Elizabeth Acevedo On The Importance Of ‘Dopeass Black Girl’ Representation

We can’t be what we can’t imagine. We need to see ourselves living joyfully, lovingly, fully in the world.

Elizabeth Acevedo is a New York-raised Dominican-American poet, New York Times Bestselling author, National Book Award winner, and National Poetry Slam champion. She is the author of three incredible young adult books centering Afro-Latina girls. Her books are a response to the lack of diverse, relatable books for the middle school students she taught, and they are delightful for adult women too. She draws characters who are complex, noting that she wants characters that are “not paper-thin, but have complicated qualities.” They are teenage girls with hopes and dreams who are navigating challenges and learning to foster healthy relationships with family members and friends.

 

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Recently, GO Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Acevedo. Our conversation with the author was enlightening — not only about her writing process and the books themselves but the underlying themes and the way she thinks about representation as well. She told me she loves writing about “dopeass Black girls,” filling us with joy. One of the most striking features of her books is the language and cadence. Even when they are not written in verse, her words have poetic flow.

In “Clap When You Land,” we meet Yahaira and Camino: sisters living in the U.S and Dominican Republic respectively who share a father, not knowing the other exists until he dies in a plane crash. They are very different — both in their upbringing, the opportunities their circumstances allow, and their personalities — but they both have dreams and want to do whatever they can to have them fulfilled. Acevedo is a master in layering identities and complicating the way we see marginalized people. It was particularly exciting to see a queer relationship – between Yahaira and her neighbor, Dre — presented without a huge rainbow flag and announcement, just as a normal romance.

The chapters alternate between the girls’ perspectives, and we’re able to learn about who they are, who they love, and what is important to them. It is clear that Yahaira’s neighbor Dre is not only her best friend but her girlfriend. There is no big reveal and fanfare about their queerness. It is a fact of their lives, and they are allowed to be full people. It’s fascinating that Yahaira’s mother never questions her relationship with Dre. There is no indication that Yahaira ever came out to her, and the mother doesn’t try to define Yahaira’s sexuality. When I asked Acevedo about this dynamic between Yahaira and her mother as it relates to her relationship, she referenced a quote from Juan Gabriel that Xiomara, the main character in “The Poet X,” repeated: “What is understood need not be said.”

Alicia Wallace for GO Magazine: So, their parents know?

Elizabeth Acevedo: I think Yahaira’s mom knows, but doesn’t talk about it. There is a contrast there for her mom because she wants Yahaira to be okay and be happy, but she doesn’t want her sleeping out. She says people will think you don’t have a bed or I don’t feed you. It’s “I love you” and “I want you here.” They started as friends, hanging out on the fire escape which gave them a kind of privacy. Both parents are like, “We don’t know what they’re doing and we’re not gonna ask.”

GO Mag: Oh, I feel that. For a lot of us in the Caribbean, what other people think is important. What about Dre’s mother?

EA: Dre’s mom knows. She’s thinking, “I know where you are, and I know you’re safe.”

GO Mag: It’s beautiful that there wasn’t this torturous situation between the girls and their mothers because of their sexuality.

EA: Yeah. There’s already this idea of a monolith, that in the Caribbean there is a homophobic culture.

GO Mag: Yeah, definitely, and you interrupted that.

EA: That’s not all there is. What happens when it’s not horrific? How are folks raised? What about parents who want their children to feel loved? Want to support their kid?

GO Mag: For sure. Those parents don’t get enough shine. And there’s intimacy without the mention of sex. Yahaira and Dre spend a lot of time together and their parents are okay with it, so we’re left to wonder if they assume they’re not sexually active or that it’s less dangerous because they’re girls.

EA: You know, that’s interesting. I didn’t really think about whether or not they were having sex, but now that you bring it up, yeah. Parents feel like girls can’t get into trouble together.

GO Mag: If one was a boy, it would be different. They wouldn’t be sleeping over, right?

EA: No!

GO Mag: But the intimacy is there, emotionally.

EA: More than that, Yahaira had desire. She imagined Dre. She talked about Dre touching her back, and she thanks her mom for giving her that freedom.

GO Mag: Ah, yes! That was beautiful. Why was that important for you?

EA: Young people want to see themselves and real relationships. How do you name your desire? What does it mean to fantasize about pleasure?

GO Mag: They probably get most of that from pop culture right now.

EA: Yeah, that’s why Nicki Minaj comes up for Xiomara [in “The Poet X”]. She owns her body and doesn’t let people say what she can say about her body.

GO Mag: And we know you have a particular love for Cardi B.

EA: Oh, I’m obsessed with her! And my characters are obsessed with her.

GO Mag: You’ve seen “WAP” and all the conversation around it, right? Is Cardi B going to be showing up in any of your books? Maybe a character who’s really into her or is a lot like her?

EA: Ooh! That could happen. You have me thinking now. I think it’ll be interesting to see how music will affect how we write books. There’s a hood feminism there.

