Dominican slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo on sex, identity and Catholicism
“Our bodies have been bridges,” proclaimed the Dominican-American poet Elizabeth Acevedo. “We are the sons and daughters, el destino de mi gente, black, brown, beautiful, viviremos para siempre, Afro-Latino hasta la muerte.”
Ms. Acevedo was performing at the Word Up Community Bookstore in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City in October 2016. Her collection of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, had just been published. Surrounded by books and an audience of about 30 people, she performed her spoken word, seamlessly switching between English and Spanish.
Beastgirl is centered on the experiences of first-generation American women. Written over several years, it is what Ms. Acevedo describes as “contemplations on Caribbean womanhood,” exploring themes like Dominican folklore (such as the mythological Ciguapa), family, the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and sexuality. Born in New York City to Dominican immigrants, the poet writes about experiences that often mirror her own.
Beastgirl is what Ms. Acevedo describes as “contemplations on Caribbean womanhood,” exploring themes like Dominican folklore and sexuality.
Ms. Acevedo describes learning as early as the first grade about the tensions that exist in the ways Latinos identify in the United States. “You feel so Dominican at home, and you don’t ever question that,” she told me when we spoke last fall. “Then you go to school and you start realizing that there are certain values, certain ideas that you have that people may not share with you, and you start seeing these values, ideas fall across cultural lines.”
Coming from a family of storytellers, Ms. Acevedo has always seen poetry and writing as a means to talk about the world she knows.
“When I was 12, I really started using hip-hop as a medium to talk about my neighborhood, to talk about the things that were happening in current events that I was reading about,” she said.
Slam poetry, the style of poetry Ms. Acevedo is known for, is a genre in which poets recite original poetry, combining elements of theater, storytelling and other kinds of performance. Like hip-hop artists, slam poets focus on issues like racism, sex, poverty and identity. Ms. Acevedo’s influences growing up ranged from Latina writers like Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez to rappers like Eve, Foxy Brown and Jay-Z. “I remember my first official rap verse I wrote when I was 12 years old,” she told me. “I started realizing that not only could I write about it, recite it, but now there was a conversation being opened because of my ability to turn what I thought into art.”
Some of the poet’s most popular spoken-word performances include “Hair,” on the complicated relationship Dominican women have with their hair; “Bittersweet Love Poem,” an ode to her partner; and “Beloved or If You Are Murdered Tomorrow,” on the murder of black men by police officers.
Less than two years after the publication of Beastgirl, Ms. Acevedo will be releasing her debut novel, The Poet X, this March. The seed for the book was planted while Ms. Acevedo was an eighth-grade teacher in Maryland, where her students, who were predominantly Latino, would ask why none of the characters in the books they were required to read looked like them.
“I went out and tried to find these books at first, but then realized that there just still aren’t enough,” she said.
She decided to write the story of Xiomara Batista, an Afro-Latina teenager growing up in Harlem, who is struggling between her own desires—wanting to be a slam poet—and those of her mother, who wants her to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Ms. Acevedo grew up in a devout Catholic household. “I went to church every Sunday with my mom. And I have had every sacrament up to confirmation. And I think my relationship is still developing with religion,” she told me. “I don’t know that I would call myself necessarily Catholic anymore. I think I have a relationship with God, and I’m still exploring what that looks like.”
In The Poet X, Ms. Acevedo captures the complicated relationship many Dominicans have with Catholicism, particularly focusing on the ways in which faith can affect women.
“There is a lot that is taught through the church that can be empowering, and also a lot that can really make someone, especially girls, question themselves,” she said. “It was important for me to have Xiomara realize that her voice can push against the varying structures that are trying to tell her that she has to be one kind of girl.”
Slam poetry, the style of poetry Ms. Acevedo is known for, is a genre in which poets recite original poetry, combining elements of theater, storytelling and other kinds of performance.
We see this dynamic within Xiomara, who hides her relationship with her classmate, Aman, from her family, while still questioning what she has been taught about temptation. In one of the chapters of the novel, “Wants,” Ms. Acevedo describes the attraction Xiomara is beginning to feel for him, writing, “As much as boys and men/ have told me all of the things/ they would like to do to my body,/ this is the first time I’ve actually wanted/ some of those things done.” Ms. Acevedo wants Xiomara to be a character who challenges how society, especially Latino culture, talks about sex.
In light of the conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement, the theme of sexuality in The Poet X feels especially timely. “I think young people are taught to be afraid of their bodies,” Ms. Acevedo told me. She believes that for a culture that glorifies sex, we do not know how to teach young people about it.
“Sex is contaminated, to have desire is contaminated, to feel pleasure is contaminated, but then we’re also such a sexualized culture,” she said. “So on one hand, women are to be looked at and admired and talked about, but women themselves cannot admire themselves or talk about themselves or feel what they make other people feel. And it’s this notion that I just really wanted to tease out of, what does it mean to reject that? What does it mean to grapple with not wanting to be harassed, but also knowing that if you feel desire, that is O.K.?”
Like other Dominican writers such as Ms. Alvarez and Junot Díaz, Ms. Acevedo presents perspectives not often represented in literature that refute many of the stereotypes associated with Dominican-Americans. Telling these authentic Latino stories is paramount, Ms. Acevedo believes. “I believe in storytelling,” she said. “If we sit with what hurts us by ourselves, we think we are alone in our pain. It’s important to tell these stories, to hear these stories, to see these stories as a realization that we’re not alone.”