By Cleyvis Natera
Elizabeth Acevedo’s latest offering, Family Lore, is a marvel of a story. Though it is her first novel for adults, Acevedo’s powerful language and singular voice will nestle her fans in a story only she could have written. In it, we meet the Marte sisters: Matilde, Flor, Pastora, and Camila, and learn of their lives in the United States and what prompted their immigration from the Dominican Republic.
The book is invested in an exploration of intergenerational womanhood in its many complex forms. Through the flawed matriarch Mamá Silva and Ona and Yadi, the sisters’ offspring, we learn how healing is only possible when we confront the tension between silence and storytelling. Acevedo beautifully demonstrates this is possible from one branch of this family to another.
Family Lore, the title of the novel, signals the novel’s main concern - this is a book about the familial as legend, folklore and anchor. In Acevedo’s masterful hands, legacies of silence are shattered, and magical realism is reimagined to honor the women of the Marte family. Acevedo demonstrates, once again, storytelling is a magical gift all her own.
Acevedo spoke with Cleyvis Natera, author of Neruda on the Park, about the themes in Family Lore, weaving in magic realism, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on the publication of Family Lore. I absolutely loved it and I’m just so excited to celebrate your first adult book. To begin, I wanted to discuss the way you open and end the novel. A Lucille Clifton poem kicks the story off and then we see the narrator of the novel end with a eulogy. Both the opening and the closing examine silence and survival. Can you discuss how you see those themes as a throughline for the book?
One of the things I was navigating are the stories that go unsaid and how much of our survival, as Dominican women specifically, relies on silence. And how maybe what served us 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago might not be of service today. It is a hard lesson to pass down, particularly to daughters. There are times when you need to tell your stories. There are times when you must own what happened to you and the language around that as a means to not only physically survive, but for your legacy to survive.
Throughout the book you'll see there are moments where a character will think to say something but then, in the next line, takes it back. As in, actually, she didn't say that. Right? Because there are so many things we hope to say, and then we bite our tongues. I’ve observed the women in my family, the many Dominican women that I know, who are sometimes described as brash and outspoken. But there's so much you don't know unless you ask the exact right question, in the exact right order, because we're not taught to talk about ourselves and what we've been through. We're taught that trauma is best healed by not looking at it. I want anyone who reads this book to understand that isn’t true.
My debut is a book that is focused on silence and revealing what dies within us when we try to hide. The women in this story don't realize what they are each going through because they’ve been taught to hide it from each other. One big concern I had, as I thought about it, was what it means if they were to bring one another in – how much sweeter life could be if we could hold that space with each other.
As I read the story of the Marte women, I kept thinking how complicit many of them become to systems of oppression because they’ve bought into the idea silence is the way to heal trauma, by being tough and not talking about it and turning their backs on it when in reality, those behaviors have never served anybody. It is such a powerful through line in this book. So much of the book is concerned with those threats inside our homes, too. Why was it important to pick Mamá Silva’s way of mothering to excavate that threat of complicity?
Mothering is a beautiful concept and I wanted to explore it in all its forms. As you look at all the relationships between the characters, you’ll see the way women compensate for each other when their mothers fall short. I wanted to talk about Mamá Silva because she’s one of those characters who exemplifies that complicity and threat inside the house in the way that she mothered and didn’t mother the girls. The very first passage I ever wrote with her was with Yadi, her granddaughter, and when Yadi goes to DR and has some type of stomach issue. We see this woman, who was less than a stellar mother to her own daughters, sitting there, picking through her granddaughter’s shit to figure out what’s wrong with her stomach, right?
I’m always interested in how different generations form relationships across time. The truth is that a grandparent’s relationship to her grandchild will not always be the same as a parent and offspring. There’s a tenderness and a generosity because of where Mamá Silva is in her life by the time she has a granddaughter. There is a softness there that did not exist with your own children, and I wanted to keep teasing that out. There were probably generations of women coming up who had been born under occupation, who had then lived through external trauma plus whatever trauma existed in their homes, and were giving birth to children and expected to be caretakers. We don’t imagine that postpartum existed or what postpartum must have looked like, how it manifested without the language to call it what it is, or the help or support networks to respond to it.
Mamá Silva is a character who dealt with postpartum, a condition that for her was never resolved as it pertains to one of her children. She is the matriarch of the family and also a deeply, deeply flawed human. The result is that she uses her daughters to parent their own siblings. They are made little parents very early on and it happens because of how Mamá Silva loans out her children to kind of appease her own family, even when those decisions aren’t in their best interest. I think that’s so tragic. But I don’t think she’s a lost soul. Decades later, we see her find some healing when she’s able to do what she couldn’t do with her own child, but she’s able to offer it to her child’s child. She does have this different relationship with Yadi because there’s a softening that happened with age and experience. It’s important to acknowledge that complexity. It lives inside some of our most complicated matriarchs. ‘Cause my goodness, if we could just admit that sometimes the same person who is a villain can be our savior. The same person who traumatized us, also loved us fiercely.
