May Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Caroline Owen

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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, 357 pages, YA Fic

Warnings: misogyny, sexism, body shaming, sexual harassment, bullying, mentions of domestic abuse

Themes: family, culture and ethnicity, religion, tradition, faith vs. society, love, self-acceptance, high school

 

★★★★☆

 

REVIEW:

 

High school sophomore Xiomara Batista is not the quiet Christian girl her Dominican parents want her to be. Hailed a miracle baby after her parents struggled to conceive, Xiomara was deemed a blessing and set out by her parents to become a holy child. Raised in a heavily Christian household, Xiomara and her brother Twin attend regular mass, bible study, and even confirmation class. However, at every sermon, her pastor’s words fail to resonate with Xiomara- how could they when she’s not even sure if God exists? After all, if God was real, then why didn’t he save Xiomara from her mother, as well as from herself?

 

Xiomara’s parents are extremely conservative and hold their daughter to a unattainable standard. As a female, Xiomara must be pure, holy, and untainted, meaning, no dating, no boys, no staring or wanting. Her entire life Xiomara is told to hide her body, that love is sin, and to never become a cuero. For Xiomara, however, that expectation is unrealistic; as soon as puberty hit, she grew into a figure of curves which her parents chastise. In alleyways, on the subway, at school, and by her own community, Xiomara is routinely harassed for the body she has no control over. Her own family shames her, and often Xiomara is forced by her mother to repent for “encompassing sin.”

 

School is a place of refuge for Xiomara who feels alienated within her family. English class soon becomes her favorite as Xiomara is drawn to not only her teacher’s love of poetry but also her open-forum approach to teaching. A few weeks later, a student from the Slam Poetry Club speaks to her english class to invite students to join. Co-run by her english teacher, the SPC is a group of students from Xiomara’s school who gather to write and recite their own poetry. To some, poetry is a delicate and graceful art. To the members of the SPC, however, words are just only paint on a canvas; they also stray bullets, punches, and tears – each poem outlines not only the writer’s compositional talents but their internal battles as well.

 

Xiomara is instantly mesmerized by the way spoken poetry can hold so much power and influence. Although eager to join the SPC, Xiomara is conflicted; there is no way she would be able to convince her stone-set mother to let her skip confirmation class to attend SPC meetings. With no other outlets, Xiomara turns to paper and pen for solace – an old leather-bound journal is her muse and a pen her vice. Through writing, Xiomara is able to channel her innermost emotions. The notebook is the place where her ideas come alive, where she can say thing things that were never allowed at home. Words are her sacred fuel.

 

Within a few months of starting her sophomore year, Xiomara falls for Aman, a boy in her biology class. It’s the first time she has felt happy and truly free being herself, and that someone liked her for who she is instead of for just being her parents’ daughter. Their budding romance is beautiful, but a grave secret; if Xiomara’s mother ever discovers them, the relationship is dead. Unfortunately, Xiomara’s worst fear is eventually confirmed. One of her mother’s friends sees them kissing on the train and calls Xiomara’s mother in disgust. Upon Xiomara’s fear-stricken return home, all hell breaks loose. Her mother physically and verbally injures her, ripping away what little femininity Xiomara is granted by culture, and shattering her personal values and aspirations. This scene repeats when Xiomara’s mother discovers her notebook, left at home accidentally. The book is burned and ripped in front of Xiomara’s eyes by her mother, who believes that by burning the book and violently deprecating her daughter, she can extinguish the light within Xiomara. To her, her daughter’s happiness represents human evil and the ultimate betrayal of religion and family.

 

Though Xiomara’s mother partially succeeds in suppressing her “inner rebel,” Xiomara refuses to be silenced. Instead, anger builds up within her, both at her mother’s ignorance and her deep-set beliefs. Xiomara can’t help but wonder why – why is she a disappointment to her parents over something she has no control over? Why should she be told to act a certain way, to be ashamed of herself and constantly pray for forgiveness, to consider natural desire evil? Why can’t she be allowed to live life as a normal teenager, to not be constantly scrutinized by her parents, to be in love?

 

These issues show no sign of resolving until the night Xiomara runs away from home. She made amends and stayed with Aman, whom she severed ties with in a state of panic. When Xiomara returns home the next day, she is again faced by her mother. Surprisingly, she is not angered at her daughter, but begins to cry next to their pastor, who is in the same room. Over the following weeks, Xiomara and her mother work to reconcile their relationship through counseling and heartfelt discussion. Eventually, with a hefty amount of and the convincing of their pastor, Xiomara’s mother allows her to join the SPC.

 

The novel closes with Xiomara preparing for her first live reading at an open mic. Surrounded by friends and family, she practices over and over again, initially nervous but eventually that fear is overtaken by the melody of her words. Xiomara’s relatives sit in awe, shocked at the strength of Xiomara’s voice and her passion, and give rounds of applause and praise at the end. From her mother, Xiomara is told a simple “use your hand gestures a little less next time. And speak up, Xiomara.”

 

It’s not a love confession, but for Xiomara, it’s the start of something great.

 

PERSONAL INSIGHT:

 

An interesting aspect of the novel was its format (the book is written in verse). The story is broken up into many small sections, each representing a day or specific memory in Xiomara’s life. In a way, it allows the reader to gain an honest and unfiltered look into her world and to feel firsthand the happiness or pain that she experiences. Being a slam poetry champion herself, the author’s method of writing reflects her passions; every page is melodic in its design and powerful in its words. Acevedo’s use of verse only adds more of an impact to her writing, and stylistically it elevates the story.

 

One thing that irritated me while reading was the viewpoint of Xiomara’s mother. To some extent she is blinded by her beliefs which isolate her from her daughter and downplay Xiomara’s blatant cry for help. Xiomara’s pain and suffering is a direct result of her mother’s narrow-mindedness and failure to understand modern-day teenage culture and norms. For most of the novel Xiomara’s mother was cold and unchanging due to her own personal upbringing and beliefs which shaped her opinions on society and the world. However, once her daughter left home, Xiomara’s mother was awakened to the fact that times have changed, and that Xiomara needs the motherly support which is important to all people.

 

The Poet X is similar to The Hate U Give in several respects, primarily in central theme. Both novels’ have comparable main characters – female teenagers of color who overcome racial and social adversity. I believe that the authors’ messages are extremely important in that they support the empowerment of females despite their circumstances or backgrounds. Both teens were able to grow into greatness and fully develop confidence and a sense of self through hardship, partly in due to their personal strength and also due to outsider support. It was only with the encouragement of her family and community that Xiomara was able to truly flourish, which is the case for many young men and women in society today. With the aid and generosity of family, friends, and even complete strangers, today’s teenagers have the power to change the world.

 

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