Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Clap When You Land is loosely based on a true story of a flight that crashed on its way from New York City to the Dominican Republic. This was in 2001, two months after September 11th. It was American Airlines Flight 587. Over 255 people passed, and I remember learning that over 90 percent of the people on the flight were Dominican. Right? And it really rocked my community. I mean, we knew people who were on the flight. We knew people who had relatives on the flight, and the way that they were affected. And I’ve always thought back to that tragedy, the second-worst in United States history, and just wondered, like, something that was so massive for the community I’m from, but very few people know about.
Jo Reed: That is author, National Book Award winner, and host of the last four Poetry Out Loud finals, Elizabeth Acevedo. She’s talking about her recent book, Clap When You Land. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Elizabeth Acevedo is a poet and novelist whose books are alive with Dominican-American and Afro-Caribbean culture and community. And they have at their centers teenage girls learning to navigate life, relaxing into and pushing against their upbringings. And let me also say, Elizabeth Acevedo and the Arts Endowment go back a long way. She’s been involved with Poetry Out Loud for five years, hosting the POL finals for the last four, which means we knew her before her first book, The Poet X, won the National Book Award. The Poet X, if you haven’t read it– and if you haven’t read it, you should read it, because it’s a great book– it’s a novel in verse, and it tells the story of 15-year-old Xiomara, as she wrestles with her mother’s expectations, and discovers herself through slam poetry. Elizabeth Acevedo’s next book, With the Fire On High, is a novel told in prose, and filled with fabulous recipes. It’s about Emoni, a high-school student who’s a mother, and who also is determined to become a chef. Clap When You Land is, once again, a novel in verse. It uses that tragic plane crash as its jumping-off point. And I’m not going to attempt to give you a synopsis of the book. I’ll leave that to Liz. She and I spoke in March at the NEA Studios before the shutdowns. And here she is: Elizabeth Acevedo.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Clap When You Land is the story of two sisters who learn, after their father dies in a plane crash, that he had secret families; that he had two separate household [sic], and they do not know about each other. And his death brings about all of these secrets that he had, but also opens a doorway for them to learn about the fact that they have a sister in another country. And so one sister is drastically racing to try to get to the States, because she’s in a dire situation in the Dominican Republic.
Jo Reed: And that’s Camino.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that’s Camino. And the other sister, Yahaira, who is a competitive chess player– or was, at one point– is trying to figure out how she can accompany her father’s body back to D.R. And so it’s this story of place, of home, of loss, but also of what are the things that you gain when you have to be incredibly resilient.
Jo Reed: Those of the younger generation, they’re 16 going on 17. And then there’s the older generation, and there are two other women who are very central to their story. Tell us about them.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yes, we have Tia Solana, and we have Mami. And my books tend to have– they’re very intergenerational stories. I tend to really look at how family dynamics work. So you’re never going to, probably, read one of my books where a kid runs away, and there’s just no mention of a parent. That’s not where I come from, that’s not what I write. The decisions you make as a young person are crowdsourced with your family, and if they’re not, there are very specific repercussions to that. And so Mami is grieving, and Mami is trying to figure out–
Jo Reed: And that’s Yaya’s mother.
