Elizabeth Acevedo provides language and space for those whose stories are not often spoken.
In her debut novel, “The Poet X,” winner of the National Book Award in 2018, Acevedo crafted a coming-of-age story that centered on Xiomara, an adolescent who uses her talent for writing and performing slam poetry to navigate girlhood and the restrictions placed on her by her strict Dominican mother. Language quickly becomes a lifeline and an outlet that provides Xiomara a chance to hone her own voice and find freedom.
Similarly, in her new book, “With the Fire on High,” Acevedo’s main character also finds her way through her craft, but this time individual expression comes through food. The story’s protagonist, Emoni Santiago, is a teen mother who has a passion (and an intuitive talent) for cooking. Acevedo begins Emoni’s journey two years after her daughter’s birth — a place where stories of teen pregnancy usually end. Through a blending of lyrical language and prose form, the structure of the book (divided into quick chapters that blaze by) mirrors how Emoni moves through space and cultures to carve her own path.
ALL ARTS sat down with Acevedo to talk about “With the Fire on High,” shifting the stigma around teen motherhood and creating space for young black and brown women to see themselves. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity
So first off, tell me about your new book, “With the Fire on High.”
“The Fire on High” is the story of Emoni Santiago, who is an Afro-Puerto Rican aspiring chef from Philadelphia and also a teen mother. She got pregnant when she was in her first year of high school. She is now in her senior year of high school when the story picks up. And when everyone else is being told follow your dreams, go to college, fling yourself far and wide, she feels like she has to remain small. She feels like there’s all this guilt and this shame that she’s carrying and these decisions that she has to make because of her child. She also knows she really wants to cook, and so it’s kind of grappling with what are the dreams you allow yourself to have when circumstances may not be what you think they could or should be.
How did you come up with this starting point in Emoni’s journey?
When the story of the Emoni Santiago first came to me, there were two things that I was focused on. One, I love the Food Network. I love “Chopped.” I love cooking shows, and I wanted to think about how do we consider young women of color with a dream of cooking that is bigger than what she knows, and can I bring that into a book. And I wanted to think about how do we challenge the notions that we have of what stories dealing with teen parenting can look like. That in young adult fiction there is, I would say, a small canon of stories of young women trying to decide whether or not they can keep a child. What about after?
I think so often the conversations about pregnancy stop at the pregnancy. And for me it’s, what does a young person need to be supported? What do they need to move forward? How does a young person know that they are loved by their community regardless of the decisions that they make? And that when this does happen, if someone becomes pregnant really young, how do we say, “OK, that was a decision you made, and what now? How do we ensure that you can still live a fruitful life for yourself and for your child?” And I wanted to handle that with dignity. And for me, it meant picking up at one of the hard parts of the conversation of like, “We’re here. Keep going.”
Are you a chef? What is your favorite thing to cook?
I am in no capacity a chef. I have thought that if I were not a writer, though, I would want to go to culinary school. I like cooking things that have lots of different kinds of flavor. That’s probably why the story has so much fusion that I’m like, I want spice and heat and sweet and a little sour. So a lot of my cooking tends to have rice involved and it tends to have a lot of different kinds of sauces, so that I can bring all of those different elements in. I don’t cook a lot of Dominican food. I don’t compete with my mother. Or the memory of her cooking. But for me, it’s how do I delve into different traditions. And home food is home.
How does talking about teen motherhood resonate in 2019?
I think that when we talk about young mothers and teen parents, I remember growing up the statistic was like one in two Latinas will be pregnant by the time they’re 21. It was this massive statistic. That’s changed. I think the conversation around sexual education has changed. I think the ability to use contraception has changed. So we’re having a different conversation in this moment around teen pregnancy. The stigma around teen pregnancy has not changed, right? And this is, again, about what happens after. Young women who find themselves pregnant are still faced with feeling like there are these insurmountable odds that they have placed upon them, unless they decide to put their child up for adoption or if they decide to abort or they decide to keep the child. There’s no right answer that they can make of their own volition and be allowed to have without shame.
And I think that for me, in the “Poet X” and in “With the Fire on High,” I’m looking at how do we teach girls shame. And how do you unlearn that shame. And so while maybe the conversation around teen pregnancy has changed these days, I don’t think that that notion of what do we think we are owed by someone’s body and by their life — especially if you’re a woman or a woman of color and a black girl — that’s still the same. And that has to be pushed against.
