Friday, December 14, 2018

Book Review: "The Poet X" by Elizabeth Acevedo

Wow. This was absolutely phenomenal. What a powerful gut punch.

Elizabeth Acevedo's National Book Award-winning The Poet X is deserving of every single accolade that comes its way. This immensely moving novel-in-verse will light a fire inside you while it takes your breath away.

Xiomara Batista is about to start her sophomore year at a high school in Harlem. She has been the object of male attention since she grew tall and her body grew curves. Her fiercely religious mother has only mistrust for Xiomara, as she is convinced that a teenage girl with a body like that will only get into trouble. But Xiomara spends more time fighting the jeers and the curious stares, and standing up for her meeker twin brother, Xavier, whom she refers to as "Twin."

"The other girls call me conceited. Ho. Thot. Fast.
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."

The best way Xiomara finds to combat everything that threatens to bring her down—her mother's religious fervor and mistrust, her father's disregard, the secrets that Twin seems to be hiding, and her growing desire for a boy to like her—is to write. She fills a well-worn leather notebook with her thoughts, her fears, and her poems. As her new English teacher encourages her to join a poetry club, Xiomara knows her words can't ever be heard by others or her secrets will fly away.

When she and her lab partner, Aman, begin a flirtation which grows ever more intense, Xiomara knows her mother's rules. She is not allowed to date, not even allowed to go anywhere with a boy. But for the first time, she decides to disobey her mother and spend time with Aman. She feels happiness, desire, guilt, confusion, but more than that, she can't quite understand why these feelings are wrong.

"How does a girl like me figure out the weight
of what it means to love a boy?"

But secrets can only be kept secret for so long. When Xiomara's secrets are exposed, their discovery, and her mother's reaction, threatens everything—her relationship with each of her family members, her self-worth, even her ability to express herself through poetry. She is lost, adrift, until she finds one beacon to help guide her back on course.

At times this is a difficult book to read because Xiomara's mother is so unflinching in her beliefs and so outwardly cruel to her daughter. In a small way, she reminds me of the mother in Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, because you just can't understand how a mother's love for her child could turn so twisted and cruel, even though you learn the reasons behind it.

Xiomara is a truly unforgettable character, and although you don't see him as much, I loved Twin as well, and wished he was more of a presence at times. To watch someone who has always carried herself with so much bravado find herself so vulnerable is sad, but you hope that she'll bounce back even bigger and stronger than she was.

I absolutely loved this book and read it in one day. I am not a fan of audio books but I am considering listening to this one, which Acevedo narrates herself, since she is an award-winning slam poet. I was utterly mesmerized by Acevedo's words and how they metamorphosized into such a memorable voice for Xiomara—simultaneously tough and soft, passionate and fearful.

This is a book about family, religion, friendship, young love, wishing you could be who your parents want you to be but not wanting to give up who you are, and the transformative power of words. The Poet X is a book I won't soon forget.

"I only know that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light. And isn't that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark."

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