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Elizabeth Acevedo Has Written Her First Novel for Adults–and It’s Full of Magic

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The kernel of the story that would become Family Lore, Elizabeth Acevedo’s first novel for adults, came to her in college, after a visit with one of her aunts in the Bronx. Acevedo, who’d spent many of her childhood summers hosting cousins from the Dominican Republic or traveling to see family there, had long been curious about her relatives’ linked but disparate histories, and she began to think about how she might tell intergenerational stories loosely inspired by the experiences of the women in her family.

She wouldn’t begin working on Family Lore for another decade. A former eighth-grade English teacher, she’s spent much of her career writing for young people. The Poet X, her 2018 debut novel in verse about a teenage poet in Harlem, won the National Book Award; she followed it up with two more YA best sellers, With the Fire on High in 2019 and Clap When You Land in 2020. Acevedo, who was named the Young People’s Poet Laureate in 2022, thinks she hit her stride as a YA author in part because she understands how to write for young people without talking down to them. “There’s nothing like kids telling me, ‘I’m also a poet and it’s a secret,’ or ‘Xiomara [in The Poet X] makes me feel known,’” she says. It’s one reason she finds widespread book bans so gutting—she worries about young readers being cut off from stories both like and unlike their own.

Though she plans to write for young readers again, she felt eager for a new challenge. “I never want to be known as this one single thing,” she tells me, sitting in her cozy office in Southwest D.C., her favorite books artfully arrayed on the wall behind her. She speaks with a gentle, thoughtful conviction, and I get the sense that she answers with care not because she’s worried about what she might say, but because she has such deep respect for words and the weight they carry. She explains that for her, writing for adults is largely “a difference in register”: she’s drawn to some of the same questions explored in her YA novels, including what love in a complicated family can look like, but she’s OK letting older readers do a little more work to follow leaps in time and shifts in perspective, offering them less hand-holding and an ending that feels more open. “I don’t hold back,” she says. “It’s bare-knuckle. It felt like I could take risks that I just have to own.”

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In Family Lore, out Aug. 1, Flor, a seer of deaths, summons her family—including her sisters Matilde, Pastora, and Camila, daughter Ona, and niece Yadi—to celebrate her life at a living wake, causing them to wonder whether she saw her own death. Endowing her characters with extraordinary gifts—one sister grasps others’ truths; one has a talent for herbalism; Ona possesses an “alpha vagina”—allowed Acevedo to consider what had formed them and what each desired, while grounding them in a strength all their own.

Acevedo’s treatment of magic as an everyday possibility is compelling, but there is also magic in the wonder, surprise, frustrations, and joys the characters experience in their relationships with one another. She came up with the idea for a living wake after watching a documentary on how people commemorate death—she realized it could hold all of these women’s stories, putting pressure on them in interesting ways. “When you think about death,” she says, “you begin thinking about every choice you’ve made.”

When Acevedo was small, a babysitter with a forest of houseplants suggested she talk and sing to the plants to help them grow. Young Liz discovered the joy of making up songs, but felt upset when she couldn’t recall her verses. One day, she thought, I’ll know how to write, and then I won’t forget.

She wanted to be a singer. Then her older brothers sparked an obsession with hip-hop. She joined the poetry club in high school, competed in her first slam, and attended workshops with teaching artists. She went on to George Washington University, where she created an interdisciplinary major, a blend of poetry and performing arts.

Working as a teacher after graduation, Acevedo struggled to find time and energy to write. “I’m not a good person when I’m not writing,” she says. She applied to M.F.A. programs, and by the time she graduated from the University of Maryland in 2015, she’d published a poetry chapbook and submitted a draft of The Poet X to an agent.

Read More: The 100 Must-Read Books of 2022

The author Clint Smith, who first met Acevedo through the D.C. poetry-slam scene in 2012, considers her “an exemplar” of how to take the craft seriously. “A lot of writers are very skilled, but don’t work 10% as hard as she does,” he says. “Starting out in a new genre can feel like dipping your toe in, but Liz is doing cannonballs.”

Acevedo is fascinated by ensemble storytelling—one of Family Lore’s many strengths—and how we all participate in it. “It’s curious what people are incapable of saying about themselves or their past, sometimes because of trauma, but then you’ll learn [it] from that cousin who heard from her mom,” she says. “In some ways, this book is a project about how to know what’s true.”

It is also, like all her novels, the project of a poet: her obsession with imagery, interiority, and making every word count is what makes her descriptions and dialogue sing; her characters think and speak in voices that feel distinct and alive. “We often talk about representation in a way that feels flat, as if it’s merely the checking of boxes, when in fact it’s about the rendering of dimensional humans,” says Naima Coster, whose novel What’s Mine and Yours is among the many displayed in Acevedo’s office. “Liz doesn’t just render individuals, she writes about webs of relationships. I see her as someone who’s leaving important historical and literary records.”

Writing Family Lore helped Acevedo “quit the desire to be liked” and focus on telling the story she wanted to tell. She began practicing ancestor worship a few years ago, and says the idea that she is loved and being guided has given her “a clear-eyed approach” to her art that feels new—she has learned to trust herself and her writing in ways she didn’t before.

She’s now working on more novels, but “snippets of poems” keep coming to her, as they did after she gave birth to her first child last fall—visiting her son in the NICU, nursing or pumping at all hours, she found herself taking notes she recognized as verse. “Poetry is the first language I was thinking in—it’s what I fall back on,” she says. “I have to get really close to the bone of what I’m going through. A poem doesn’t let me lie to myself.”

Chung is a TIME contributor and the author of A Living Remedy

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