On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
But I learned young, you do not speak
of the dying as if they are already dead.
You do not call bad spirits into the room,
& you do not smudge a person’s dignity
by pretending they are not
still alive, & right in front of you,
& perhaps about to receive a miracle.
You do not let your words stunt unknown possibilities.
Elizabeth Acevedo, “Clap When You Land”
Returning with her third young adult novel — “Clap When You Land” — local poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo tells the story of two teenage girls who discover an unexpected bond.
The book, written in verse, like Acevedo’s National Book Award-winning debut “The Poet X,” alternates between the young women’s perspectives — one lives in New York City and the other in the Dominican Republic. As their lives intersect, they help each other grapple with grief, forgiveness and — most importantly — love.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Elizabeth Acevedo National Book Award Winner, Poet, Author, "Clap When You Land"
"With the Fire on High"
Local poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo won the National Book Award in 2018 for her debut novel "The Poet X." Written in verse, the book centered on the life of a teenage poet. Now, in her second novel, Acevedo gives us a teenage chef.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. Later in the broadcast it's our, Kojo for Kids edition, this week featuring Steven Birnbaum, D.C. United Soccer star and who has also played for the U.S. national team. He'll be taking questions from kids only.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first returning with her third young adult novel "Clap When You Land" local poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo tells the story of two teenage girls as they discover an unexpected bond. The book is written in verse like Acevedo's national book award winning debut "The Poet X." And it alternates between the young women's perspectives. One lives in New York City, the other in the Dominica Republic. As their lives intersect they help each other grapple with grief, forgiveness and love. Elizabeth Acevedo is a National Book Award-winning and New York Times best-selling author. Her most recent novel "Clap When You Land." Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDOThanks so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDICan you tell us about "Clap When You Land," which goes on sale May 5th. What is this story about?
ACEVEDOSo the synopsis you gave was perfect. I wish I could copy that and repeat it anytime I'm asked to give the pitch, but this is story loosely based on true events that happened in 2001. There was a plane crash from New York City to the Dominican Republic. It crashed in Queens and it completely rocked the Dominican community.
ACEVEDOTwo hundred and sixty Dominicans were on that flight and it felt like everyone knew someone who passed. And I was a child. I was 12 years old, but distinctly remember how my community reacted and what it did to us. And I've always wanted to write about it. And in doing research I stumbled upon the fact that a lot of people on that flight had secrets. And so this book came out of the secrets our parents don't tell us and how do we learn forgiveness, how do we learn to collapse the distance across us and other family members in order to move on or at least to process.
NNAMDIIt is a fascinating story based as you pointed out on a real airplane crash that happened a couple of months after 9/11, but it does seem that we didn't hear a lot about that airline crash for long afterwards.
ACEVEDONo. I mean, I remember I was a kid and so I didn't have as much access to the newspaper. But outside of the Latino news once they determined it wasn't terrorism it's like they disappeared from the national and international media circuit. It was just, "Okay, well, it doesn't matter as much as we thought it might have." And I think when you hear and you're from a particular group of people it's, "We don't matter as much."
NNAMDIElizabeth, what is your own earliest memory of flight?
ACEVEDOI remember being eight years old and my mother dressed me in this like tweed dress and I had this big hat with a sunflower on it. This was back when you had to like be really fancy to get on a plane. And I'm wearing stockings. The Dominican Republic is 100 degrees. It's so hot. And I went by myself. I went with a neighbor and I spent the summer there.
ACEVEDOMy mom is one of 15 kids, and all of her brothers and sisters came to the airport to pick me up. And it was my first time meeting them. And it was, I mean, here I am dressed in this ridiculous tweed outfit meeting dozens and dozens of strangers. And it's still one of my joyous memories. I was welcomed into like this part of a family I had no idea I even had that I didn’t know.
NNAMDII have friends, who send their children to Guiana the country where I was born. And their children come back and say, everybody in the village was related to us, we knew everybody or everybody knew us. I know that's the experience that you had.
NNAMDIThe other experience of passengers breaking into applause as the plane touches down, what did it mean to you then?
ACEVEDOI think everything about that earliest flight was fantastical, but I remember now knowing how to process this moment where it was just -- there, there no conversation. I'm like, how did they all know the secret? How did they know this is what we do that this is a part of the routine? And as I flew more and realized, oh, wait, we don't know. We don't know if anyone else is going to clap. It's just you and your joy and your thanks. And people are bolstered by that so they join in. I've just always been fascinated by that moment and that it doesn't everywhere. You know, when I first flew to Europe and realized, wait, they don't do that here.