Elizabeth Acevedo: That’s Yahaira’s mother, yes. And so here is someone who lost a husband who, in some ways, wasn’t always a great husband. And so it’s grief, but it’s also hurt, and it’s also anger, but also still trying to protect him, still trying to hold his secrets, right? And so, her storyline of, “How do I protect myself, and what are the decisions that I’ve made that, perhaps, I might feel shame about?” And her story of learning what it means to love this man, to love her child, and to love who her child loves, was really important to me to navigate. And then Tia Solana’s just a G. I just really wanted someone who was fierce, and strong, and a healer. Right? And incredibly spiritual, and a pillar of the community. Just this woman who is such a great example and role model, and doing her best; and at the same time, someone who Camino, who is her niece, doesn’t always know if she’s strong enough. She’s still trying to shield her from her own problems. She’s not sure if her aunt is going to be able to carry some of the things that she has, and so she gets into a lot of trouble, because she doesn’t–
Jo Reed: Well, she’s being stalked by somebody who is… he’s a thug.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. It’s not talked about a lot when we talk about the Dominican Republic. Most people think of beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resorts, and the sex trade and sex tourism is really big in the Dominican Republic. Femicide rates have been going up for the last three years. The ways in which young women are approached– I’ve done a good amount of work, poetry workshops and different events in the Dominican Republic, with different organizations, and to meet 13-, 14-, 15-year-old young women who are approached all the time. “You don’t have to get bused out two towns over to go to high school. I could get you quick money right now. You don’t have to work for this little store and take care of your little brother. I could ensure that your family has enough money for the light bill for the next two months.” And so it’s these quick schemes to move young women into sex work in a way that is not of their own volition and, in many ways, where they cannot consent. And so it is a difficult thing to approach in a young-adult novel, but this stalker situation felt like a way to think through what I know a lot of young women face. “There is someone older who gives me attention, and it’s not enough that I can go to the authorities, and I’m not sure if it’s enough that I should even tell my family, but it’s not right.”
Jo Reed: Yeah. It’s scaring me.
Elizabeth Acevedo: It’s scary. Right? But if you say, “Oh, he shows up, and he kind of looks at me weird,” people will disregard it. And so, for me, it’s, how do we think about that?
Jo Reed: And yet, at the same time, you paint this vibrant picture of community in the Dominican Republic. I could really feel it, and smell the food, and it was beautiful word pictures.
Elizabeth Acevedo: I drew upon a lot of my initial reactions, and just a lot of the wonder when I first traveled as a child, and saw all these colorful homes, and the smells, and so really wanted to evoke that for folks. Because it could be easy to hear about sex trafficking and Haitian-Dominican policy, and for a reader to think, “Well, this place sounds awful.” And that was the last thing I wanted to do. Right? Everybody’s home is complicated. Regardless of how picturesque and Stepford Wives you think it is, every single place is complicated. And so I wanted to balance that, yes, I am talking about difficult things that are happening in this country, but I also want to talk about the everyday resilience and joy and celebration, and asking your neighbor for a ride, and–
Jo Reed: And neighborliness.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And neighborliness, and we’re all going to take care of this stray dog, or you’re going to pay me in rice and beans when I hope you deliver your child, because maybe that’s what you have, and the bartering system is still strong. So that, to me, also felt critical to depict.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I thought you did that brilliantly.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Thank you.
Jo Reed: I really, really did.
Elizabeth Acevedo: I appreciate it.
Jo Reed: This book is about strong women, and at its center is this man…
Elizabeth Acevedo: I know.
Jo Reed: … who has this powerful influence, but is absent. And that is just so interesting, because it’s like this power force these women are coming together, and coming apart, and coming together around.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right. I mean, there are lines in the story where– and both sisters have a line about it– where, “It’s like we orbit him.” Right? Where there’s a gravitational pull. And so I had to think about that. There is an absent man. Right? Because you never actually meet the father at the center of the story. And so in many ways, it’s like, how do women survive what men may have done to them? How do they come back to each other? How do they come back to themselves, even as what they’re navigating is learning, “You impacted me in such a way that perhaps I lost a little bit. But I can move on.”
Jo Reed: And how do you forgive?
