About the Author: “Elizabeth Acevedo is the author of The Poet X—which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and the Walter Award—as well as With the Fire on High and Clap When You Land. She is a National Poetry Slam champion and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo lives with her partner in Washington, DC. You can find out more about her at www.acevedowrites.com.” (Bio and headshot provided by her publicist, Audra Boltion-Ortiz. Photo Credit: Denzel Golatt)
Jackie Balbastro: I’ve read that you were a teacher at one point and it inspired your work. How did that experience, working first hand with teens, inform how you write/portray them?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I try to approach my writing with the same honesty and tenderness that my students asked of me when I was teaching. It’s a delicate line of trusting young people to handle difficult subjects, while also recognizing I have no interest in gratuitous violence/hate/assault being strewn throughout the pages of a book knowing it could do harm to a reader. Allowing myself to ask: would one of my former students feel loved by this book? has pushed me to maintain a thoughtful balance.
JB:With your stories, you touch on body image, sexuality, assault, femininity, passions, anxiety struggles, and the intersectional issues that arise regarding Afro-Latinidad. Have you ever struggled with approaching topics like these or others and how did you go about resolving any roadblocks you might have faced?
EA: These subject matters are so integral to the stories that I often do not struggle much at the questions of “should I include this” as much as I wrestle with “how do I include this in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed or overwrought.” I find that a lot of questions of identity and traumatic experiences are best approached by making them seamless interrogations within the world of the characters.
JB: In your writing process, do you decide on your story first or do you build the story around your characters?
EA: My writing is very much character driven. I don’t know if I even have a story until I’ve found the character that could drive it. So even with a great premise, I know I’m stuck until I begin forming the lead—it may also be that I’m not a plotter, and characters feel like a less restrictive clothing hanger on which to arrange a narrative.
JB: In your first novel, Xiomara is guided by her teacher and it’s very powerful because we all have that one teacher who changed our lives. Who was that guiding force for you?
EA: I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of mentors for different parts of my life. From teachers, to neighbors, to peers. I think my adoration for good teachers is evident in all my stories and it’s my way to pay homage to the folks who’ve guided me: Phil Bildner, Abby Lublin, Silvia Canales, Mahogany L. Browne, too many to name or count.
JB: How do you feel as a former teacher to now have your books read in the classroom as part of a curriculum?
EA: It’s so thrilling! I was first inspired to write because I wanted to tell a story my students would enjoy, and now look, students all over the world get to sit with what my students inspired.
JB: You weave together English and Spanish so seamlessly in your work; it’s truly something wonderful. I really appreciate your unapologetic approach to everything in your novels but especially this because it reflects something I’ve seen in my own household. Did you ever receive pushback for this or worry about how your audience would react?
EA: Thankfully, a lot of literary pioneers have been pushing back against the way in which American Literature sometimes participates in othering certain groups of people. I think being hyper-specific about language, neighborhood, ethnic groups, allows for us to keep centering non-white gazes and readers in a way that creates room for a celebration of groups that have otherwise been told they must italicize themselves in order to be understood.
JB: You are quite active, perhaps not so much now considering the current pandemic, but you said in an interview that you do about 80-100 presentations a year. How does it feel now to take a breather and how do you think you’ll handle making commitments like these in the future?
EA: I plan to slow down a lot. The road is grueling. It’s a lot of time away from my family and home, and it’s also been difficult to keep up with my writing, which is one of the ways I keep myself balanced. I think in the future I’ll be focusing on participating in less presentations, but being judicious about ensuring that the presentations I commit to are as super impactful.
JB: With such popular characters like Xiomara and Emoni and now Yahaira and Camino from Clap When You Land, do you think you’ll ever revisit these characters/stories?
EA: I don’t imagine I’ll be revisiting these characters, at least not through a novel. I’m adapting With The Fire On High and would love to be involved in any potential adaptation of Clap When You Land, but once I complete a novel, I feel like I’ve also removed myself from that world. I would only return if there are corners I feel I have peeked into and a style of writing that would force me to stretch and learn new skills.
JB: In your novels, you hit on intergenerational themes and complex family dynamics like in Clap When You Land. What informs how you build the relationship between your characters?
EA: It’s important to me to investigate the concept of “dysfunctional families” and the way that might look, the way families adopt new coping strategies when they emigrate, the ways in which families must learn to show up for each other. And that means I need to write parents who make bad choices, young people who question those choices, and an entire cast of characters learning to wrestle with their own humanity.
JB: The scene with Yahaira on the train is so raw and equally parts frustrating and saddening. You’ve mentioned in the past how important it is for you to showcase the multiple experiences young women face, whether it be teen motherhood or sexual assault. What is your response to those who think that these ‘controversial’ topics do not belong in YA?
EA: I think that when we say a human being is too controversial to be written about we participate in dehumanization—we tell certain people “you –-or your experiences—aren’t honorable enough for literature.” And what the heck does that mean? When I sit down to write, I’m not engaging in “controversial topics.” I’m engaging in an attempt to write about peoples who are often told they are not allowed to be a hero or even a protagonist of their own life, even as I know personally that so many of the heroes I grew up with would be discarded as “controversial” by some society standards.
JB: We’re in a time where young adult book adaptations are quite popular again, I heard you are currently adapting With the Fire on High. Can you discuss any details about it at the moment?
EA: I can’t discuss much! Except that I’m excited to re-envision Emoni’s story, and I can’t wait to bring forth all the magic I attempted to illustrate in the novel.
JB: Recently there have been more and more initiatives demanding for more recognition of black authors, businesses and creatives. You’ve always been very vocal about uplifting others in your community, especially fellow writers; what is your response to the recent engagement from a broader audience?
EA: I hope support—financially, professionally, personally–for Black artists continues. When people are angry and the onslaught of images compels people to act, it may be easier to make certain promises of support, but a lot of the broader audience, as you put here, will hopefully continue to engage with how they can advance Black artists and their work. Or at the very least, get out of the way.
JB: Lastly, what’s next? Is there a poetry collection you think you want to publish down the line?
EA: I’m working on a poetry collection and novel, both potentially outside of the YA space and geared instead at adults. Stay tuned!
PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro
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