NNAMDIThat's actually right.
ACEVEDOI thought there was something wrong, like, okay, did I mix up my queues?
NNAMDINow when I fly to the country of my birth Guiana it happens every time especially if it's around a particular occasion like a holiday whether it's Christmas or Easter when a lot of people are going home for that holiday and they're so excited to be there. Soon as that plane hits the ground they burst into applause immediately.
ACEVEDOAnd especially if it was a turbulent flight, right?
ACEVEDOBecause some of it is like joy and it's we're back home, but it's also, we're nervous.
NNAMDIVery very nervous. I'm wondering if you would mind reading a passage from the first couple of pages of "Clap When You Land."
ACEVEDOSure. This is the very opening passage. The novel is in two perspectives as you notice. And so this is the first sister Camino, who is raised in the Dominican Republic. "I know too much of mud. I know that when a street doesn't have sidewalks and water rises to flood the tile floors of your home learning mud is learning the language of survival. I know too much of mud. How Tia will snap at you with a dishrag if you track it inside. How you need to raise the bed during hurricane season. How mud will dry and cling stubbornly to a shoe or a wall, to Viralata the dog and your exposed foot. I know there's mud that splatters as a motoconcho drives passed. Mud that suctions and slurps at the high heels of the working girls I once went to school with. Mud that softens, unravels into a road leading nowhere.
ACEVEDOAnd mud got a mind of its own wants to enwrap your penny loafers, Hug up on your uniform skirt, presses kisses to your knees and make you slip down to meet it. "Don't let it stain you," Tia always said. But can't she see this place we're from already has its prints on me. I spend nights wiping clean the bottoms of my feet soiled rag over a bucket undoing this mark of place. To be from this barrio is to be made of this earth and clay, dirt backed, water backed, third world smacked they say. The soil beneath a country's nail they say. I love my home, but it might be a sinkhole trying to feast, quicksand, mouth pried open. I hunger for stable ground somewhere else."
NNAMDIElizabeth Acevedo reading from her third young adult novel. It's called "Clap When You Land." Elizabeth, there's a dual narrative happening here. The story of two teenage girls. Camino is the one we hear from first. What can you tell us about her?
ACEVEDOCamino is a young woman, who really wants to be a doctor. Her aunt who she is being raised by while her father lives in the United States. Tia is a healer and a midwife and has taught her a lot about what it means to be a part of a community, what it means to serve a group of people, who may not otherwise have resources. And so she's super altruistic and wants to travel to New York. Her father, who comes in the summer always tells her about the United States and he promises to bring her. And now that she's about to be a senior in high school she really wants to apply to college there and has these ambitious dreams of how she wants to help the world.
NNAMDIThe second narrator is Yahaira in New York City. Tell us about her.
ACEVEDOYahaira was a former chess player. She's incredibly talented and has had a falling out with her father. And so over the last year they have not spoken to each other. And so his passing -- the day she learns of his passing she also has to confront a lot of the falling out that happened between them and why that happened.
NNAMDIWhy was it important to you to have these two particular perspectives represented?
ACEVEDOI think that one of the things I love about young adult literature is the ways that it focuses on the inner lives of girls. And I think when we're talking about girls of color we don't always really focus in on what does it mean to have a father you have to forgive after he's passed? What does it mean to have to hold your mother together as she grieves? What does it mean to have a home that doesn't claim you, right? You know, if you come from -- if you're first generation or second generation immigrant.
ACEVEDOAnd I wanted these two characters, who are yearning for a different place who represent Dominicaness, but from very different angles, to kind of push forward the complexity of what we imagine are the complicated lives of girls and girls of color. And for me that was -- initially it was just Yahaira's story. It was just the sister in New York, who learns her father has a secret family. And I knew that I needed the other sister. That I wanted to hear this perspective from someone in a different country, who we often don't give voice to in American literature.
NNAMDIFascinating story. We're talking with Elizabeth Acevedo. Her latest novel is called "Clap When You Land." David tweets us to say, "Great time to say thanks again to Liz for doing a special event for D.C. Public Library at the beginning of #stayathomedc. Readers loved "With the Fire on High" and the chance to ask Liz questions. Thanks, Liz," says David. Would you read another passage for us, please?
