Fierce

YA Novel by Elizabeth Acevedo is About Family, Food, and Embracing Big Dreams

When you turn the pages of Elizabeth Acevedo’s books you need to do so quickly cause the fire from the passion she puts into every word heats up the pages. The Dominican writer/poet’s third book, With the Fire on High, comes out May 7 about Afro-Boricua teenager Emoni as she embarks on her senior year of high school being a single mom with a big dream.

Her YA debut, The Poet X, follows  Xiomara Batista as she discovers slam poetry and uses it as a way of express herself when she has no other outlet. The book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Pura Belpré Award for a work that affirms the Latinx cultural experience, it quickly became a bestseller.

Acevedo began making a name for herself in the world of slam poetry, using language to paint a picture of her truths and triumphs. From “Afro-Latina,” where she dissects what this blended identity means while embracing its beauty, to “Hair” where she confronts the stigma of pelo malo and proudly exclaims “you can’t fix what was never broken.” She’s made it a point in her career to uplift the Latinx community and through her work carve a space where there aren’t many people of color telling these stories.

From the cover featuring a curly-haired Afro-Latina to Emoni’s exploration of her bi-cultural roots, With the Fire on High is a glimpse into the everyday existence of a young girl of color. Here Acevedo talks about exploring that feeling of living in-between two worlds, the bonds between women and its empowering effects, and why she wanted to address the complexities of Afro-Latinidad.

Q: The book is broken up into three parts and each part starts off with a recipe that includes casual instructions like cooking something for the duration of a music album, how did you decide which to use for each part?

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The sections and recipes were an attempt to flip common phrases “When life gives you lemons,” “Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk,” and “Breaking Bread”—Because Emoni is someone  who can’t follow a recipe to the letter I decided to remix the phrases and show how she takes what life gives her and makes the best of it based on what will work for her.

Q: Emoni is a mom but she’s also a high school senior and from the slang she uses to the pop culture references you can tell she’s a product of this day and age, how did you go about developing this character?

Emoni was one of those characters that showed up one day and began talking in my ear. I knew who she was, what music she listened to, what television shows she loved to watch, and her relationship with her family. I wanted her to feel fresh and current but also timeless.

Q: Emoni’s mixed ethnic background comes into play during an interaction where she’s faced with some ignorant remarks and she’s quick to educate those who say someone of a certain race or ethnicity should look a certain way, being that there is so much more awareness of Afro-Latinidad but still so much ignorance involved, why was this an important interaction to include for you?

I think it’s important to use fiction to speak to the current climate and I wanted to address the complexity behind Afro-Latinidad and the ways that manifests within my main character, Emoni; there are so many assumptions people make about her that aren’t based in fact but are a myth of their own making.  Emoni is a character that contemplates colorism, blackness, afro-latinidad and all that those pieces of her identity bring in ways I hope are nuanced.

Q: The romance between Emoni and Malachi touches on serious topics including the loss of a loved one and sex, how did you decide to develop their relationship and the character of Malachi?

I wanted Malachi to be a sweet love interest; a departure from the ways that black boys are often depicted in fictions. He’s kind, he’s smart, he loves his community and he cares about Emoni. He also has had his own share of violence and heartbreak and struggles with never really having a place to heal some of those wounds.  It was important for me to show a relationship that had clear boundaries and open conversation. I wish when I was a teen I had seen more examples of what young women could ask of their partners.  

Q: From her relationship with her abuela to her daughter to her best friend, the power of female relationships is evident throughout the book, can you talk more about that and what inspired you to create such strong female characters?

This book really is about the community of women that it takes to raise a child. I wanted to show the strong fem bonds that support us, free us, and launch us forward. Emoni cannot always see herself and her talents clearly but the women around her believe in her even when she doesn’t.

You take on serious topics including the loss of a loved one, street violence, economic burdens, colonialism, privilege, and race, what was the writing process like balancing such heavy content with the more light-hearted moments?

@acevedowrites / Instagram

I had to work really hard to make sure that I didn’t only depict moments of hardship and grief; even when we as real people are going through difficult moments we still laugh, and love, and hang out with our homegirls, and eat good meals with our families; I wanted my characters to be afforded this same bandwidth of humanity.  