GO Mag: Oh my gosh, we’d love to see it. We have so many great women in the world of hip-hop modeling sexual freedom. Did you know, when you started writing this, that Yahaira would be queer?

EA: Yeah, I did.

GO Mag: How did you present it in a way that didn’t come across as a trope?

EA: I don’t want characters to be arbitrary. It’s not checking off a list. I stay open to where possibilities are in the story.

GO Mag: So you’re looking for spaces to add more dimensions to characters and finding where it makes sense to give them different identities?

EA: 100 percent.

GO Mag: Yahaira and Camino are very different, but both very loving and recipients of life-changing information. There is both a magnetism and a tension between them. Was that intentional?

EA: Yeah, there’s a definite push and pull. There is the awe, you know, that someone is like you or could be like you — someone who disrupts the narrative of who I thought I was.

GO Mag: They are really stunned by each other and the ways they see their father in each other. Camino is so fierce. Readers probably didn’t expect her to do what she did, and as a narrator, she held enough back so we definitely didn’t expect it to end the way it did. Especially with Yahaira’s mother coming around. We don’t get to see what she was thinking.

EA: I really didn’t have the ending for a while. It came down to the perfect antidote, not huge twists and turns. And not being able to get into certain characters was something I had to deal with too.

GO Mag: There is definitely curiosity about the mom’s perspective, especially when Yahaira took off to the Dominican Republic without telling her.

EA: I know! For a kid to leave a country would be huge! But the mom knew she was petty. She and her husband could have offered the child a life.

GO Mag: But when he dies—

EA: She has to face herself. He is not here, you can’t blame him, so who will you be without him now?

GO Mag: Whooph! That’s a big question.

EA: Yeah, we have to face it — when this person who was pivotal in how you define your life is no longer here.

GO Mag: There is also a strong theme of belonging, and, in all of your books, the definition of family. Yahaira and Camino have a hard time with that.

EA: With this book, I kept thinking of all the ways to discover family. There are so many people who leave home, get married for papers, and send money back.

GO Mag: And the plane crash was a way to discovery. How did you decide to use the American Airlines flight 587 as an anchor?

EA: I was an eighth-grader when that plane crash — flight 587 from the Dominican Republic — happened, two months and one day after 9/11.  These two tragedies back to back, it was hard. Once it was reported that it wasn’t a terrorist attack, no one paid any attention to it anymore. Seeing the way 9/11 was handled at school, I saw questions from guidance counselors about how we were feeling. I saw how they held students. Flight 587 didn’t have that same significance to them, but for me and my community, it was huge. You know about it, it’s huge to you, and no one is blinking an eye.

GO Mag: That’s a painful memory to sit in.

EA: I was curious about what it meant to live in that moment and watch the hurt. I wanted to learn more about the people on the flight. I wanted to pay homage, but I didn’t want to take that story away from the people who knew people on that flight.

GO Mag: Reading “Clap When You Land” was the first time many of us heard of the flight, but we clearly remember 9/11, so it really proves your point.

EA: Right.

GO Mag: Your work is particularly important because it focuses on marginalized people — queer people, migrant people, Black people. How do you include these identities and the realities of these experiences without playing into stereotypes?

EA: We have an imperfect framework of stereotypes. Telling these stories automatically breaks what we anticipate. I use a mix of experiences so it’s always an approximation of a person. For example, Carlene [from “The Poet X”]. She is Haitian and she’s pregnant, and she is loved and supported by her boyfriend. She is one of the most loved and supported people.

GO Mag: So, taking real-life situations and giving characters qualities the stereotypes ignore. Why is this work important to you?

EA: We can’t be what we can’t imagine. We need to see ourselves living joyfully, lovingly, fully in the world. Young people have questions of belonging. Whose am I? Where do I belong? They don’t always feel wholly of one group. Immigrant, first-generation — there’s anxiety in performing identity, and it can compromise mental health. … In which spaces am I American, and in which spaces am I Dominican? Young people are splitting themselves so often to survive.

GO Mag: Ugh, I feel that. What is the response to that struggle?

EA: We have to see ourselves, that we have something special. I think the hyper-specificity of my approach tends to be helpful. I take someone who is not typically seen as the hero and make them the protagonist.

GO Mag: Yes! That is what everyone loves about your books. They’re young adult books with important themes, and they center people who are often the side characters or subplots. We get to see them.

EA: Yeah, they shouldn’t always be on the margins. People can see them.

GO Mag: Love it! Oh, one more question. Would Xiomara [from “The Poet X”] be friends with Yahaira or Camino?

EA: Ooh! I love this question. Hm, I think Xiomara and Yahaira would be friends; they’re more introspective. Camino is more gritty and go-get-it, and she can be brittle and hard to get to know, so she would vibe more with Emoni.

GO Mag:  And, of course, we want to know what’s in the works. Any new books coming any time soon?

EA: Well, I’m not-so-secretly working on an adult novel and a poetry collection.

 


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