ACEVEDOSure. So this passage is in Yahaira's perspective and it's where her section begins. So we have all this information and you get it from the varied point of views.
NNAMDIBefore you read that, Elizabeth, I'm going to ask you to hold, because we're getting ready to go into a break. So let's for another minute or so continue the conversation I had started. The fate of American Airlines flight 587 was big news until it wasn't. Wasn't this the second deadliest plane crash in American history?
ACEVEDOIt was. And it's incredible to think about how it was overshadowed. And I think part of that was confusion. They didn't know what happened. They thought it was pilot error. They thought it was mechanical failure. They learned that it was a little bit of both, but once it was very clearly determined within a week that it was not terrorism it's like unless you were paying attention to the national, you know, board's report of transportation and what was happening with aviation, you weren't going to get that news. I mean, it was two months after the Twin Towers. People were focused on other things. And this small community in New York wasn't, you know, top news.
NNAMDIWell, Kurt emails, I'm listening to Elizabeth Acevedo from here in Queens, New York and it's so sad that from 2001 until now, I have heard nothing in the news about that tragic flight from the Dominican Republic or to the Dominican Republic, I guess. Alas, also, yes. Flights to Jamaica have always ended in applause, says Kirk. So Kirk has shared our experience. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Elizabeth Acevedo. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking with D.C. United soccer star Steven Birnbaum and taking calls from kids only. Right now we're talking with Elizabeth Acevedo. She's a Book Award-winning and New York Times best-selling author. Her most recent novel is called "Clap When You Land." And before we went to that break Elizabeth I was about to ask you to read another section of "Clap When You Land" for us.
ACEVEDOYes. So this section in Yahaira's voice. This is the sister that lives in New York and it is the first passage in her voice. "When you learn life altering news you are often in the most basic of places. I am sitting at lunch in the corner with Andrea or Dre although I'm the only person, who calls her that. She is telling me about the climate change protest while I flip through a magazine. Dre is outlining where she will be meeting the organizers and the demands they'll be making at City Hall when Ms. Santos's crackling voice pushes through the loudspeaker, 'Yahaira Rios, Yahaira Rios, please report to the main office.'
ACEVEDOI feel every eye in the cafeteria turn to me. I hand the magazine to Dre reminding her not to dog-ear any of the pages since it belongs to the library. I grab a pass from the teacher on lunch duty. But Mr. Henry the security guard smiles when I flash it his way. 'I heard them call you, girl. Not like you would be cutting no how." I hold back a sigh. On the chessboard, I used to be known for my risk taking, but in real life I'm predictable. I follow directions when they are given and rarely break the rules. Teachers' progress reports always have the same comments, 'Quiet in class, shows potential, needs to apply more effort.' I am a rule follower. A person's whose report card always says, 'Meets expectations.' I do not exceed them. I do not do poorly. I arrive and mind my business.
ACEVEDOSo I have no idea what anyone in the main office could possibly want with me. How could I have guessed the truth of it even as teachers in the halls gasped as the news spread, even as the main office was surrounded by parents and guidance counselors, how could I have known then there are no rules, no expectations, no rising to the occasion. When you learn news like this, there is only falling."
NNAMDIThat was Elizabeth Acevedo reading from "Clap When You Land." Much of your latest novel here focuses on grief and how complicated it can be. Tell us about the character of Papi and why it was important that he not just be a tragic hero in this story.
ACEVEDOSo Papi's character is an incredibly complicated figure. And I think, you know, Kojo, you and I have talked about my work before.
ACEVEDOI bring up a lot of questions about fatherhood and the ways in which particularly depending on how masculinity is taught in communities that fatherhood is either present or absent. And so here was a father, who was present. You know, he hung out with his girls. He called them. He took care of them. But he split himself in two and had a lot of secrets. And I was really trying to circle the question of what do you do with a father, who is distant who you don't fully know? And I think a lot of my books are thinking through the relationships we have with our parents and what does healing look like when you don't know how to talk them or in the case of Yahaira and Camino they actually can't. By the time they learn his secret he is gone, but he wasn't evil.
ACEVEDOHe wasn't a bad man. He was someone, who had a lot to answer for, and I think that that's equally as important of a question. What do you do when someone did bad things? But was, you know, also a good person or was good to you like what is that relationship? And Papi really represents that kind of that wrestling.