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that’s really the biggest question: Can we forgive someone who is not there to ask for forgiveness, who cannot repent? And what does it… how imperative is it to our healing to do so? Can we continue to be angry, when what that anger affects is you and the other people in your lives? And it was a hard question. I wasn’t sure, when I first started writing, where both sisters would land. The first draft, Mami landed very differently than she did in the final draft. Initially, Tia Solana was the father’s sister. And so that was a very different dynamic, but I had to… I had to really sit with the fact that this dude did some bad stuff. And there is no easy, “Oh, okay, I’m okay now.” Right? “I forgive him.” But also the guilt. One of the sisters didn’t speak to him for over a year, and has to live with the fact that he died without her having a relationship with him in the way that she had wanted. And so that also is a big part of loss: “If only I had,” “Oh, I could have,” “I wish I had.” What do you do with that? And so there were a lot of questions of grief that I was looking at.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Oosh. You chose to write this in verse, as you did The Poet X. But With the Fire on High, you wrote that in prose. How do you decide which way you’re going to do this: when you’re going to write a novel in verse, when you’re going to use prose?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I think the story usually lets me know. I am of the opinion that verse cannot hold a large cast, and it cannot hold an adventure story. If your setting requires you to create an intricate magical system, or a wide landscape of multiple buildings, à la Hunger Game [sic], if that is what it needs, it’s going to be difficult to get that across in verse. If you have a good amount of interiority, and what we’re really looking at are these character studies of, how do these characters grapple with heavy emotions, and maybe they are just 15 pages of them feeling through something and reflecting upon something, that is a little better suited for verse, I find. And so, With the Fire on High, I knew there were going to be a lot of characters. I was going to need her to go to Spain. I was going to need her to be able to express very specific ideas of recipes, and of cooking things. And so I didn’t think I would be able to find enough figurative language to balance what I needed folks to receive very technically, in order to create the narrative, and also her internal. And it made sense in prose, and I also would hate to be pigeonholed. I really want to be able to write in many different forms, depending on what forms call to me. I’m looking forward to writing an adult poetry collection, an adult novel. I don’t ever want folks to think that I’m just a one-trick pony.
Jo Reed: I hear that.
Jo Reed: Okay, I don’t need to get too technical, but how do you use line breaks? And tell me your thinking about it: how you use the words on a page, and when to go to the next page, and using the line breaks.
Elizabeth Acevedo: It ranges. I think, in The Poet X, I was considering strongly, you know, what word do I need to end on so that, visually, there is an impact? There’s a resonance to, well, if I land on bird or wing or cage. There’s something that happens in our bodies when we’re made to stop at very specific words. Right? And with the third book, with Clap When You Land, I was thinking through, I need each sister to have her own kind of voice, and so one sister is written in tercets, one sister is written in couplets. And one sister is almost shorter and skinnier and more staccato, and the other sister’s a lot more lyrical, and fuller lines. And so the line breaks were very specific to their voices. For me, New York is sharp, and it’s gritty, and sometimes it races. We talk very fast, and so that came out with Yahaira’s voice. And Camino’s growing up in a little more, like, lackadaisical, little more chill, little more go-with-the-flow, a little more water-driven. And so she has less end stops. She has less punctuation indicating when we need to stop it a moment, so that those end lines were a little gentler for her. And so I had to think through both what words feel like strong words to end on, but also, what is the rhythm of each sister that I need to be able to get across? And most readers, I don’t think, pay any attention to any of this. This is all just very much under– right? This is craft. This is under the water, you know, hauling along something.
Jo Reed: Nice metaphor.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Oh, thanks. Like just hauling a reader along, and I think some folks really feel. They’ll read something, they’re like, “That felt powerful,” and they don’t always know that it’s because the writer is creating momentum, or because the writer is creating these very short stops that kind of stop your breath, or– that’s those little things that evoke emotion in us, outside of the language.
Jo Reed: You describe Camino swimming so beautifully. And I’m somebody who loves the sea.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. Me, too.
Jo Reed: And in the water, and… God, did you capture that. You know, that feeling when you’re in there. And I had never thought about it before, but she says being in the water is like–
Elizabeth Acevedo: The closest I can get to _______ 00:14:46, yeah.
Jo Reed: To flying, yes. And it’s just like I really just said, “Oh, my God, that’s right! That’s right! I never thought about that before.”