I’d like to discuss the ways in which loss and despair act as a breakthrough device for your characters to learn deeper lessons about love, within romantic constructs, but also the love of the self.
I love this question because I feel like, as I wrote this novel, there was an experience of restraint. It felt like a physical act, pulling my characters back time and again. You see them on the page over and over and over having to restrain themselves. They want to do something. They want to say something. But always, they have to pull themselves back. The place where I allowed for the emotions to come through without restraint were the deepest wells of grief and then the deepest wells of passion. I consider both physical acts. Those are the places where it felt safe to let go.
Sex and grief are messy. Whether we mean to or not, we’re letting go physically. We’re letting go emotionally. We let go, but someone has to clean that up after. The wet spot is there. You can’t just ignore it. And so it does feel to me like those are our portals to see a deeper version of these characters. I hope the readers also see themselves most truthfully reflected because almost all of those instances are characters engaging with someone else. For example, there’s a lot of masturbation, so an engagement with themselves, but also it is a moment of either self-reflection or of seeing yourself in a lover’s eyes. When Ona participates in masturbation, but because of the circumstances of her kinks, she has to think through what of this is a reflection of my childhood? What of this is a reflection of desire that isn’t being met by a lover? What of this is maybe beyond sex at this point? Right? The circumstances act as devices because otherwise the characters have just been taught to hold so much in.Going back to the first question – because neither grief nor lust are about silence. It’s the one place they let go because they are thrust forward and have to kind of deal with the mess.
I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how your relationship to your personal life affects your imagination or how you approached it in the text of this novel.
I don’t write autobiographically. I don’t even write non-fiction like that. I don’t write a lot of essays. And so creatively, when I’m processing something personal, I don’t turn to fiction. I either journal or I turn to poetry. That is where my most honest self, my most referential voice comes in, right? It’s not through channeling my life into a character in a story I’m writing. Sometimes I’m too overwhelmed to make art of this life. And so I just need to sift it. Save it for the future. The Poet X is the only other book where I directly took things from my journal. But it had been after decades. I had had a lot of time for the process, to make it fiction.
Family Lore was written so differently. It was sold on proposal, which means I’d only written 60 pages when I sold it. This novel saw my hopes and dreams of wanting to get pregnant, the discovery that because of many reasons that wasn’t gonna be possible until I had this surgery, and then a retry. At the tail end of writing this book, I became pregnant. I didn’t know it would be a part of Ona’s story. Because it followed my personal journey towards wanting to be a parent and I discovered the desire towards wanting to be a parent was part of her character arc, she became kind of a channel for some of the things I had been writing and feeling. But I had to really figure out the line between her life and mine because I didn’t want this novel to just be published diary entries, right? She had to have her own approach and her own reasons for wanting to become a parent, and her partner had to have their own conversations around it. I had to make it fit within the story and that was the hardest thing. But then I realized this story is all about womanhood and I know that Ona’s magic was her alpha vagina. What if the same region that has been a source of magic, strength and individuality for her affected her as it does the 75% of other women who get fibroids? I decided I wanted to very clearly face this head-on because a lot of us don’t talk about it. Then I had to figure out what else of my personal journey was gonna fit in. And not all of it fit in. Some of it did. I’m sure if I could rewrite it now, I would scale back even further, but it felt honest and necessary.
As I’ve spoken to other women, I understood that seeing each other is important, and seeing our stories reflected in literature is critical, yet I have not read a book that talked about fibroids in the way that I had experienced it, or talked about fertility in the way that I had experienced it. That’s what felt urgent.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the use of the fantastic and magical realism in the book. Some of the sisters have gifts that aid in the navigation and survival of the world, while others have gifts that are not rooted in the fantastic. Why did you make that choice that some would have magical powers, and some wouldn't?
When I considered the craft level of this book, I thought about the greatest legacies of Latin American literature – the family saga, the generational transformations that can be tracked on both a macro and micro level. I thought about magical realism by (Gabriel) García Márquez or (Isabel) Allende. This is the legacy I wanted to turn to, to honor and to turn it inside out. This ragtag group of women who are super scrappy and tell the story in three days. I knew magical realism was going to be a part of this.
I have magic in some of my other books, but this was a book where it was very clear that there was a world of magic that these people were occupying that was completely and utterly normal to them. But I also am curious about what happens when you’re the one that’s left out when you are from a family of talented people. What about when you’re the one who maybe isn’t quite as talented? What is a reclamation of magic that is driven by you versus something that was given to you, that is not something you’re born with. What does it mean for those of us to make magic for ourselves, right? There are some people who have God-given talent, and then there are people who put their head down and just fucking work every day to approximate the talent that they know they can have. And that, to me, is what counts. An arrival of your own potential.