And you’re writing about a character that’s not someone we see portrayed every day. Forget her being pregnant, you’re writing about a woman of color who comes from different backgrounds. Can you elaborate on that?
Emoni Santiago is half Afro-Puerto Rican and half black-American, with roots in North Carolina, and I wanted to think through how we talk about blackness and how we talk about the diaspora. And this character brought up a lot of different ways to have that conversation. That if you are Spanish speaking from the Caribbean, how is your blackness delegitimized or what are the questions around that? What does it look like that might be different than what we consider blackness. But also if you have distance from your ancestors, what does it mean to have a lack of memories? What does it mean to not be able to kind of bridge your history? And the cooking came from that.
The reason that there’s a fusion is that she’s trying to speak into the void of, “Who am I, because I’m not sure. My father, who wants to tell me who I am isn’t here. My mother, who would have told me a different side of this story, has passed, and I’m trying to create the myth of myself from what I think I know.” And so the race and the parentage allowed me to kind of speak to what I think is this moment of Afro-Latinidad, but also of a larger conversation of blackness.
And who are you writing for?
Listen, I don’t sugarcoat this answer ever. I write for, I write towards and I write about black and brown young women of color. That when I am thinking of who needs a reminder that they are the hero of their own life story, those are the girls.
I’m very clear about my audience. I’m very clear about who I want when they pick up this book to know they’re loved. To know that this author loves me and will write about me with dignity. But I’m OK if that invitation extends a little wider. I acknowledge and understand that we go to stories for many reasons and that although my focus may be here, there’s a wider range that I’m not even conscious of that’s coming into that that invites a lot of people to the page.
You used to be a teacher, then you jumped into writing. How did that come to be?
I used to be a teacher, and I was always a writer. People want a transition story, and I’m like the writing was always there. And the teaching kind of was my attempt at trying something new and then realizing I needed to return back to the writing. But I wasn’t a fiction writer until I taught.
And when I was in the classroom I realized that the books that we were putting in front of the demographic of the students that I worked with did not reflect who they were. I taught in a school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, that was 78 percent Latinx. It was close to 20 percent black. You had never had a Latino teacher. I never had an Afro-Latinx teacher at all. And in that space where I’m supposed to be teaching students, who are in eighth grade at a sixth grade reading level, how to read, I kept being faced with, “These books ain’t about us. Why should we read these books? Why should we read at all? And that notion of when you do not see yourself, when you don’t think you are allowed literature, what that does to your whole relationship to school, to education, to bettering yourself in the capacity of upward mobility in that way, for me, felt like it was directly tied to an ability to read. And that was when I began thinking, “What about me? And what makes me afraid of putting these stories on bookshelves? What makes me afraid of speaking directly to these students?”
And so I had to be brave and be like, “OK, I’m going to try this.” But a lot of that was because of my kiddos.
A lot of your writing kind of blends fiction and poetry. How did that come to be your form?
I came to writing through music. I wanted to be a rapper for a long time. We always had music playing in the house.
And so poetry was natural from music, from the musicality of how I thought you could tell stories. I think that with the novel, I still was thinking of it as lyrical. Although it was prose, it’s really short prose. They’re really small chapters, because I wanted it to feel almost like a prose poem. I wanted it to feel like vignettes, that there’s a lot of movement between memory and present. And, for me, poetry does a great job of being this kind of pendulum that swings back and forth. And so I don’t know that I’m ever going to take some of those elements out because for me that kind of elevation of language is part of the joy of writing. That the story is important to me, but it’s also the craft of, “what does the language do that I have not seen?”
Do you have any advice for young writers?
I don’t really have any original advice for young writers. I think the advice you get to read widely is one that I share. Don’t throw your work away. I meet so many young people who will write and then will crumple it up — “It’s not good enough.” And I’m like, “A first draft isn’t supposed to be good.” And so I think removing the expectation of a first draft as having good or bad in it and just: a first draft is supposed to be completed. It’s supposed to tell you the story. You’re supposed to figure it out. And so I would urge young writers to just trust the process of, when you get to the end, you’ll know how to revise. But if you don’t know what it is yet, you don’t know what you’re going to discover, you don’t know what you’re going to stumble into, you don’t know what you’re writing. I mean, at least that’s how my journey works. I don’t outline, so I would also tell them if you don’t outline, it’s OK!