Elizabeth Acevedo: Well, we– yeah. We often don’t think of the water and the sky as potentially being similar, but…
Jo Reed: Yeah, but– yeah.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Where else can a body propel itself in that way, right, that isn’t running? And it is, I think…
Jo Reed: And that weightlessness you feel.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that weightlessness, and that initial dive, and that– you know, the way that you are interacting with air. And it felt important to give her her own thing, and her own source of power in her body. But also, it’s almost an escape, but she can only go so far, right? She can only swim out so far. She always has to come back. And that’s part of what her struggle is, too. Like, “I’ve gone so far, and yet in this moment, I might have to come back. I might have to pull back from all those dreams.” So it felt like a really good way to depict that internal struggle she was having.
Jo Reed: When you’re following the characters, are you thinking in verse? Are you thinking in prose, and then do you create the verse that goes with it? I’m just so curious about that.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. I write in verse, so I write it as it comes along. I’m thinking in verse. I’m thinking out loud right now. I’m trying to navigate my process through your question. I have to give myself a lot of permission that I am not writing poems. I’m not writing poems; I am writing verse. And so I’m not concerned with a page or two of self-contained poetry. I am thinking through, I need to get this character to the next stage, whether that’s emotional, or physically I need to have action happen. But I’m also highly aware of rhythm. And so, perhaps when I’m initially drafting, it is less about big metaphors or precise wording as much as it is about the rhythm, and getting that really clear, and then also the action. But I will say that I give– and this was true in The Poet X, too– I give my characters a language base, like a language of experience. So, for Camino, it was very much water and healing and the Dominican Republic, so her metaphors are sourced from that. With Yahaira, it’s New York, it’s chess. Her metaphors are now sourced from that. And so I keep that in mind as I’m writing. If I get stuck in a moment I’m trying to express how she feels, okay, well, what does she know that she would draw upon in order to explain this? And so even in the first draft, that’s kind of coming through. So there’s a musicality in the thinking, but that’s not the emphasis at all. The emphasis is more voice and rhythm.
Jo Reed: And when you’re beginning a book, is it the characters? Is it the image? I mean, with this one, you said there was the plane crash that was the origin story there, but typically, is it an image, or is it characters, or words that make you start going, and saying, “Okay, wait, this is something”?
Elizabeth Acevedo: Oh, it’s funny, Jo, because as you’re talking, I’m like, all the things you’re saying are exactly what propel me to write a poem. It’s usually a word, or an image, or a particular moment of language exchange. Right? When I’m writing for a collection, or tour as a collection, that is where I’m moving for. When I’m thinking of something that’s going to be a book, it’s more of an idea: “Okay, I want to talk about grief and this really big crash.” And Clap When You Land, initially, was only Yahaira’s story.
Jo Reed: Oh.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And I drafted the entire thing– 40,000 words– just from one sister’s point of view, and had to go back in and rewrite it when I– you know, I was talking to Ibi Zoboi, who is an author of American Street, a National Book Award finalist, and she’s like, “You need the other sister. Why don’t we get the other sister?” And I realize, “Oh, crap. I’m going to have to rewrite this whole thing!” And when I started thinking about her voice, I mean, Camino came so quick. And so that was a moment where I realized the book wasn’t complete, and I knew there was something off, but it was because this other voice needed to come through. And with her, her language came through quickly. That first poem about mud was the first thing I ever wrote in her voice, and realized there is something here. There’s something that is vibrating within this character that’s going to really push the story forward. It was like a piece of my brain kind of opened up, and it flooded out– all of these different poems that had probably been sitting, but that didn’t fit the story up until that moment. And so sometimes it’s like that. With fiction, it’s always an idea. I need to have a sense of an idea. The Poet X, I didn’t know that character until two or three drafts in. I knew where she would get, but I had to figure her out. But With the Fire on High, Emoni came talking. She came, and she had all this dialogue, which is how I also knew it had to be prose. I could not get that much dialogue in verse, and I needed folks to hear her talk. Because that’s how I heard her. And so I guess every story is different, yeah.
