Caught Between Worlds? For Elizabeth Acevedo, It’s a Familiar Feeling

Two months after 9/11, an American Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic crashed in Queens, N.Y. It was largely overshadowed by the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, but it shook New York City’s close-knit Dominican community. All 260 people on board were killed, most of them Dominican, and everyone seemed to know someone who was grieving.

Stories about those who were lost began to emerge, and the writer Elizabeth Acevedo became intrigued by the secrets brought to light. “We never think about how the indignity of these deaths then bring up a lot of larger questions about family,” she said in an interview from Washington, where she lives.

Her new novel, “Clap When You Land,” was inspired by that tragedy. It follows two 16-year-old sisters, Yahaira in New York and Camino in the Dominican Republic, who don’t know of each other’s existence until after their father dies in a plane crash.

Because the book draws from the trauma experienced by her community, Acevedo was crushed that the coronavirus pandemic has prevented her from meeting readers in person. “It’s the kind of book that I was looking forward to having conversations about — really being able to see the community that I was writing for in the audience,” she said. “We know what it meant to hold one another. We know what it means to come from families that have these secrets that we don’t talk about.”

Culture and connection are crucial to Acevedo, a National Book Award winner and the first writer of color to win the Carnegie Medal, and she uses her upbringing and background in rap and poetry in her work. Her best-selling 2018 debut, “The Poet X,” was a novel in verse that follows 15-year-old Xiomara as she explores her sexuality and finds her voice through spoken word poetry. Then came her 2019 novel, “With the Fire on High,” about a teenage mother who dreams of becoming a chef.

In “Clap When You Land,” Acevedo returns to her poetic roots, alternating between the two sisters’ voices. Camino lives a humble life with her aunt in Puerto Plata, and she fears that her father’s death dashed any hopes she had for becoming a doctor and escaping her circumstances. Meanwhile, Yahaira is left to face old resentments toward her dead father and an altered family dynamic in New York City. A settlement payment from the airline highlights the inequities between the sisters’ lives, and their two voices invoke a common feeling among immigrants: that of belonging not to one place, but two.

They reflect on this in one passage as they try to reconcile their father’s fractured life. “It’s like he bridged himself/ across the Atlantic,” one says. “Never fully here nor there./ One toe in each country,” the other responds. “Ni aquí ni allá.” Neither here nor there.

The book’s title nods to a tradition Acevedo, who was born in New York City to Dominican parents and visited the island nearly every summer, observed on her trips back. As soon as the plane touched the ground in Santo Domingo, the passengers would break into applause.

“There was something beautiful about this celebratory moment,” she said, but she always wondered what it meant. “Is it that we’re hopeful? Is it that we’re thankful? Is it for the pilot? Is it God?”

As she grew up listening to her parents’ stories of life back home, her trips helped her see how migration had changed them.

“They do have to be different people here. They do have to walk guarded in a different way,” she said. “I think that does something to us, that back and forth.”

In Santo Domingo, she ran around barefoot, played in the rain with her cousins and watched Mexican telenovelas like “Marimar.” “It was such a discovery of family and of closeness and of a rootedness,” she said, one that opened her eyes to connections between her family’s customs in New York and those she witnessed in the Dominican Republic.

She realized: “This is why my mom does the things she does. It’s not just my mom. It’s this whole community I just hadn’t realized I’m also a part of and attached to.”

Growing up in New York City, Acevedo, now 32, would sit on her stoop writing and spitting raps for whoever would stop and listen. She became a teenage participant in New York City’s slam poetry scene, finding fewer constraints in poetry than she did in hip-hop. “When I got to high school, so much of what I was trying to do was break free,” she said. “I wonder if that was why free verse suddenly felt like a wider landscape.”

She created her own performing arts major at George Washington University, incorporating her love of the stage and of reading and writing. After graduation, in 2010, she decided to stay in Washington, in part so she could continue to develop independently from her family.

After two years of teaching through Teach for America, Acevedo decided to pursue an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Maryland. Though she felt unsure — she knew of only a few Dominican writers back then, and none had come up through hip-hop and spoken word — she told herself: “You’ve always been a writer. You realize now what it means to have literature that matters for young people.”

She added: “It kind of kept circling, like ‘Why not you?’”

In 2014, she started competing in poetry slams again. Several of her poems attracted thousands of views online, including “Hair,” about the complexities of having textured hair, and “Spear,” about rape culture. Shortly after, she wrote and sold her first book, which combined all her seemingly disparate influences.

The young adult writer Jason Reynolds, who is also based in Washington, was introduced to Acevedo’s work early on. He recalled conversations with her about craft and turning poems to narrative, and described her as meticulous and competitive.

“I really believe there are good writers and there are good storytellers, and they’re rarely the same person,” he said. Acevedo, he said, “takes a holistic approach to writing and cares about every element.”

Ibi Zoboi, the Haitian-American writer of “American Street,” said that she saw her own girlhood in “The Poet X” — the strict and sheltered upbringing, kneeling on rice as punishment, having secret boyfriends.

“Her characters go beyond the immigrant narrative,” Zoboi said. “It is reaching deep into the souls of girls and their desires and their longings and just how they move through the world and how they navigate all that is placed on them.”

Acevedo has been relieved to see her work resonate with so many, but it worries her sometimes.

“I don’t take for granted how well my work has been received,” she said, “but it is a difficult pressure to carry. How can you still play and experiment and fail, potentially fail, like write a bad book, and feel like that is OK when so many people are looking to you like you are the writer of this form?”

Still, Acevedo has been heartened by the different entry points readers have found to her books and characters. “The scariest thing is feeling like you come from folk who maybe haven’t been represented in a certain artistic form and just wanting to do right,” she said. “It’s been gratifying to know I can write and not try to hold every single kind of Dominican.”

Xiomara, her protagonist in “The Poet X,” expresses this sentiment when she describes the moment she hears spoken word for the first time. “We’re different, this poet and I. In looks, in body,/ in background,” she says. “But I don’t feel so different/ when I listen to her. I feel heard.”

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