“Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiomara’s strict and ultra Catholic mother fears for her daughter’s virtue. Sexy curvaceous Xiomara seems to be doing pretty well taking care of herself. Males of all ages have been muttering, whispering, grabbing at her for a few years now. Of course she’s angry. Anger serves her well.
Fifteen year old Xiomara lives in Harlem with her problematic Dominican-American parents in “Poet X” (Harper Teen 2018) by slam poet champion Elizabeth Acevedo. Acevedo’s poems tell the story with explosive energy and powerful insights.
Xiomara protects her smaller weaker brother, Xavier, who she calls Twin. Xiomara says, “My brother was birthed a soft whistle:/quiet, barely stirring the air, a gentle sound. But I was born all the hurricane he needed . . .” Twin goes to a “fancy genius school” while Xiomara makes her way in public school that’s fed by students of five boroughs. “I walk through metal detectors, and turn my pockets out,/and greet security guards by name,/ and am one of hundreds who every day are sifted like flour through the doors.”
Xiomara’s father once had a reputation as a womanizer, but ever since the birth of his twin children, he’s been on the straight and narrow, if emotionally distant. “Just because your father’s present/ doesn’t mean he isn’t absent.”
Mamí will allow no dating. Xiomara, who objects, says to her best friend, the more conservative Caridad, “I’m just saying. I’m ready to stop being a nun. Kiss a boy, shoot. I’m ready to creep with him behind a stairwell and let him feel me up.” Caridad responds, “Learn yourself some virtue.” Acevedo packs a lot into Xiomara’s insight, without preaching: “I’m afraid of my mother so I listen to what she says. Caridad genuinely respects her parents.”
The twins and Caridad attend Catholic Confirmation classes, but Xiomara is not sure she believes. She 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?” Why have faith “in the father/ the son/ in men/ and men are the first ones/ to make me feel so small.”
And then a boy, Aman, is assigned to be her lab partner in biology. And her English teacher urges her to attend Poetry Club. But Poetry Club meets during Confirmation class. First she begins skipping Confirmation class to meet up with Aman who loves rap music and loves Xiomara’s verse. And respects her. Mamí finds out and that’s a very bad scene.
Now Xiomara skips Confirmation class to attend Poetry Club and her life changes. She’s found what she needs. And the reader is delighted that this bright talented insightful woman has found her way. The story is inspiring. The writing is insightful. It’s no wonder this is the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature winner as well as the Boston Globe Horn Book Fiction winner. It’s bound to win more major accolades.
Patricia Hruby Powell is author of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz; Loving vs. Virginia; and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com