Jo Reed: Well, each story might be different, but all your books explore Afra-Latinas. And they both celebrate the culture, but they also expose its limitations on girls, as well.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. I mean, I think I’m always thinking about, what are the cultural ways that we are empowered and taught to navigate spaces, and taught to take up space; and then what are the cultural ways that we are taught to step back, to be quieter, to be– right? And I think every ethnic group has to encounter that, right? We are always at an intersection of race and gender and power. And even if you are not Afra-Latina, at some point, there are questions that your upbringing probably has an effect on how you see socioeconomics, how you see race, how you see queerness, all of those things. It’s just how we are raised. And so for me, it’s these questions of religion, of blackness, of Caribbeanness, of a fraught relationship with Spain. What are the ruptures? And so I’m just curious about the ruptures. I don’t want to give any answers. I’m not here to offer solutions. I am just curious about, let’s look at the wound. Let’s just flush it out.
Jo Reed: But you look at the wound. You absolutely do. But, again, that celebratory aspect is also part of your work. It’s so vivid and so alive.
Elizabeth Acevedo: That’s the flushing it out.
Elizabeth Acevedo: That’s what flushes out the wound, I think.
Jo Reed: Okay. Excellent.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Or maybe it’s… maybe it’s more of, like, how do cultures think about what historically has worked, and brings them together and empowers them, and perhaps what no longer serves them?
Jo Reed: Well, with The Poet X, for example, that…
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah.
Jo Reed: That battle…
Elizabeth Acevedo: No, Jo, all these motions you’re making of wrestling, that’s exactly right. Yes, that’s The Poet X. It is this kid wrestling with herself.
Jo Reed: And wrestling with her mother– that traditional mother, who’s a wonderful, wonderful character– and the girl wants to just be herself. But it’s so interesting, because even though her mother is so traditional, the act of leaving her country is so bloody radical, and that’s something that I think it’s very hard to appreciate.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right. Right, and I–
Jo Reed: And you do in your books, and I love that.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that’s probably why I try to make sure that the characters that are older have real story arcs. They are none of them evil. They are none of them the villain without questions. Right? That even if they are the antagonist, there has to be a consideration of what made them human, what do they love, when are they tender. Because I just refuse to think that anyone is black and white, and that’s not what I’m trying to write. I’m trying to look at the moments of… of how people act out in hurt and fear. And I think, particularly for women who come from other countries, where they were raised in very specific ways and have to launch themselves, and then carry their families here, there’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of fear of, “What if I fail? What if I can’t raise them right? What if, when I go back, my family doesn’t think I did a good job by my own kids, because there are different cultural norms then? But also, how do I love my kids, who are so different, who have these American tendencies that I cannot understand?”
Jo Reed: “And who have to help me.”
Elizabeth Acevedo: “And who have to help me. And I have to then face my own vulnerability of, there’s so much I don’t know.”
Jo Reed: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Elizabeth Acevedo: “And I want to be a parent, and I want to protect, and I want to hold them, and I’m doing so without always having all the information.” And I just– I’m just so empathetic. It’s so hard for me not to be empathetic to what that struggle must be like. I’ve watched it in my own mom. And so, in writing for young people, I think I also want to give a little bit of insight into, perhaps, what their parents, or their aunts or their uncles, or people they might have in their neighborhood, who you may paint as one thing– “Oh, she’s so strict,” or, “She’s always on me, “or, “She calls me 10 times a day”– that there are other things at play.
Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. And the great courage…
Elizabeth Acevedo: And that.
Jo Reed: … that they display, to take that step. That is a hard bloody step.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. I think very few people want to leave their home.
