This book is one of the three I let myself buy when I was at Powell’s (vacation means of course I was going to visit famous bookstores) a few months ago. This is one of those books that has the perfect mix of a gorgeous and artistic cover, an important contemporary and diverse premise, and an original twist…in this case it’s written in verse by an award-winning slam poet. It has, unfortunately, taken me months to get to it. But it was worth the wait.
“…words give people permission / to be their fullest self.”
Xiomara is in high school, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, a twin, and lives in Harlem. She cannot help the attention that her curvy body brings her or the fact that she’s starting to be interested in boys. Both are out of her control, but her traditionally religious mother doesn’t seem to understand that. With no one to talk to about her struggles as a young woman, she turns to writing poetry. And when a teacher at school suggests that she join the new slam poetry club, Xiomara finds the courage to follow some of her own dreams and desires. However, that’s still not enough to overcome years of conditioning towards guilt and concealment. Nor will it be quite that easy to be open about it all with her mother.
The is the second book written in verse that I’ve read this year…and really ever. The first, Long Way Down, was impressive to me for its depth of message with such brevity of words. This was a little different. Though still less words than a traditional novel, The Poet X tended towards longer verse. Which, I think, makes sense, since in my experience with spoken word (that being the author’s background), it’s essentially full-on story-telling, just with more flow and rhythm. I loved both for different reasons. And as someone who does not read that much poetry, it’s amazing how just saying “it was written in verse” does nothing to actually describe the style or really give you any hint of what to expect. There are so many different ways to be a poet! That may sound silly, but it’s a new arena for me, so I’m learning. In any case, this book read a little more traditionally, in my opinion. But it was still such a fun, interactive, reading experience, to try and get into the movement of the words. I do a little bit wish I had listened to this one, instead of reading it, since performance is part of slam poetry. I bet that would have been amazing and immersive. Regardless, I still loved the reading experience. I felt Xiomara’s emotions strongly and clearly, and, despite there being less space for exposition than a traditionally written novel, I truly got to know her, and watch her transform, throughout the book.
As far as themes go, the main exploration was of the age old (but no less traumatic for that) internal fight of adolescence between “letting down” parental expectations and trying to grow into/become one’s own person. Xiomara so obviously loves and respects her parents, but struggles hard with what she sees as her inability to be what they want. She is constantly shrinking herself down, fighting off her urges, and feeling guilty as hell. That kind of mental stress is no good for anyone, in any situation, but it is even sadder to see here, where the “rebellions” she does have, the ones that are truly causing her all this pain, are fairly mild. It was hard to read, as an outsider, because I just wanted to hug her and say that she’s fine, she’s normal, she’s a great kid, and she isn’t doing anything wrong. The added pressure of religious expectation in this mix, and the guilt it causes her when she is unable to believe without question or be the “perfect” young lady (pitting her body type and natural desires vs the accusation of being slutty/dirty) gets pretty personal for me. I was raised in a religious home and, though it was nowhere near the situation Xiomara was in (my mother and I are on great terms, and I in no way have the “inviting” curves that she has), there is still so much internalization of negativity about sexuality and desire that I still struggle with today, as an almost 30-year-old adult. Honestly, just the fact that she felt the need to hide so much of herself, physically and emotionally, hurt my heart. The bottom line is, these topics were explored thoroughly and movingly here – and full credit to the author for being able to do that.
Final thoughts: this book deeply affected me. I loved the big things, as described above. But I love the little ones too, like Xiomara’s stage name (and the title of the book), her relationship with her twin brother (and how they handle his secrets and struggles as well), and her strength of character (for standing up for what she feels is right for herself in more than one situation with her “boyfriend”). This story is raw and genuine and incredibly important. There is a deep feeling in the telling of it and that comes through on every page.
Two full poems (chapters?) in particular really struck me. I don’t want to recreate them in whole here, because I want you to go read the whole book and get them in context, but I do want to point out which ones and why. After – which speaks to all the places and times and situations (so, the universality) of getting uncomfortably “admired” by men. It just does an amazing job representing the depressing ubiquitous-ness of it. The other is Things You Think About in the Split Second Your Notebook is Burning – it’s just particularly poignant in the way it addresses feeling alone in the world, wondering who is there for you to confide in and who would be there for you at the very end and the feeling of being totally lost/adrift in the world.
And now, an insanely long collection of snippets that spoke to me throughout this novel. Basically, I want to reproduce the whole book – just go read it!
“When your body take 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.”
“Sometimes it feels / all I’m worth is under my skirt / and not between my ears.”
“…but one thing I know for sure / is that reputations last longer than the time it takes to make them.”
“Something in my chest flutters like a bird / whose wings are being gripped still / by the firmest fingers.”
“This world’s been waiting / for your genius a long time.”
“I let the words shape themselves hard on my tongue. / I let me hands pretend to be punctuation marks / that slash, and point, and press in on each other. / I let my body finally take up all the space it wants.”
“Tells me / a lot of things but none of them an answer to anything I asked.”
“She knew since she was little, / the world would not sing her triumphs, / but she took all of the stereotypes / and put them in a chokehold / until they breathed out the truth.”
“It’s confusing to know / you shouldn’t be doing something, / that it might go too far, / but still wanting to do it anyway.”
“And I think about all the things we could be / if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.”
“The world is almost peaceful / when you stop trying / to understand it.”
“There is freedom in choosing to sit and be still / when everything is always telling you to move, move fast.”
“Because so many of the poems tonight / felt a little like our own stories. / Like we saw and were seen. / And how crazy would it be / if I did that for someone else?”