Dominican American poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo became internationally known for her YA novels including The Poet X. Her debut novel for adults, Family Lore follows a family of Dominican American women when their matriarch Flor, who can predict when someone will die, calls a living wake. Over the three days before, Acevdeo traces each of the women’s lives to create a single, overlapping, and powerful portrait of a family.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Prior to becoming a writer, you were a teacher and slam poet champion. What did you learn from those experiences?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Being a teacher made me appreciate how much time a writer spends thinking, how much of that is work, how much bandwidth you need to think and be creative, and how difficult it was when I was teaching to have any type of creativity because it was all going towards my students. I have a supreme appreciation for time. Writing for slam is interesting because you have a constraint of three minutes and there’s a strong sense of timing exactly the punchline or a clever bit of language. There’s an awareness of the audience that’s going to be listening and responding. I coached young people in poetry slams and there’s something to be said about being in relationship with the next generation and learning to listen. I write intergenerational stories and it’s important to think about who you are to the generation behind you, before you, and what it means to constantly be a good listener to both.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you love about writing and storytelling?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Recently, I’ve been thinking about ensemble truth-telling. Specifically, as it pertains to how we tell the story of a family, how we have an individual idea of who our family is, and then you talk to different members and you realize there’s this expansive truth of what makes this unit. When you write stories that look at the same thing from many different points of view, you get this broader perspective, this mosaic of truth. You don’t know what the truth is but you have all these perspectives. And to be a good family member, you have to accept your truth and your father’s and your mother’s and your siblings – and the places where they don’t gel. Writing sticks its finger into that wound while working as a band-aid. It makes clear the murkiness of how we understand our families, ourselves, and our communities when there isn’t always a clear demarcation of what’s happening. Truth is subjective here and if nothing else, writing helps us come to our own truth. Writing makes it easier for me to accept that this is what happened, this is what I’m writing down, this is what I remember.
At what point do we not recognize that we are upholding the same hierarchy of storytellers and main characters we’ve always upheld and are getting so many similar stories? Representation of groups that haven’t had as many moments in the sun allows for a broader tapestry of what storytelling can be.Elizabeth Acevedo
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What called you to write your newest novel Family Lore?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I knew I wanted to write a big cast of characters. Initially, I thought it was going to be mostly about the elder generation. But it felt important to include younger perspectives to cut through the 1950s to 70s in the Dominican Republic. That’s a very specific moment in time and I wanted to juxtapose it. Because what is the story of women? What’s the story of how we’re raised and how does that affect how the next generation is raised when we say “No, that stops with me”?
This is a story of what stops and what continues within generations and how many influences you can have. The sisters’ relationship with their mom is completely different depending on where they fall. The daughters’ and the nieces’ perspectives of their elders are different depending on who they are. It felt important for me to think about likable and unlikable women, and how we all have this magic and these incredible flaws. Only a big cast could do that. Only multiple generations can get across that multitude. Because even within one family, you can have so many different kinds of women who understand the world and respond to it with so much distinction.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What fascinates you about New York? Why do you feel compelled to write about it in all of your work?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: I’ve read so many books based in New York and there’s so much that feels familiar, yet there’s this ability that New York City has to be so much for so many that does not reflect at all what I know. There’s always something to explore. My last book was about Morningside Heights where I grew up, The Poet X is about Harlem, and then there’s Family Lore which is even more of a deep-dive into this neighborhood near Columbia University.
There’s a lot to be said about the island of Manhattan because I am an island girl times two. But they are so very different islands. What does it mean to go from one to the other? One is the center of opulence and financial decisions and immigration, and the other is the first site of colonialism in this part of the world, this rupture of cultures. There’s something curious about what both these islands mean and what they mean and are to each other. I’m forever toggling between the island of Manhattan and the island of Hispaniola and thinking through what is at play here.
I’m trying to explore the interior lives of Afro-Dominican and Caribbean women. I’m trying to be truthful and honest about what makes us make certain choices. What it means to find healing and hope in a world that discards us time and again and very violently so… Our stories are worthy of that.Elizabeth Acevedo
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Why is Afro-Latina representation important for you?
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: There’s a boredom to the monolith. To the same kinds of white characters always occupying the light. In addition to it being violence and erasure, it’s also boring. At what point do we not recognize that we are upholding the same hierarchy of storytellers and main characters we’ve always upheld and are getting so many similar stories? Representation of groups that haven’t had as many moments in the sun allows for a broader tapestry of what storytelling can be. We cut a lot of people short in terms of what they could be doing by not amplifying certain voices. So for me, this novel isn’t going to be for everyone and that’s okay. It might be found convoluted, the back and forth is going to be hard, there are a lot of characters, and yet that feels specific to my family and how we tell stories, how there are stories within stories within stories.
I feel good that I am writing a text that is representative of how people I know talk and tell tales. I’m working within an oral tradition even as I’m using writing to convey that. My heritage and where I come from are very specific to what is happening on the page and the kinds of experiments I’m undertaking with literature. At the end of the day, I’m trying to explore the interior lives of Afro-Dominican and Caribbean women. I’m trying to be truthful and honest about what makes us make certain choices. What it means to find healing and hope in a world that discards us time and again and very violently so. Over and over, I’m trying to pay close attention to the small choices of this group of women that I’m a part of, that I’m close to, that I observe every day. Our stories are worthy of that.