Jo Reed: I completely agree, yeah. Okay, I know it’s been said, but it can’t be said too much: the importance of representation and culture in books– let’s talk about books, because that’s what we’re talking about– and what that means for kids who are reading, to see themselves or not.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right. There are all these studies, and people much smarter than me, and more eloquent, have said it better, but I… I just think of how young people might conceive of themselves differently: they see themselves as heroes, if they see themselves as protagonists, if they see themselves as a love interest, if they see themselves as the mastermind of a grand heist, or if they see themselves as saving themselves in the midst of grief; that I think all kids need to see ways where they are depicted as being smart and capable, and also vulnerable, and being able to express that. And for a very long time, I’m not sure that kids of color were given room to have sadness, to have love, to be wronged. Right? That’s not what their role in books were. I mean, I come from a long tradition, right? Walter Dean Myers was doing this work for such a long time. Jacqueline Woodson has been doing this work since I was a child. There are so many writers. Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street was the first time I ever saw a Latina character, ever saw a Spanish name in that way, and a community that spoke Spanish, and felt like… “Wow. I don’t know what a Chicana is, I’ve never been to Chicago, but I know this girl.”
Jo Reed: And Julia Alvarez.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Julia Alvarez, for sure. I mean, yeah. Before We Were Free, I remember reading that, and having heard stories of Trujillo, but here, seeing it in a book, and realizing, “Oh, my history and where I come from also matters, and can also be written.” And I think it’s that. I think sometimes it’s this idea of the lives we live don’t deserve to be written, or observed, or understood, or anything. We’re not for books.
Jo Reed: How did you come to storytelling?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I come from storytellers, yeah. My mom is one of 15 children. They were all raised in the Dominican Republic. And when I was five years old, she brought her parents her. She has since brought my entire family, including 61 first cousins. So we’re massive. But when I was young, it was my mom, my dad, my brothers, and my grandparents, and that was my family. Everyone else was in the Dominican Republic. And my mother would tell me these elaborate stories of her childhood, of the countryside where she grew up, of stealing her father’s horse, of getting in trouble, of chopping mangos; just things that growing up in Harlem, you could not conceive of a mango tree, much less stealing a horse.
Jo Reed: Or a horse.
Elizabeth Acevedo: And so– but I remember just, like, those are my fairy tales. Those were the stories I wanted to hear, and wanted to know about, and she was so good. She was so good at painting that picture. And my grandfather would walk me to and from school, and he would recite these riddles he had memorized. He would just go on and on and tell these elaborate riddles that would all come back at the end. And so I don’t know that I knew at the time, “Oh, I am being taught how to tell stories. I’m being taught how to entertain. I’m being taught the elements of what connects us as humans, and of sharing.” But I would say that’s where it was. And hip-hop. I was really big into hip-hop when I was young. I wanted to be a rap star. I had all these dreams, and my early poetry were all songs. And it was listening to music, and studying it. I remember we got our computer when I was probably 12 years old, and I would go online– AOL– and download lyrics, and study lyrics, and look at how rappers, what they were doing with internal rhyme, how they were ending lines. I really, even as a kid, wanted to figure out how to do this. But it was really the medium to do what I saw my mom and my grandfather do.
Jo Reed: Now, I could be wrong, but my experience of first-generation Americans is that their family, typically, they’re not overjoyed if they want to grow up and be an artist of any type.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right.
Jo Reed: You know, lawyer good, doctor better.
Jo Reed: How did your parents and family just respond to you, as you’re like, “I want to be a rap star, or a slam poet, or a writer, or all of it, and I’m doing it”?
Elizabeth Acevedo: Yeah. Oh, I was incredibly lucky. My mom just wanted me to be famous.
