Mami says she thought it was a saint’s name.
Gave me this gift of battle and now curses
how well I live up to it.
My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit in the pews
wearing pretty florals and a soft smile.
They got combat boots and a mouth silent
until it’s sharp as an island machete.
—The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
I first read The Poet X back in November, and I’ve been raving about it since then—telling people known and unknown, near and far to pre-order, pre-order, pre-order.
I read it for the second time yesterday, and now I love it all the more.
I already can’t wait to read it again next month, a third time, in a finished copy.
Xiomara is fifteen, a sophomore, a twin, the daughter of Dominican immigrants. She’s an unwilling attendee of confirmation class, an aspiring poet, a girl who is beginning to find that the expectations and restrictions and assumptions laid on her shoulders—by her mother, her church, her peers, by societal culture—don’t just chafe: they restrict, squeeze, confine.
She’s angry, scared, yearning.
Her mouth is quiet but her heart and mind are clamoring to be heard.
As you may already know, I usually have a hard time writing about books that I especially love—my heart overrides and short-circuits my brain—and I am reduced to shouting, “JUST READ IT OMG” while throwing copies of it at people. So. Because talking about the book as a whole is TOO MUCH for me to handle, here are a few elements that I especially loved:
It’s about the power of language, expression, and finding your voice.
That might seem like a given in a book about a poet. But that theme isn’t only there in regards to her poetry—it’s there, in every facet of her being, in every thread of her story. It’s even there in how she describes her relationship with her brother:
His real name is for Mami, teachers, Father Sean.
But Twin? Only I can call him that,
a reminder of the pair we’ll always be.
She plays with words and the power of words in ways large and small; the romance centers around the shared act of listening to the lyrics-based music of Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Drake; she shows us her true face in rough drafts for school assignments and then her public face in the finished copies she passes in.
She works through complex—and often conflicting—thoughts and feelings through series of similarly-named poems, like the three poems called Why Twin Is a Terrible Twin, followed by one called But Why Twin Is Still the Only Boy I’ll Ever Love. And she goes back, again and again, to apple imagery. Which brings us to...
It’s about faith and religion.
Xiomara isn’t sure how she feels about church, religion, faith. She doesn’t know if it’s for her, but she doesn’t look down on, dismiss, or question other peoples’ faith. Their faith is their own, and she has respect for that.
She has so many questions, but doesn’t feel like she can ask them:
About a holy trinity
that don’t include the mother.
It’s all the things.
(Especially lovely within the context of the trinity image: There’s no direct mention of it in the book, but she and her brother and her best friend form their own trinity of mutual love and support, despite their differences in behavior/reaction, conflicting beliefs, personal struggles.)
Again and again, her problems with and questions about religion come back to trying to figure out her place in the world—and in her church—as a woman:
When I’m told to have faith
in the father the son
in men and men are the first ones
to make me feel so small.
Which brings us to...
It’s about gender and girlhood and the push/pull of expectation and desire.
Unspoken and unexplained and unquestioned norms.
Ingrained expectations about men and women and girls and boys and their different places in the world—and the inherent problems that come of those strict boxes, the pain and silence forced upon girls who love girls or boys who love boys or anyone who doesn’t conform exactly to those binary identities.
Getting your period and not knowing what to do.
Masturbation and shame.
The difference between objectification and mutual desire.
The devastating shift of being treasured as a child, and then distrusted and resented as a teen.
It’s a book not just about the power of expression, but about the power of being heard.
It’s about how we are all a jumble of emotions and thoughts and conflicting ideas, how that jumble can sometimes feel too big for our fragile bodies:
As I lie in bed,
thinking of this new school year,
I feel myself
stretching my skin apart.
Even with my Amazon frame,
I feel too small for all that’s inside me.
I want to break myself open
like an egg smacked hard against an edge.
It’s about how the power that we find in other peoples’ stories is a power we can claim for ourselves. That we, ourselves, can become the storytellers.
And it’s about how acknowledging and expressing hard personal truths—truths rooted in pain, fury, exhaustion—can lead us to hope and joy and wonder and optimism.
This is a beautiful book.
Necessary, true, honest.
Do not, do not, do not miss it.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.