title: The Poet X
author: Elizabeth Acevedo
date: HarperTeen; 2018
main character: Xiomara Batista
YA fiction in verse
Like Elizabeth Acevedo, the author of The Poet X, Xiomara Batista is Dominican American. I don’t know what other similarities exist between the two. I do know that The Poet X was Acevedo’s debut novel that has won the 2019 CILIP Carnegie Medal, 2019 L.A. Times Book Prize, Young Adult Literature, 2019 Walter Award, Teen, 2019 Michael Printz Award, 2019 Pura Belpre Award, Text and the 2018 National Book Award. While that should be enough to convince most people to read her book, I know there are too many out there who still have never heard of The Poet X or who don’t know they need to read it. So today I’m posting a long overdue review. Over the next few weeks, I hope to catch up on several reviews that I never quite managed to post.
Xiomara (see oh mara) is a tall, thick, physically “unhideable” teenage girl. While males are always reaching for her body with their hands and their words, they never see her. Consequently, everything about being a woman from her breast, to her hips and her period is perceived as trouble. (p. 151) Those who see her in the street or in the classroom see just a brown body. While she’s street smart, she’s not a street girl. She’s never even had her first kiss or first boyfriend! Her mother would never let that happen! Rather than preparing her daughter to be able to maneuver the world, Xiomara’s mother also sees her as a brown body who she protects her by taking her to church.
Acevedo artistically details the abuse directed at Xio’s developing female body but, she goes further to develop the ways her Dominican culture adds to the burden of being female. She primarily does this through her twin brother, who Xio calls ‘Twin’, in mentioning how few demands are put upon him and how much he’s able to get away with. Her father is a silent observer in the life of his family while Mami rules with an iron fist. Through much of the story, Papi and Twin do little to protect Xio. Her mother dominates the household. It’s fascinating to observe that as Xio develops, her mother’s power and influence over Xio is shifted to various community members. For example Fr. Sean, the neighborhood priest, gains Xio’s confidence and through this relationship is able to mediate Xio’s integrity with her mother.
I appreciate that Xio is a good girl but, not a perfect one. She does stupid stuff and she wrestles internally with it. She questions both her religion and her faith in God, the story of Eve and the need for communion while she munches on apples.
When Xio sees the call for spoken word poets and she gains “a new awareness buzzing over the noise” (p. 67) and we watch her begin to grow. One of her first developments is when she names her own poet self ‘Poet X’. How empowering! Readers also observe her growth through her writing assignments. As she begins to speak her own words out loud, as she is heard and recognized for her abilities as a poet, Xio begins to feel important. Visible. Xio’s poetry documents her coming of age.
Me, a person who does not speak the language, enjoyed the lack of translation of the Spanish words and phrases throughout the book. I appreciated when I had to struggle when the context didn’t provide clues because this book wasn’t written for me. I felt left out. While I needed to be reminded what it’s like to be a young brown girl who is continually objectified and misunderstood, I’m not the one who needs to hear that I’m OK. People see me and they hear me. I need to be reminded what my black and brown girls need from me. I was able to get the intent without the translations and I was able to read the Hail Mary when I saw it. But this book is for our young people, a window for some and a mirror for others.