Q: While her father’s love for Puerto Rico plays an important role in the story, Emoni also shows a love for her hometown of Philadelphia and sometimes struggles with her dual backgrounds in ways like not speaking Spanish well or not knowing as much about her African American roots and for young people of color this is very much a part of their reality. What was the inspiration behind you including this feeling like you live in between two worlds?

 I’m really into exploring what it means to be raised in an overlap of culture, ethnicities, expectations, etc. Emoni offered me an opportunity to dive into some of those dynamics. Especially teens I think feel stuck in the middle: they are not quite adults, but they also aren’t fully children either.  There’s a lot of fodder for literature in looking at the in between-ness that people occupy.

Q: You repeatedly make it a point to show how Emoni’s emotions come through in her food which is, of course, reminiscent of the classic Like Water for Chocolate, how did this book play a role in developing With the Fire on High and were there any other writers or stories that inspired you as you wrote this book?

I was definitely channeling Laura Esquivel when I wrote With the Fire on High, and also the author Sarah Addison Allen. They both write fiction that centers women and use food and magical realism as a way to show how the strengths and passions of their characters. I took what I loved about their books and brought it to a hood in Philadelphia and to a character with big dreams and talents she doesn’t know how to channel.

Q: As a prominent and award-winning writer and Dominicana, it’s clear from your works that you aim to uplift the voices of POC and highlight that experience, how much of it is inspired by your life and what other sources do you use for inspiration? 

@acevedowrites / Instagram

I definitely walk through the world with a sensitivity as to what would make an interesting story, or a personality quirk I might want to give to a character, or a with a watchful eye of a setting I think is unusual. So, consciously and subconsciously I am mindful of storytelling; many of my writings are inspired by people I know, students I’ve worked with, memories I have from my own childhood, and current events I see on the news.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from this book?

That young people of color deserve stories where they triumph, where they follow their dreams, where live and love and are allowed to be kids. They deserve to see themselves as chefs, and doctors, and artists and all their other wild imaginings.

Books To Read So That You Can Be A Better Ally Of The Black Lives Matter Movement

Fierce

Books To Read So That You Can Be A Better Ally Of The Black Lives Matter Movement

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During this time of so much unrest and pain, you might be feeling relatively powerless but it’s important to know that there are ways to help. There are petitions to sign, groups to support and people to hug. But perhaps one of the most empowering things you can do to help right now is to educate yourself. To be a true ally to the Black Lives Matter movement you have to educate yourself about the history of systemic racism in our country.

To help, we’ve put together a reading list of books and poems by African-American writers to check out.

Freedom Is A Constant Struggle by Angela Davis

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Activist Angela Davis was a pioneer of her time and while you might see her various quotes about racism and race circulating around the internet in the wake of George Floy’s death, there is far more to learn from her. Freedom Is A Constant Struggle, which was published in 2016, shows her thoughts and insights on civil rights, racism, and feminism through a series of essays.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter will light up how you see the ways in which racism affects Black people of various classes. Carter lives in a poor neighborhood and goes to school at fancy suburban prep school where she juggles having to blend in and stay ahead of the educational curve. Starr’s life is thrown out of balance when the fatal shooting of her childhood friend Khalil occurs at the hands of a police officer.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Written in 1962, this classic about the Civil Rights Movement is divided into two parts both of which give a powerful reflection on Baldwin’s time Harlem. In his novel, writes “If we – and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, And A New Era In America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery

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As a reporter for The Washington Post, Wesley Lowery spent much of President Obama’s second term in office traveling from city to city, covering the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers, including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray. They Can’t Kill Us All begins with his own aggressive arrest during the Ferguson protests after allegedly “failing to disperse” quickly enough when police officers cleared out a McDonald’s – then goes on to recount the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement from the front lines. In short, it’s essential reading right now.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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For this story that sheds light on the collective trauma felt by slaves and their descendants, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize. Morrison’s novel was inspired by a true reported piece written in the American Baptist in 1856 and follows a woman who escaped as a slave from a fictional plantation to live in the free state of Ohio. Despite her escape, she remains haunted by the ghosts of her pays.

Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde

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Everyone needs to read every piece by this poet who has described herself as a black, lesbian, mother, and warrior. In this collection of essays, speeches, and poems by Lorde there’s so much to learn from this brilliant keynote speaker and writer.

