he night that Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the author celebrated by retreating into a familiar comfort. She headed straight uptown to her mother’s apartment that crisp November evening and treated herself to the aromatic meal that had been a hallmark of her New York City upbringing. “It was like midnight at that point. And I ate a bowl of sancocho while [my family] passed around the award and took pictures,” she said when we spoke recently. Pointing to an imaginary serving of the traditional, meat-and-vegetable-heavy stew her family eats in Harlem and on each trip back to her parents’ native Dominican Republic, she added: “I was like, ‘This is winning.’”
For many writers of color, including Acevedo, the past several years have ushered in a long-overdue cultural renaissance within publishing. In an industry, and genre, that has rarely elevated the work of people of color, Acevedo’s National Book Award win isn’t just a personal milestone. As one of remarkably few authors of color to earn the honor, Acevedo is also helping to shift the broader literary landscape. For readers of all backgrounds, books like Acevedo’s that focus on the everyday experiences of young people of color are their own reward.
The Poet X, Acevedo’s prize-earning work, is narrated by a Dominican American teenager named Xiomara Batista. As she notices her changing body drawing unwanted attention from boys and men, Xiomara starts to feel isolated from the community around her—and clashes often with her devout Catholic mother. Simmering with adolescent angst, the 15-year-old Harlemite begins to find solace in poems.
At turns meditative and forceful, much of the book’s propulsive energy is culled from Acevedo’s own background in slam poetry. Fittingly, The Poet X is written entirely in verse. Of the urgent inspiration that follows Xiomara’s first time attending an open-mic night at New York City’s famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe, for example, the text reads:
Late into the night I write and
the pages of my notebook swell
from all the words I’ve pressed onto them.
It almost feels like
the more I bruise the page
the quicker something inside me heals.
The Poet X mapped a young woman’s circuitous journey to self-actualization through her affinity for language. Acevedo’s second novel finds its protagonist delighting in—and growing through—a different form of expression: culinary homecomings similar to the one the author experienced the night of her National Book Award win. With the Fire on High, which was released earlier this month, is a coming-of-age story told in prose by Emoni Santiago, a teen mother living in the Fairhill neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Emoni is a preternaturally talented cook, and With the Fire on High unfurls her complex family history partly through hybridized recipes from Puerto Rico and the American South as it raises the stakes of her culinary ambitions. In one early scene, the 17-year-old relays an experience of walking into her grandmother’s kitchen after a long day of school. With the music of the salsa legend Marc Anthony blasting through the radio, “’Buela pulls out the herbs that she gets directly from el campo in Puerto Rico and sets them on the counter. The sweet-smelling yerba buena, the Caribbean oregano. She hands me the knives before I ask for them, cleans the cutting board before I realize I need it rinsed.”
For Acevedo, the kitchen functions similarly to the stage—as a site for self-expression and communal connections. These scenes marry both possibilities. “A lot of my stories are about family and how families disappoint us and how we build families and what we need from family,” the 31-year-old author noted. “And what else gathers you in the same way that a meal does?”