As women, we make our own magic. We make our own. I also had this curiosity that I wanted to explore. How does fear manifest as harm? The daughters who had the biggest gifts brought up the most fear in their mother, Mamá Silva, and so she wanted to reel them back, wanted to make them smaller because she couldn’t grasp their bigness versus the ones that weren’t as threatening. Sometimes our mothers make us small as a way to protect us and that’s fucked up.
There is a very slick rhythm that came to my mind as I read Family Lore. Of Caribbean bodies dancing a good bachata, a forward and backward movement that is at once hypnotizing but can be frustrating for a certain kind of reader who craves forward momentum. It echoed the oral tradition of storytelling, of call and response. I wonder if you can talk about this really big risk you took in making the shape of the book musical and allowing the characters to have rhythms of being that felt truly authentic to our traditions.
I knew that this was gonna be one of the things that was probably going to be off-putting for a lot of readers, but I would also say that those readers are probably coming from a very linear, very Anglo tradition of storytelling where characters always move forward. I was trying to mimic storytelling that is more patchwork where you have to get a lot of bits and pieces before you can ever figure out the point. Sometimes, there isn’t a point. Maybe you’re told a story and you learn a lot about these characters and you’re jumping around in time and the point is, what can you find from all those pieces? The point is, we arrived together.
My concession was the 3-day conceit. A reader is held within the present time and that’s always moving forward. That present part of the story is very linear. Honestly, before it was edited, I played even more with how far back in time and what kinds of leaps we would do because it just felt honest. I didn’t want to tell a story that felt easy because this book is about memory, and memory is not easy. When you fall into a memory and all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Why am I thinking about this? I don’t want to be thinking about this. I don’t want to be back in that place.’ But it’s a scent or it’s a sound, and you can’t control what space you inhabit. I wanted to be true to that – true to that frustration. I love that you talk about forward and backward motion. Because it is bachata. It is about nostalgia, about moving a mile a minute, about loss and grief. Linear is not clean. Some people are gonna be like ‘This novel is messy structurally.’ And they’re right. That’s the point.
Once I understood the rhythm of the book, that when those interruptions would come, I had to surrender to the language, my experience of the story truly changed. Because it is in those moments where we have those interruptions that we understand that there's like, at a textual level, there's an interview happening. There are transcripts of conversations. There are interruptions because the story forces a release, a surrender of expectations, which I think is really marvelous in the way that you play against our expectations. It forces awareness of the act of storytelling.
Thank you. I think you’ll see this in some of my other work. I’m curious and, like the windows that come into the text to disrupt, they take you out of the story but give you a window into the interiority of a character. With The Fire on High, it was recipes. With Clap When You Land, there are memories in time where it’s like 6,000 days ago, and suddenly you’re leaping in time. With this book, I didn’t want to do citations even though our narrator is a social scientist. The interruption felt like a way to remind the reader there is a narrator who was very invested in shaping what you’re learning in a very particular way. And this whole thing is a project.
The main audience for DWA is made up of aspiring writers. What advice would you like to offer them on crafting a singular voice?
I think you give a nod towards what made you. And then you think about what is the most urgent message that you could give to the people coming behind you. And if you position yourself as a conduit at all times for what has made you and consider what you offer as a gift to who is coming after you, you make art from that place. That’s why I started with Lucille Clifton, who I think of as my artistic ancestor, as a spiritual guide who I’ve had since I was fifteen years old. And it’s why the book departs, in many ways, into a language that is uniquely my own. I hope that the next generation of writers will read and be curious about how I made it.
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Pre-order the Spanish edition SABIDURIA translated by Kianny Antigua out November 14th.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Acevedo is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Poet X, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Carnegie medal, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and the Walter Award. She is also the author of With the Fire on High — which was named a best book of the year by the New York Public Library, NPR, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal — and Clap When You Land, which was a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor book and a Kirkus finalist.
She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo has been a fellow of Cave Canem, Cantomundo, and a participant in the Callaloo Writer’s Workshops. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and resides in Washington, DC with her love.
Cleyvis Natera is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Neruda on the Park (Ballantine, 2022). She studied psychology, literature and creative writing at Skidmore College and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from New York University. Her fiction, essays and criticisms have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, URSA Story, TIME, Alien Nation: 36 True Tales of Immigration, Gagosian Quarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Memorious, The Kenyon Review, Aster(ix) and Kweli Journal, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Barnard College in New York City and at Antioch University's Low-Res M.F.A. program in Los Angeles. She lives with her husband and two young children in Montclair, NJ. Follow Cleyvis on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/cleyvisnatera/?hl=en