Book of the Week: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Book 20: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Genre: YA Fiction
Xiomara (See-ah-mer-ah) Batista and her twin brother Xavier are the children of Dominican immigrants growing up in Spanish Harlem. Her mother, who wanted to be a nun, named her Xiomara mistakenly assuming it to be the name of a saint. Xiomara, as it turns out is aptly named, her name meaning "Battle ready." Xio was a breech baby, coming out feet first and ready to fight. Her whole life, she has been standing up and fighting for her smaller, geeky older (by one hour) brother Xavier. She shields herself from everything.
Then, at the beginning of her 10th grade year, her brother gives her a journal that she writes her thoughts in. Her thoughts become poetry and her poetry becomes spoken word as Xio becomes "the Poet X". Through spoken word, she learns to fight with her words instead of her fists. In the process, she learns to express herself to her parents in ways that "fight" for herself without rupturing their relationship.
This is the second Young Adult novel I've read this year (the first was Nice Try, Jane Sinner). What draws me to these books is their brash and realistic engagement with the connections between teenage coming-of-age and the transition from childhood faith to adult faith. When I first saw The Poet X on the bookshelf, I was intrigued by the author's decision to write the whole novel as a series of poems Xio writes in her journal. Then, when I saw that part one was titled "In the Beginning was the Word", part two "And the Word was Made Flesh", and part three "The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness", I knew I was going to buy it!
Xio's story of emerging adulthood is the story of her growing doubts about God, her mother's desperate attempt to make her love God, and her friendships with her best friend Caridad and her brother Xavier, who have genuine faith and accept her for who she is. The more her mother tries to get her to church, the more she chafes at it, refusing Eucharist, skipping Confirmation Class, etc.
Graham Greene, in a letter prefacing his novel The Comedians, wrote:
It is often forgotten that, even in the case of a novel laid in England, the story, when it contains more than ten characters, would lack verisimilitude if at least one of them were not a Catholic. Ignorance of this fact of social statistics sometimes gives the English novel a provincial air.
This is how I feel about most Young Adult Television programming. I regularly binge watch teen soaps, usually about half a season or so, to see what is going on. It is not a stretch to say that the teenage characters presented in these shows are deeply out of touch with the reality of teenage life. This includes the statistics regarding Christianity. I don't want or need my characters to be devout and faithful; but I want an acknowledgement that faith is in the water. That parents bring expectations, that teenagers float between worlds where faith is expected and where faith is a liability. I love to watch teenagers differentiate themselves from their parents as they come of age and establish themselves. This very much includes a struggle with questions of faith. In YA fiction, attentiveness to this reality is not (always) a liability; indeed, it is very much a snapshot into the everyday lives of teenagers all over America.
The Poet X struggles with these questions, presenting a version of Christianity that is distorted, first by the mother who wields it as a weapon and subsequently by the daughter, who rightfully rejects the distortions of the mother. They eventually come to a truce that allows Xio to come into her own, even as the future of her faith remains very much an open question. I think this reflects the reality that most parents experience with their teenagers. They can hope and they can pray, but they cannot force their children to be Christians. The only thing that is for sure is that the Christianity that the parents demonstrate will be the perception of Christianity that the child accepts or rejects. And this must never be confused for accepting or rejecting God himself. The God presented is not always the living and active God we claim to believe.