Note: This is a YA book review as well as a comment on teen writing, so I added it here from my personal blog
A recent experience with a teen writer had me going back to The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I’d originally purchased and listened to The Poet X on audiobook–a powerful narration by the author herself, which I highly recommend. A few months ago, I finished putting together the third teen issue of Inlandia: A Literary Journey, the journal sponsored by the Inlandia Institute. These two experiences connected for me when one of the teen authors emailed to ask that I remove her work from the issue.
With the two previous teen issues of Inlandia, wrapping up the experience meant having an in-person celebration on the library lawn in downtown Riverside, California. I’d spend the weeks before the gathering making all sorts of cookies. On the evening of the live reading, I’d meet with the institute director, the programs coordinator, the teen editors and several of the teen authors, who read from their work to a live audience. It was a joy to meet the authors and connect their voices to their published work. It was a joy to meet their proud parents and siblings, and even some of their teachers who had encouraged their writing journey.
This year, because of the pandemic, we had an online gathering. While I missed meeting the writers, parents, and teachers (the online audience had the opportunity to chat by text only and were not visible), it was fun to have some of the distant authors read. We even had girls from Shanghai, China and Bristol, England.
Still, the pandemic had a depressing effect on me as I was working on the teen issue. Having been both a teacher and high school librarian, I know what the daily routine of school means to teens whose family life is broken. Some of these teens were submitting work to us. About seventy-five percent of them were being rejected by the teen editors. The letters declining their work would come from me. What would I say in the midst of these losses? My draft of the decline letter grew ever longer.
Thank you for sending us your work. We are very sorry, but it does not quite fit with this issue. We realize that this season is difficult for so many of us and in so many ways. And while your work was not chosen for this issue, the editors enjoyed its admirable qualities. You are doing the hard work that creative endeavors require. Thank you for your willingness to offer your work to others, to contribute to the artistic conversation that means so much to us right now.
And then I added notes on what we liked about each piece and suggested edits. Because here’s the thing: most teen work truly is work in progress and, if continued, will find its way to an audience.
“If continued” is the key. Think of The Poet X. It’s a work by an adult about the experience of a teen.
The girl who withdrew her short story from the teen issue of the journal had been delighted to have it accepted. She was one of the few authors who wrote to me to talk about it when she received the acceptance letter. Her byline included her first, middle and last name. Her fiction was a sweet story about two young lesbians who meet accidentally and over time, realize that they are in love. It was innocent stuff, but ended tragically, in a way that keeps the lovers apart. When I first read it, I thought of the influence of Romeo and Juliet since its required reading in most US schools.
But I came to see this ending differently as my correspondence with the author continued. After I sent her the unpublished link to her story for a final review, she worried about having her full name in her byline. Would it be too much trouble to remove her middle name and use just her first initial? “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have a relative that I don’t want to see it. I’m thinking about the person searching my name online.” No problem, I told her.
The story was published, the online celebration was over and recorded. This author did not read her work or even attend. But a few days later, she emailed me again. Would it be too much trouble if I removed her story from the issue? She was having difficulty with the relative and needed the story to disappear. Though young, she understood specificity of language, and I thought her use of the words “a relative” rather than ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ ‘uncle,’ or ‘cousin’ was telling.
I told her how sorry I was, but ultimately, I removed both her story and her author bio. I was not her teacher, a trusted adult who could advocate for her with her parents. I’d never even met her. I’d only read her story and was glad to see that the teen editors had selected it. We emailed a few more times. I told her I hoped that she would continue to write. I hoped, too, that she was keeping a journal of her experiences because the time would come when she would be able to speak and write freely. She would need to reference her teen emotional state. She answered that she was, indeed, keeping a journal. That she would continue her writing journey.
My hope for, and her assurance of, the journal writing is what triggered thoughts of The Poet X. As the novel tells us “Xiomara” (the protagonist’s name) means one who is ready for war. What better readies a writer for the fight for their voice than journal writing? I decided to get a print copy of the novel and look back at the language and passages that had moved me in the audio version.
