In 'Family Lore,' award-winning YA author Elizabeth Acevedo turns to adult readers
Flor Marte knows someone will die. She knows when and how, because it came to her in a dream. That's her gift – all the women in the Marte family have one.
But Flor refuses to share who the dream is about. Instead, she insists on throwing herself a living wake, a reason for the entire family to come together and celebrate their lives. That's the starting point for Elizabeth Acevedo's debut novel for adults, Family Lore.
Acevedo grew up in Harlem, with summer visits to the Dominican Republic, and aspirations of becoming a rapper – until a literature teacher invited her to join an after-school poetry club.
She attended reluctantly; but what she found in spoken word performance broke her world and the possibilities of language wide open.
"I think for folks who maybe have felt it difficult to occupy their bodies and take up space and demand attention, to have three minutes where that is the requirement is really powerful," she says.
Acevedo went on to become a National Poetry Slam champion and earn degrees in performing arts and creative writing. After college, she taught language arts in Prince George's County, Maryland. Teaching, she says, is its own kind of performance – one where the audience doesn't always want to be there. But her students were struggling in other ways.
"So many of my young people weren't at grade level, but they'd also not encountered literature that they felt reflected them," she says. "Trying to meet some of those students where they were was really a kickoff for my writing."
Pivoting to a new audience
Now, with Family Lore, Acevedo turns her attention to adult readers.
"I think the way this pushes forward her work and the growing body of Dominican-American literature is how deeply she writes into the interiors of her women characters," says author Naima Coster, who read an early draft of the novel.
The story is told through memories, out of order, sometimes a memory within a different memory. Acevedo jumps from the Dominican countryside to Santo Domingo to New York, as sisters Matilde, Flor, Pastora and Camila – along with younger generation Ona and Yadi – reflect on their childhoods and teenage romances and the secrets that bind them all together. Though the Marte women grow older together, their relationships do not get easier.
"What does it mean if these women have really just had a different experience of their mother?" says Acevedo. "And how that different experience of their mother automatically will create a schism, because now it's like, 'You don't remember her the way I remember her, and because of that, I can't trust you."
There are infidelities, miscarriages, childhood love affairs and therapeutic dance classes. Acevedo explains that she needed to tell this story in a non-linear format, in the way memories surface and warp; the way family gossip is passed on from person to person, in a roundabout way.
Returning to the body
That format, she says, was more suited for adult readers; and writing for adults also allowed her to be candid about bodies: how they move, change, excite, disappoint.
"The generation I was raised by felt like their relationship to their body was very othered," Acevedo says. "When I speak to my cousins, when I think about myself, it's been a return to desire, a return to the gut, a return to health in a way that isn't necessarily about size but is about: who am I in this vessel and how do I love it?"
That tension is felt especially by the younger Marte women, whose supernatural gifts radiate from within. Ona has a self-described "alpha vagina," Yadi has a special taste for sour limes.
Naima Coster says it's easy to feel pressure to write about marginalized communities as clean-cut, exemplary characters. But Family Lore relishes in airing out the Marte family's dirty laundry– in showing Afro-Dominican women as full, complicated protagonists.
"It feels major, the way she writes about the ways that these women misunderstand each other, but still love each other," she says.
Acevedo says those themes – family, home, Blackness, power – will be in every book she writes, "because those are the questions that haunt me."
Family Lore reads like the feeling of getting older and no longer having moms and aunts lower their voices when you enter the room – like finally being privy to what makes a family flawed and perfect.
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