The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Topics: Coming of age, mother-daughter relations
Publishing Year: 2018
Format Read: Hard Cover
My Rating: 4/5
A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
The Poet X tells a story that is familiar especially in immigrant and Latinx literature: the generation and cultural rift between mother and daughter. From the Joy Luck Club to Bend it Like Beckham this trope manifests as The Clash in values between an (often) rebellious/progressive/americanized daughter who wants to freely flirt with boys and develop her special talent (writing, poetry, soccer etc) and her (often) conservative/traditional/religious mother who wants her daughter to be submissive/a virgin/like her. What keeps this trope from feeling tired is the context and form of slam poetry that Acevedo brings to the table.
Acevedo's background is in slam poetry and the performing arts and it clearly shows in this book (and I mean this in a good way) Most clearly, the book is written entirely in non-rhyming verse. This serves the story well in two particular ways. First Acevedo's clever use of format variation heightens the emotional tension of certain key scenes but is used selectively enough to where it enhances rather than detract from the reading experience. For example in one particularly intense scene there are two concurrent dialogues (Xiomara’s and her mothers) and each of the character’s lines is aligned to either the left or right margin opposite from the other. This creates a ‘call and response’ type dialogue contrasting the content of what each character is saying but also using the physical space on the page that separates the dialogues to mirror the opposing views and values that each character holds.
Secondly, the book’s format lends authenticity to the voice of the teenage protagonist. She is, after all, an aspiring slam poet. The book itself is peppered with New York slang and text messages to great effect without being kitschy. Acevedo nails a distinct and believable voice for Xiomara which really brings her to life. Often, first time YA authors writing teenagers either embellish voice to the point where it sounds like the inner dialogue of a much older, adult character or go the other way and ‘try to play it like the kidz do’ in a way that feels fake and frankly insulting. Acevedo manages to avoid both of these pitfalls and brings forth a full-developed protagonist with depth that stands as one of the best parts of the book.
Xiomara is a flawed protagonist. She is critical of herself and others, often uncompromising and at times make questionable choices but you cannot help but cheer for her and sympathize with her. The secondary characters in contrast with her can at times feel a bit static but that could also be a byproduct of how Xiomara sees them in the roles they play in her life and how we often see others especially as teenagers. All things considered, this book is fantastic and had me, who knows nothing about slam poetry, looking up videos on youtube and snapping my fingers when I turned the last page.