The Poet X
Xiomara is a high school sophomore living in Harlem with her ultra-religious (Catholic) mother, her reformed but previously philandering father, and her twin brother. Her mother cleans an office building in Queens. Xiomara says “I look at her scarred knuckles./I know exactly how she was taught faith.” (17) Xiomara and Twin (Xavier) were conceived years into their parents’ marriage and considered to be answered prayers. Nonetheless, Xiomara’s delivery was very difficult and she has been considered difficult ever since. “‘Pero, tú no eres fácil.’/You sure ain’t an easy one.” (10)
A major reason her mother finds her difficult is that Xiomara does not have the religious fervor of her mother, but would rather write poems. Religion, the Catholic Church is “A friend I just don’t think I need anymore.” (13) The Confirmation instructor, Father Sean is sympathetic, but clearly has no intention of confirming Xiomara if she doesn’t feel it’s right. (Quick note: The sacrament of Confirmation is one in which the recipient accepts God–particularly the Holy Spirit–of their own free will. The Catholic Church has infant baptism and other sacraments for the young such as Reconciliation and First Holy Communion, but Confirmation is the first time the person will choose the church of their own accord.) Xiomara asks, “What’s the point of God giving me life/if I can’t live it as my own?//Why does listening to his commandments mean I need to shut down my own voice?” (57)
In the fight to use her own voice, Xiomara has an ally in Ms. Galiano, her English teacher, who is also the advisor for the poetry club. She sees Xiomara’s talent and creativity and encourages it. Xiomara’s other allies include Twin and Caridad. Twin is a slight, church-loving altar boy and excellent student who has skipped a grade and goes to high school for gifted kids. He’s also gay, and Xiomara suspects it but is afraid of openly discussing it–and really afraid of what will happen if her parents find out. Caridad, Xiomara’s best friend, is deeply religious and still follows the rules of her parents and the Church. The girls are the opposites that attract and have known one another since they were babies.
It is her desire to attend the poetry club meetings, which happen to be at the same time as Confirmation class, that brings Xiomara to break her mom’s rules regarding piety. “Tuesday has become my equivalent/to Mami’s Sunday. A prayer circle.” (283) It is Aman, Xiomara’s lab partner in biology class, for whom she breaks her mother’s rules on not dating.
At first, Xiomara finds her voice in her journals, gifts from Twin. Later, she will fight to have that voice heard at poetry slams. The things she writes about would drive her mother crazy if she saw them. Her lack of conviction in the face of Confirmation. Her first period and how her mother told her that only cueros (whores) use tampons. Her feelings about having a mature body, curvy and busty, one that makes her stand out in all the sophomore class and drives male response about her.
I am unhide-able.
Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said
was “a little too much body for such a young girl.”
The other girls call me conceited. Ho. Thot. Fast.
When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced
by insults. (p. 5)
Sometimes it feels
All I’m worth is under my skirt (14)
I should be used to it.
I shouldn’t get so angry
when boys–and sometimes
talk to me however they want,
think they can grab themselves
or rub against me
or make all kinds of offers.
But I’m never used to it.
And it always makes my hands shake.
Always makes my throat tight.
The only thing that calms me down
after Twin and I get home
is to put my headphones on.
To listen to Drake.
To grab my notebook,
and write, and write, and write
all the things I wish I could have said.
Make poems from the sharp feelings inside,
that feel like they could
carve me wide
(I love the way this part of the poem looks on the page–much like a curvy girl.)
See, a cuero is my skin. A cuero/is just a covering. A cuero is a loose thing./Tied down by no one. Fluttering/and waving in the wind. Flying. Flying. Gone. (206)
Readers of The Poet X will also fall in love with the poetic language
That incense makes bow tie pasta of my belly./That all the lit candles beckon like fingers/that want to clutch around my throat. (62)
And their words are like the catch of a gas stove,/the click, click while you’re waiting/for it to light up and then flame big and blue. (110)
On the train ride home/Twin steps into his feelings/like they’re a gated-off room/I don’t have visitation rights to. (176)
My mother’s face scrunches tight/like someone has vacuumed all her joy. (229)
Ultimately, writing (in a larger sense, one might substitute “creating”) matters. It is the creative life which often presses against the spiritual life, that engenders faith and hope.
Hiding in my journal
is the only way I know not to cry.
My house is a tomb.
Even Twin has stopped speaking to me
As if he’s afraid a single word
Will cause my facade to crack. (237)
Because so many of the poems tonight
Felt a little like our own stories.
Like we saw and were seen.
And how crazy would it be
If I did that for someone else? (282)
My experience is that there are not many outlets for teen voices, almost none during a pandemic. As adults, our goal for teen voices is that they be heard. I hope teachers and school librarians are talking up books such as The Poet X to remind their writers of the value of their work. I hope school libraries have found a way to check out books to students even when they are distance learning. And I also hope that teachers and librarians have devised contests where all the participants receive journals. Because, again, most teen work truly is work in progress and, if continued, will find its way to an audience.
Note: The page numbers given above are from The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).
I’ve discussed previous teen issues of Inlandia here and here. I’ve written about books centered on teen voices on my School Library Lady blog. Some of the earlier ones, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, still have much to say.