Jo Reed: Excellent.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Even as a kid, she had put me in modeling classes, acting classes. She wanted to put me in singing classes, and I was like, “I’m all right.” But I did theater. I mean, I think there were moments where it was very clear my parents didn’t always understand what I was doing, particularly poetry recitation for competition. That, for them, was… we come from a tradition of rendering poems. Right? We’ll call it “declamar” is the phrase. And my father has given me CDs of Dominican poets, right, reciting their work, and recording their work. So I think they were familiar with, this is something that happens, but they couldn’t really figure out, like, can that be a career? Right? And so when I was a schoolteacher, they were very happy, because they felt like that was a very solid job that they understood, that had job security. There was insurance. I had health insur– right? Like, all of these things, good. And so when I quit my job, and decided to get an MFA in creative writing, and then decided to tour the country reciting poetry, there was a good amount of confusion, for sure. They never said no. They never said, “We don’t want you to.” I think they just… you know, “We want you to be safe. And we’re nervous that you’re traveling.” And at the time, I mean, I was doing maybe a hundred events a year, oftentimes small-town colleges in middle of nowhere, right, comparatively, to New York. And so I’m telling my mom I’m in Pocatello, Idaho. I’m in… I’m in Alaska, and it’s a longer flight than if I were to go to Europe. And I think they just– they didn’t get it. But… but they never stood in the path. They never were against my dream. They were just very clear, “We’re not sure what your dream is, but we think if anyone can figure it out, it’s probably you.”
Jo Reed: That’s good.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Right, and that was good. And then the book came out, and they were like, “Oh, yes. This makes sense.”
Elizabeth Acevedo: “Books, we get.”
Jo Reed: What changed for you when you won the National Book Award, which was huge?
Elizabeth Acevedo: It was big.
Jo Reed: It’s big.
Elizabeth Acevedo: It was a big year. I mean… you know, people say, “Never in my wildest dream.” No, in my wildest dreams, that’s exactly what happened.
Elizabeth Acevedo: My wildest dreams just came true. I don’t know. I think I’m still kind of seeing the impact of what an award like that one does. I was already heavily touring. I was already on the road a good bit. My books had– you know, we already knew where they were going. But I’ll say marketing revved up. My ability to stand up for myself more, right, to say, “Okay.” All of a sudden, I’m now an asset to a lot of different kinds of people, and what does it mean for me to take a step back and go inward a little bit? And what are the things that I want? Because it’s easy to get swept up in what other people’s visions are. “We want to put you on this kind of tour, and we want to market your books in this way, and now we’re going to”– but wait, is that what I want? And I don’t want it to change the stories I’m telling. I don’t want to become scared of not reaching this kind of success again. And so I had to… I had to kind of not process it for a bit. I had to put it away and… I mean, my second book was coming out. I was going to be on tour for that. I had to… you know, thankful. I’m thankful for this moment. I appreciate this award, and now I have to get back to work. Right? I mean… you know, my husband and I still live in Southwest. Most things didn’t change. It helps that I come from pretty humble beginnings, and most people in my family don’t care about awards. My close friends are still my close friends, and so I tried to keep things as normal as possible, and my career things are my career things, but home, hopefully, it doesn’t change.
Jo Reed: Who do you write for?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I think it ranges on what I’m writing, but I’ve tried to be mindful of– I had such a hunger, growing up, to wanting to see a kind of life that maybe seemed like mine, but was different than even I could imagine. I wanted to see characters who had similar beginnings, but were playing them out differently. I just felt so alone. I was a book nerd, but also loved to dance and play basketball, but also was always writing in my notebook when all the other kids were hanging out with boys, and making out. And so I wanted to see nerdy Dominican girls who had dreams, and were competitive, and wrote poetry, and loved boys, and loved girls, and loved their parents, and were scared they were unloved by their parents. I wanted that. And so I think I write in an attempt to show… at least, primarily, initially… Afro-Latinas, there are many ways to conceive of yourself. There is no one template. You may not see the example you imagine is possible of you in the world, but here are multiple examples. And just steal what works, craft what works, and make your own blueprint. And I think I’m just giving an example of templates.
Jo Reed: I think that’s a good place to end it. Thank you.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Jo, it was a pleasure.
Jo Reed: It was really a pleasure for me.
Jo Reed: That’s author and National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo, talking about her recent novel in verse, Clap When You Land. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, and then please leave us a rating on Apple, because it really helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.
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