Afro-Latinas Inspiring Us To Live Out The Dream With Their Poetry

Things That Matter

Afro-Latinas Inspiring Us To Live Out The Dream With Their Poetry

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When you’re a Latina who’s walked through life receiving a slew of comments, like “you’re pretty for a morena” or “you could be cute if you fixed that pelo malo,” you know that it isn’t always easy finding women in media who look like you. Let alone in the fields of academia and literature. With our world seemingly turned upside down, FIERCE is paying homage to Latinas who have worked to empower Black women through their words and thoughts on Afro-Latinidad.

Check out some of our favorite powerful Latinas celebrating our roots below.

Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo is an Afro-Dominican spoken word poet and author who hails from New York City. With each line that she delivers, Acevedo does members of the Latino community a favor by highlighting and praising its African ancestry. Her work lovingly celebrates the influence her Blackness has impressed upon her own cultural traditions. “My first language I spoke was Spanish/ Learned from lullabies whispered in my ear/ My parents’ tongue was a gift which I quickly forgot after realizing my peers did not understand it./ They did not understand me,” she says in her poem “Afro-Latina.” Besides holding an impressive presence on Instagram, Acevedo has addressed TEDTalk stages, appeared on BET and Mun2, and authored books like “The Poet X” and “Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths.”

Follow her on Instagram here.

Sharee Yveliz

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The “I Mean, I Guess” author has an African-American father and a mother who hails from the Dominican Republic. She has spoken openly about feeling isolated from both cultures. Her poem “Negra Bella” is about empowerment and finding your own way.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Danyeli Rodriguez Del Orbe

Del Orbe is a formerly undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic who writes and performs spoken word poetry. Her Instagram page features a collection of her poems, thoughts presented as a stream of consciousness, photos, and memes. Her poetry works to shed light on issues facing the Afro-Dominican community, including the immigrant experience. Braiding her desires to promote resistance and visibility for low-income immigration, Del Orbe’s work is definitely one for any poetry enthusiast to watch.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Ariana Brown

Ariana Brown is an African-American-Mexican-American poet whose experience of being raised in San Antonio, Texas largely inspired her to create the Afro-Latina representation that she often missed out on while growing up. Brown’s poetry takes on so many of the issues Latinas are forced to deal with, including race, ethnicity, culture, and sexual orientation. In poems like “Inhale: The Ceremony,” the Black writer addresses the ways in which African ancestry is often erased and discredited in history as well as in modern cultures.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Yazmerlin Rodriguez

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Through her numerous posts on Instagram, Rodriguez’s use of the social platform proves that as an artist she prefers to dabble in more than just one art form. She models, opens up about her long-term pursuit of education via physical therapy, and writes epic poems that will excite the heart of any Latina who has ever doubted the beauty and power of her rizos. The Afro-Dominicana from the Bronx, New York uses her poetic verses to remind readers that Black Latinos are “proof of survival and resilience” and that “‘Black don’t crack’ is more than just skin deep.”

Follow her on Instagram here.

Venessa Marco

If you have yet to be blessed with the words and observations of this Cuban-Puerto Rican, prepare for an earthquake of emotion that her words will undoubtedly bring out in you. Back in 2014, the Afro-Latina made waves across the Internet when she performed her spoken word poem “Patriarchy.” The piece speaks to the constant sexualization from men and media that so many women often endure. These days, Marco is still stomping down the patriarchy and fighting against colorism, racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Aja Monet

Monet is a Cuban-Jamaican poet, writer, and lyricist from Brooklyn, New York. Back in 2007, when she was 19, she became the youngest poet to ever become the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Champion. For any Latina finding herself enraged, disheartened, or infuriated by today’s post-2016 election, Monet’s politically driven poems will give you something to lean on. Her work speaks to the everyday struggles of being a Black woman, racism, Trump, sisterhood, solidarity, and displacement. She has two published books, including “The Black Unicorn Sings” and “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter.”

Follow her on Instagram here.

Tonya Ingram

Ingram became a New York Knicks Poetry Slam Champion back in 2011 and was a member of the 2013 Nuyorican Grand Slam team. The Bronx-born poet has published her work for two books: “Growl and Snare” as well as “Another Black Girl Miracle.” Each and every one of her words is steeped with intention and speaks to the Black girl’s experience with a strong sense of wisdom and self-love.

Follow her on Instagram here.