As a teenager and budding poet, the very first verse novel I can recall reading is Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes.
Told from the point of view of many diverse high school students in a slam poetry style, it wasn’t hard for me to enjoy. However, the brief glimpses into the characters’ personal lives weren’t enough for me to completely love the book. After finishing Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, I feel like it filled the gaps that Bronx Masquerade had.
The Poet X tells the story of Xiomara, an Afro-Latina teen who feels suffocated by her mother’s strict religious parenting and frustrated by the way the world perceives her as a brown girl with burgeoning sexuality. For a while, she writes down her truest thoughts in secret, convinced that no one will want to hear them. After being severely punished for daring to explore her sexuality and attraction to her male classmate Aman, she decides to join her school’s slam poetry club and finds the courage to express herself.
One of the first things about the book I noticed was Xiomara’s poetic voice. Even prior to joining the poetry club, it is very distinctive, powerful, and vivid. In the early pages of the book, there is a page called “Names” in which Xiomara explains the origins of her name and the impact of it, evoking the image of a defiant warrior. Her personality is summed up in the following lines: “My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit / in the pews / wearing pretty floral and a soft smile. / They got combat boots and a mouth silent / until it’s sharp as an island machete.”
Although Xiomara initially keeps her thoughts secret, her struggle and desire to speak and act on them is always apparent. This is especially telling in the homework assignments that she turns in for her English class. While the first drafts of those assignments are honest, the final drafts are toned down to convey what Xiomara thinks her teacher, Ms. Galiano, wants to hear. Later, the fact that Ms. Galiano truly cares for Xiomara’s deepest thoughts becomes a key factor in Xiomara’s decision to join the poetry club.
Ms. Galiano’s support of Xiomara is one of the most touching aspects of the book. She is patient enough to let Xiomara join the poetry club when she is ready and a caring enough teacher to gently nudge Xiomara toward slam poetry by introducing it in one of her classes. Later, she even becomes one of Xiomara’s shoulders to cry on after a tumultuous confrontation with her mother. Ms. Galiano reminds me of a Black high school literature teacher I had who encouraged my writing and helped me during a difficult time.
Others in Xiomara’s life include Aman, a young man with good intentions that almost always come through. There is Xavier, Xiomara’s genius twin, who tries his best to support Xiomara despite experiencing a very different sexual awakening from hers. But of the entire cast of characters, the character who most resonated with me after Ms. Galiano and Xiomara was Xiomara’s mother.
Xiomara’s mother is both problematic and sympathetic. She wants the best for her daughter but lacks the ability to listen to her daughter without using religion to criticize her. Her religion is a source of strength, because it helped her through the difficult birth of the twins, so she tries to impose it on them to help them be strong too.
Feeling stifled by her mother, her religion, and her peers, Xiomara uses the written word to say what she can’t say aloud. Most notably, she uses her words to express her sexual awakening and how women are held to different standards than men in religion and real life. The most surprising poem in the book involves her masturbating, something I rarely read about in YA books involving women of color. The ecstasy and stigma surrounding masturbation is examined, and it is refreshingly realistic to see in a book for teens.
Ultimately, I believe Xiomara and her story resonated with me so much because she reflects a part of the teen poet I was and the adult poet I am becoming now. My personal favorite pages are when Xiomara discovers slam poetry and starts to become braver and more honest about her feelings. I understand the joy and struggle Xiomara experiences as a poet because I’ve experienced them many times myself. The Poet X is a testament to finding and expressing your personal voice.