The Poet X is a novel written in verse and the recipient of many prestigious awards including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In this impressive debut work, Elizabeth Acevedo demonstrates with passion and heart both the power and the vital necessity of being heard, especially when you are a young woman of color. And conversely, the novel shows the terrible destructive power of being silenced, ignored and relegated to an object, a mere physical body subject to the rules and punishments of others.
The Poet X is Xiomara Batista, the first generation daughter of immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, the twin sister of Xavier (aka Twin), a Catholic who questions, and a sophomore in public school in Harlem among other things. Xiomara is tall and curvy, and at 15 her looks attract unwanted attention from boys and men. In her journal, Xiomara writes about her experiences and her desire to become invisible, to no more be touched and grabbed, her anger at not being listened to. She describes herself as “unhide-able.”
When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced by insults.
I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.
Xiomara, whose name means “one who is ready for war”, feels as though she gets no respite from this negative judgement and attention at home. Twin is a genius and attends a fancy private school; he’s so smart he is a grade ahead of Xiomara, and his parents treat him as special, not requiring him to do chores. Twin does try to help Xiomara and even gave her the journal that she writes in. While they love one another, the twins as they grow older become more secretive. Xiomara feels that her father ignores her while her mother is completely overbearing and critical. Mami’s biggest concerns are that Xiomara make her confirmation at church and stay away from boys. Her punishments involve having Xiomara kneel on rice in front of a stature of the Virgin Mary while praying for forgiveness. It seems to Xiomara that her mother and the church/God view Xiomara’s body as shameful and bad, and Xiomara is really not interested in making confirmation. She questions a lot that the church teaches but seems to get nothing but trouble for asking questions:
what’s the point of God giving me life
if I can’t live it as my own?
Why does listening to his commandments
mean I need to shut down my own voice?
Xiomara’s situation at home gets more complicated when she starts 10th grade. One of her favorite classes is English with Ms. Galiano, a tough teacher who seems genuinely interested in what Xiomara writes. When Ms. Galiano encourages Xiomara to join the poetry club, Xiomara wants very much to go but knows she cannot since it meets after school at the same time as confirmation class. Meanwhile, in biology, Xiomara and her lab partner Aman begin a friendship that would infuriate Mami, and so Xiomara begins meeting with him on the sly. They listen to music together in the park and Aman encourages Xiomara’s poetry writing. She is falling in love and feels like someone is really listening to her for the first time, but she knows that she is in a very dangerous situation should Mami ever find out about Aman.
Xiomara is not without allies though. Twin, despite his timidity and quiet, does look out for his sister, as does their lifelong pal Caridad. Caridad and Xiomara attend confirmation class together and while Caridad is more of a straight arrow/good girl, she helps cover for Xiomara when she skips class. Both Twin and Caridad recognize Xiomara’s talents as a poet and support her in ways that will surprise and help Xiomara. Xiomara has another unlikely ally, whose identity I won’t reveal but who will play an important role later in the novel when Xiomara and Mami are involved in an explosive situation.
It’s difficult to review this novel without spoiling it, and I really don’t want to do that. The story is powerful and beautifully told. Acevedo shows the reader the fear and frustration that drives parents to try to control and dominate their children, the harm that results from stifling children’s questions, the objectification of young women’s bodies and the blame placed on them for that, and the power one feels when she is free to speak as well as the confidence and esteem that result from being heard. I think young girls will recognize Xiomara’s plight and perhaps young men will have their eyes opened as to how a friend and ally ought to behave.