4.0 out of 5 stars
The Teenage Slam-Master of Manhattan Street Life
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on September 21, 2021
Fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista doesn’t share her words with anybody. Not her highly religious mother, who wouldn’t understand that she thinks in questions and doubts. Not her brother, who keeps some poorly concealed secrets of her own. Certainly not with the eager hop-heads around her Harlem neighborhood, who’ve noticed how attractive she’s become. No, she keeps her words locked inside a leather-bound journal. But even she is beginning to realize she needs to share with somebody.
It’s tempting to comb through Elizabeth Acevedo’s first novel for clues about exactly how autobiographical this story is. Much certainly jibes with Acevedo’s story: an Afro-Latina teen, raised by Dominican immigrant parents, who moves away from her childhood religion and embraces performance poetry at New York’s legendary Nuyorican Café. But as with most autobiographical fiction, that misses the point. It matters because it’s ultimately about us, and the struggles we and the author face together.
Xiomara collects her thoughts about Harlem life and adolescence in the journal her brother bought her. She never intended to create literature; her thoughts just coalesce into poetry. She desperately wants to live peacefully and be normal. But such desires don’t gel when she’s pulled between two poles: the working-class Manhattan which measures success in outcomes, even for teens, and her mother’s devout Catholicism, which manifests in an urgent desire to see Xiomara finish confirmation.
An English teacher at Xiomara’s high school is organizing a performance poetry club. Xiomara feels vaguely tempted. But meetings happen on Tuesday afternoons, directly opposite Confirmation Class, which Mamí explains is not optional. Poetry gives Xiomara some level of control which her working-class home life doesn’t allow. Still, throughout the fall semester of her sophomore year, she prefers to avoid conflict, and attends Confirmation with her BFF, even as she feels tension building up inside.
Acevedo, in creating Xiomara’s poetic voice, avoids the most common mistakes teenage poets make: the deliberate obscurantism of Shakespeareanism, or way-cool fake Beatnik patter. Xiomara instead has a natural, easy voice, one clearly designed for stage performance. Some of the poems which comprise this novel-in-verse have a hip-hop rhythm, and others resemble more a free-verse tide. But we never feel, as with some apprentice poets, like we’re reading a crossword puzzle clue that needs decoded.
Instead, as slam poets do, Xiomara simply invites audiences into her experience, which she’s heightened through poetry. Slam, if you’ve never participated, tends to reward personal confession and the tentative investigation of personal struggle. It also discourages pat answers, which this novel does too, never reaching for the simple moral often favored in schoolbook poetry. Like slam poets everywhere, Xiomara exposes personal struggles, baring her heart. She wouldn’t dare shut that book after opening it.
Her struggles will seem familiar to Acevedo’s teenage audience, or adults who’ve been teenagers. Xiomara’s parents have visions for her: her aggressive Mamí has scripted a religious homemaker life, while her more passive Papí wants… something, nobody knows what, since he never speaks up. Xiomara herself has the first glimmerings of interest in boys, an interest piqued when her biology lab partner, Aman (the symbolism is unsubtle), becomes the first non-relative to encourage her poetry.
So Xiomara performs her first and second acts of teenage rebellion: she starts seeing Aman on the sly, while ditching Confirmation Class to attend poetry club. That’s two activities which violate her mother’s tightly written script. We know trouble is brewing, but Xiomara starts discovering some components of her own identity. As anybody who’s ever passed through teenage rebellion already knows, Mamí will eventually discover Xiomara’s hastily organized ruses. It’s only a matter of time.
By writing in poetry, Acevedo permits Xiomara to speak from the heart. No time spent describing physical environment or other characters’ facial expressions, unless she wants to; instead, Xiomara cuts directly to the emotional freight of each moment and each encounter. That’s what poetry does, or anyway should do: it strips off everything except what matters, here and now, turning every experience into the purest form of language to convey what’s happening, inside, right now.
Sadly, this verse novel probably deals too directly with controversial topics for actual classroom use: public schools are notoriously conflict-averse. It also has some intermittent PG-13-rated language and mild adolescent sexuality. But for home study and for ambitious readers, Acevedo has created a story that teenagers, and their parents, will find wholly relatable. I’d recommend pairing it with Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, which deals with similar themes and settings. Strongly recommended for bold, independent-minded teens.
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