NNAMDII'd like to talk about representation in literature. Your work has been hailed for telling the stories of young women of color and now in Yahaira and Dre, you're also telling stories of the LGBTQ community. What happens, do you feel, when young readers see themselves and their experiences reflected in literature, because it doesn't happen a whole lot.
ACEVEDOI think so powerful. I think when kids see themselves and it's not -- you know, their identity is a part of the story and enriches the story, but it's not the sole focus of the story. It makes them feel like, oh I can be a protagonist in whatever course my life takes, right? It doesn't matter if my background. It doesn't matter, you know, what circumstances I may come from I too can be the hero. And I think that's critical. And my stories I've had secondary characters, who were LGBTQ, and with this one I wanted the main character or one of the main characters to be queer and it's a part of her identity, but it's not the story at all. It's just showing that we have a lot of different kinds of folks in our communities and all of them deserve to be in the cast.
NNAMDIThere are so many strong female characters to get behind here, but I'm thinking in particular of the caregivers, Tia and Mami. Were they inspired by anyone from your own life?
ACEVEDOThey were. My mother would not call herself a midwife in any capacity, but listen, I grew up drinking and eating all kinds of medicinal smoothies. And my mom would take me with her to the park to go pick things. I mean, she's into holistic healing. So Tia's character comes from her. The Mami character, you know, Yahaira's Mami was hard. My mother is fairer than I am and growing up I just always wondered like, how would people know I'm hers when we don't look alike? How do they know? And I remember asking my mom that and she's like, you look just like me, like I see myself all over you.
ACEVEDOAnd Mami's character came from that of this disconnect between this mother and daughter. But also this deep love and it's also the daughter treating the mom like, I think you are better than you give yourself credit for. And I want to see if you can practice that, because Mami has very, you know, stark opinions about what Papi did and they don't align with Yahaira.
ACEVEDOSo the book is also about our caregivers and how do we push them.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Lulu who says, we Puerto Ricans clap as well when we land. Could this be a Caribbean tradition? I love Liz's work. So so needed. Finally here for all the Dominicans that have been waiting and all others that have no idea that we humans share the same existential issues. I'm wondering if you might read one more passage for us, Elizabeth.
ACEVEDOOf course. So long before I knew what Camino's story was going to look like this poem came forth. And I'll say that I don't think a novel in verse is a novel in poems. There's probably only a handful of poems in the actual book. Everything else is almost like a hinge, but I would argue that this is one of the poems that really propelled her voice. "I am from a playground place. Our oceans that we need for fish are cleared so extranjeros can kite surf. Our land lush and green is bought and sold to foreign powers so they can build luxury hotels for others to rest their heads. The bananas and yucca and sugar cane farmed and harvested exported while kids thank God for every little scrap. The developed world wastes gas, raises carbon emissions and water levels that threaten to disappear us in a single gulp.
ACEVEDOEven the women, girls like the me our mothers and tias, our bodies are branded jungle gyms. Men with accents pick us as if from a brochure to climb and slide and swing. And him, El Cero, he has his hand in every pocket. If you are not from an island you cannot understand what it means to be made of water. To learn to curve around the bend, to learn to rise with rain, to learn to quench and outside thirst while all the while you grow shallow until there is not one drop left for you. I know this is what Tia does not say. Sand and soil and sinew and smiles all bartered, and who reaps, who eats, not us, not me."
NNAMDIElizabeth Acevedo, National Book Award-winner reading from her third young adult novel called "Clap When You Land." I'm sure the book tour for this novel is not quite what you had planned. I'm wondering how has your own life changed in the midst of this pandemic?
ACEVEDOIt's not at all what I planned. I was going to be away the entire month of May, two weeks in the U.S. touring and two weeks in the UK. And all of my events have now turned virtual. For an introvert, who hates video cameras, this is the worst part of the job. But it's, you know, it's interesting how in being distant I now crave to connect and to see my readers. And I miss so much the gatherings. The same things that felt like work are what I am most looking forward to. Just being able to talk about literature and being able to see people's faces and hear them respond. You know, like that we are making this experience together. And so it's been something. It's been a lot of flexibility.
NNAMDIBecause writing could sometimes be a lonely business, and now you're forced to stay at home.
NNAMDIElizabeth Acevedo is a National Book Award-winner and New York Times best-selling author. Her most recent novel is called "Clap When You Land." Thank you so much for joining us. And stay safe.
ACEVEDOThanks to you, Kojo. Thanks so much.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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