast, in prose because ‘there are too many characters, too much dialogue and the setting changes half way through’.
Running through Camino’s story is the threat of a sexual predator. ‘As I was writing it I kept thinking about this guy who was kind of stalking me in high school and I was too afraid to tell my parents because I thought it was my fault’. She used the idea that ‘sometimes teenagers don’t realise this might be a moment you have to ask for help’ and also that ‘often we don’t consider that a community has the answers’.
Acevedo, who identifies as Afro-Latinx, herself first went to the Dominican Republic when she was about eight. Her mother, who grew up there, was one of 15 children, so Acevedo met 60 first cousins, and ‘all of these aunts’. ‘I would get shuffled from house to house and it was incredible’. Like Camino’s father, she spent her summers in DR every year. Now, she says, the family has to hire a hall to have Christmas parties. ‘We’re 200 people’. ‘I think what the Dominican Republic called up in me was wonder. With all that word carries, including the big identity question mark: “can you claim a place that doesn’t claim you?” I am still working through that.’ Her novels, she says, revisit themes and are ‘conversations with each other’.
Acevedo’s mother left DR for Puerto Rico in the 1970s, and officially moved to the US in 1979, rejoining her family in New York. Acevedo’s father, who had been an accountant in the Dominican Republic, lived in the house opposite. Theirs was a very formal courtship, as he sat with the family, listening to music. ‘It was adorable’.
Acevedo grew up with both parents, and two elder brothers, always in the same apartment in Manhattan. Her parents ‘are still there, 40 years on’. Her mother worked first in a button factory and then, when Elizabeth was five, became a childcare provider. Her father worked at an envelope factory. ‘It was very blue collar all my life.’
Her experience with her parents, she says, ‘most closely reflects The Poet X’: ‘This father who is there, but maybe doesn’t always know how to be involved.’ Her mother, though, would tell stories of growing up in the countryside in the Dominican Republic. ‘She’s an incredible storyteller. It’s so rich, the things she remembers. I developed such a tenderness for my Mom’s younger self – this child who would steal her father’s horse and race and then fall off. It was a fantastical world to me, growing up in Manhattan – stories of chopping mangoes and climbing trees and her father driving oxen. And later, after they moved to the city, selling lottery tickets in his smart slacks and hat from among the oranges in the back of a fruit cart. And that’s where the impulse came from: I want to chronicle too. As a child I just loved it, and also my grandfather’s riddles and stories, which he would tell me every day.’
Her mother was ambitious for her. ‘She wanted me to be famous, and would enrol me for acting and modelling’. Acevedo trained as an actor, which was ‘almost always a vehicle for me to perform my own work’. In order to ensure that she ‘knew how to craft the stories I wanted to craft’ she took sociology and anthropology courses in her degree, from George Washington University, and has an MA in creative writing from the University of Maryland. Interested in hip-hop, she performed poetry and then, through a creative writing workshop, found a connection which led to publication of her first poem in 2013. Poems and stories were published, and then her first novel, Poet X, won awards in the US as well as the UK and became a New York Times bestseller. She has now read her own books on audio and is working on an adult novel, and on a screenplay for With the Fire On High, which has been optioned for film.
Acevedo spoke in her Carnegie acceptance speech about writing for readers in her classes who felt their stories were not being told. Asked about her audience, she said that one of her first readers is her best friend: ‘not someone I would consider a voracious reader so if I hook her I have something’. But mostly her audience is her main character: ‘That’s the person I am imagining reading the book. It requires me to be really gentle. If my reader is a teen parent, or has lost a parent, or has complicated sibling relationships, am I approaching this with the integrity and honesty it deserves, in such a way that it will honour that experience?’
Her current experience, though, is unlikely to inspire a book. ‘Corona,’ she says, ‘is not a muse’.
Nicolette Jones, writer, literary critic and broadcaster, has been the children’s books reviewer of the Sunday Times for more than two decades.
Clap When You Land, Hot Key Books, 978-1471409127, £7.99 pbk
With the Fire on High, Hot Key Books, 978-1471409004, £7.99 pbk
Poet X, Electric Monkey, 978-1405291460, £7.99 pbk