A good book can change the course of one's life, spark a whole movement, or transcend limitations of time, money, class, and location, and every power woman (even our favorite former First Lady, Michelle Obama) counts on a great read to keep them empowered and inspired.
Elizabeth Acevedo, a New York Times best-selling author, is one power woman who is on fire about using creative writing to empower communities, especially minority youths. Her debut novel, The Poet X, about a teenager named Xiomara who combats family issues through poetry, won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
"I write the stories I wish I had when I was younger. Growing up, there were so few books where I felt like I could see myself. I needed more images and stories that showed me different examples of the kind of girl that I could be."
Drawing from her experience as a Dominican-American woman, she's provided just that, and sis has some pretty dope receipts.The former 8th-grade teacher and University of Maryland professor has been honored with the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and the 2019 Pure Belpré Author Award for her work in celebrating Latinx culture and experience. Another fly it factor: She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, having spit rhymes that could make the best rapper's or wordsmith's head spin. One of her books, With the Fire on High, about a teen mom who has dreams of being a chef, was even recently a DC Public Library's virtual book club pick. Her books offer a window for Latinx youth to see themselves, evaluate their realities and build inclusive futures.
We caught up with her, in this xoNecole interview, to talk inspiration, why she rides hard for Latinx culture and voice, and how other aspiring writers can make a living using the art of language:
When did you know full-time writing was for you?
I was a touring poet years before my first book came out. I would go to colleges and high schools and do shows. My parents had no idea what I was doing. (Laughs) They were like, 'Oh, you don't have health benefits? You don't have a secure income? What are you doing? You went to all these amazing schools to be a poet?' And I'm like, yeah, that's exactly what I did. It was really hard for people to see the vision I had.
I wanted to make a life of language---a life where my stories and the stories that connect us was how I made a living. That was more important to me than a check, how big it would be, or whether I had a 401k.
Once the book came out, that changed things. Then you have a novel that's on The New York Times list and wins awards, and I think it really shook people up in terms of what the possibilities were. I think I always knew that there's a lot I can do with this if I just figure it out, but I don't know that everyone had that same belief at the time.
How has your work in education and community advocacy played a role in the stories you choose to write?
I've been in the space of youths or as a classroom-based teacher in some capacity for the past decade. It makes me mindful of how young people talk and the experience that they have.
The respect that I have for young readers comes out because of the fact that I meet so many amazing teenagers.
It just makes me aware [of the] readership and what that readership is able to handle. [New ideas can come] just talking with them. It could be something simple and it'll just spark something--what they had for lunch that day or their interaction with a teacher or another student. Little moments come up for me. I'll also talk with my mom and [a conversation might] make me think, 'Hey, this isn't a character trait I've seen before' or 'That would be interesting material in a novel.' I think I'm just open to what's happening around me and it means that I always have a list of ideas that I want to work on.
'Clap When You Land' is striking, especially if you're someone who travels often. What's behind the title?
There are certain countries in Latin America and even the continent of Africa, where, when you land, people applaud. It's usually people coming back home---you're from that place. There's so much joy in returning and in having survived the trip. Particularly for Dominicans, growing up, it was so beautiful to be on that flight returning to where your people are from. It's like we're all in that moment together---we're all just grateful together. It's really moving for me.
In 2001, there was a plane that crashed when traveling from New York City to the Dominican Republic. I was 12 years old and it completely shook me up. Hundreds of people trying to go back home was a moment that should've been full of joy, yet it was riddled with tragedy. I've always wanted to write about that experience.
So the phrase "clap when you land" and this horrible event that happened kind of started meshing together. What is the joy and bittersweetness in going back and forth, and in what way does that affect our lives? It's reflecting on that event but it's a very different kind of story of two sisters--one in the Dominican Republic and one in New York City--who don't know about each other until their father dies in a plane crash. It's about the secrets people keep and forgiving a parent after they're no longer here to be forgiven. How do you develop a relationship with a stranger you may have resentment toward and is there room for applause in any of that?
You still have a passion for poetry. How can others tap into a love for poetry or develop as poets?
I think it's a really exciting time for poetry. We're seeing more people from marginalized communities receiving a lot of attention for their work. It's incredible to see how many poets---of color, transgender, within the LGBT community---are able to have their work in the world. Because of social media, YouTube---there all these different ways you can consume poetry. I do so many school visits and I don't remember a poet ever coming to my school---ever.
Now, schools all over the country are using poetry videos in class, getting poet visits, or reading poetry collections---it's so exciting for me to see that. It feels like poetry is part of the narrative in people's lives, whether in the classroom or elsewhere.
Every year an article comes out that says poetry is dead, but I'm like, I don't know what poetry you consume. The poetry I live with is breathing! I feel good that The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is an incredible, historic place. The Bowery Poetry Club in New York is fantastic. Depending on where you're from, I would encourage you to look for whatever poetry community exists [where you are.] Throughout the country there are different programs---whether it's even a theater program that has a poetry component or maybe a creative writing program where you can work on verse.
What advice do you have for others who want to become full-time writers?
Keep working on honing your voice. Everything else can fall into place, but if you don't have the clear sense of what you're trying to say and how you're trying to say it so that it's uniquely you, you're going to get lost in the sauce. There are a lot of writers out there, and I think that what creates distinction between people's work is that very unique language and point of view.
Second, find a writer's group. I feel like folks want to look at [the] Internet and say, 'How do I do that,' and not consider that the community is a big part of it. I've always had a community around me since I was a kid---cyphers on my block, hanging out with the dudes on [the] corner, rapping---that was my first writer's group. When I went to high school, I joined a poetry club, and when I went to college, there were workshops. You want two or three people you can share your work with, who can give you feedback---who you trust.
Last, look for a mentor whose doing the same thing you want to do but they're one or two steps above where you are. Reach out to them. There's a lot to be said to someone who has carved a way and who can help school you on how to do things.
You can find out more about Elizabeth Acevedo, her books, and her work via her Website or her Instagram.
Featured Image courtesy of Instagram/acevedowrites