Xiomara Batista is often urged to bite her tongue. The “miracle” of her and her twin brother Xavier’s births to her aging Dominican parents makes Xio feel like a spectacle in her Harlem community, a constant point of conversation and judgment. This hypervisibility only increased when her body blossomed into womanly curves, forcing her to fend off unwanted advances by local boys with her fists. In contrast, the confines of her devoutly religious mother’s rules have stripped the 16-year-old of her ability to voice her own beliefs (and doubts), making her feel unheard and unseen. It’s not until she joins a slam poetry club at school that she finds a home for her words and the courage to express them freely. Through the pressure of her mother’s expectations, the comparison to “Twin’s” perfection, and her forbidden exploration of first love, Xiomara spins her perspectives into stanzas, embracing The Poet X.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel, written in verse, continuously draws in its reader with sensory-igniting imagery. This work is broken into three major sections, which are titled with Bible scriptures, juxtaposing Xiomara’s rejection of religion. In each, our heroine’s journey mimics the context of verse that proceeds it. The reader walks with Xio from submission to rebellion to liberation, and as her perspective changes, so does the stanza structure to encourage appropriate pacing in the absence of performance; the pacing of words conveys the protagonist’s mood, forcing the reader to feel as she feels and board her train of thought.
Acevedo discovered her desire to author a novel in 2012 while working as an eighth grade English teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Latinx students made up 77 percent of her school’s population, and she couldn’t understand why her students weren’t more interested in reading until a young girl made a striking observation.
“These books aren’t about us,” Acevedo recalled during the launch party for The Poet X, held at the Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “They don’t look like us. They’re not from our neighborhoods. They don’t speak like us. They don’t walk through the world like us. These ain’t our books.”
In response, Acevedo showered her pupils with works by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, and other writers whose stories they could see themselves in. Still, they craved more. She’d pull from her nearly 14 years as a performance poet to recite spoken word, but she realized she wanted to gift them with something tangible; something that could live beyond the confines of their classroom. After achieving a MFA in creative writing, and several episodes of trial and error, The Poet X was born.
While struggles with faith, family, and self-acceptance are not unique teenage experiences, it is their presentation through the lens of Xiomara’s Afro-Latina heritage that makes her story a startling standout. The balance of humor and emotion with which her thoughts are expressed is charming and engaging. Acevedo has elevated the adolescent narrative; despite the age of her protagonist, she has successfully addressed themes of sexism, sexuality, and Christianity while providing a point of reference for Latinx readers searching for themselves in literature and life. A