While the literary establishment generally ignores Latinas, last year we saw the door open (just a creak!), thanks to Elizabeth Acevedo. Her The Poet X won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and her second novel, With the Fire on High, is showing that lightning can indeed strike twice.
I picked up The Poet X knowing nothing except that the author is Afro Latina and it won a bunch of awards. So you can imagine my surprise when the whole book turned out to be in verse. Poetry is not my favorite, so I figured I was in for a long, difficult read. But The Poet X delighted me. The language was powerful, the plot-driving, and the characters fascinating.
Going in, I thought, a book about a Latina who expresses herself through writing? I’m going to see myself here (like I do with Jane the Virgin). But The Poet X’s Xiomara is a curvy bombshell, navigating her age-appropriate sexual awakening in the context of a working-class, abusive, Catholic family. And that couldn’t be further from my experience. I was a privileged, fair-skinned, beanpole teenager, confronting what it was like being outside the “spicy/curvy” Latina stereotype. My parents were loving and accepting and there was no strict religious doctrine in our household. I’m not even baptized! That’s not to say we didn’t have awkward conversations about sex or our own problems but our relationship is nothing like Xiomara’s with her parents. Where Jane Villanueva’s nerdiness and loving family resonated with me, Xiomara’s street cred and homelife felt foreign. But different doesn’t mean bad or even unappealing. It’s just a reminder that being Latina is just one part of our identities — it doesn’t define our entire experiences and we certainly aren’t all the same.
By the time I finished The Poet X, the cover art for Acevedo’s sophomore work was out and I pre-ordered it. A few pages into With the Fire on High, I was a bit worried. The premise was eerily similar, only this time our young heroine expresses herself through food rather than words. Was this just going to be a carbon copy of The Poet X? Luckily no.
For one, it turns out the difference between Xiomara-the-poet and Emoni-the-chef is substantial. Where The Poet X is all in poetry, With the Fire on High is in prose with each section starting with a recipe (like the canonical Like Water for Chocolate!). It’s a powerful device supported by descriptions of Emoni experimenting with spices, finding surprising combinations, and cooking up flavor metaphors galore.
Emoni is also on a totally different journey than Xiomara when it comes to sex and relationships. When With the Fire on High starts, Emoni may be a senior in high school but she already has a two-year-old daughter. There’s no question about her virginity, no fight for her “purity” a la Xiomara. Instead, Emoni’s backed away from dating altogether — the boys in her school generally mistake her motherhood as a sign that she’s “easy,” when, if anything, she’s learned to by hyper-cautious when it comes to sex and her heart. Plus she’s super busy — raising a toddler, trying to graduate high school, and working to help support her family — it’s a lot.
One of the joys of With the Fire on High is its portrayal of motherhood. At the time of reading it, my daughter is the same age as Emoni’s and I can attest that some of that experience is the same, no matter the circumstance. Yes, I became a mom when you’re “supposed” to — as a married grown up in a secure financial position — and yes, that makes it a lot easier. But we’re all still reading Runaway Bunny and dealing with tantrums and feeling our hearts ache when we go too long without smelling that perfect, baby smell.
So much of the conversation around motherhood — teen and Latina motherhood in particular — is about a distinct contraction. Becoming a mother is often equated with going from having the world open to you to suddenly needing to prioritize a tiny, demanding human above all else. And that is true. But there’s a beauty and joy to it that’s left out of the dialogue when the mom is young or brown. It was powerful seeing a character who many would write off as a cautionary tale — don’t become the pregnant freshman! — given the same humanity and joy and problems as the rest of us.
As a mom and a creative, Emoni is her own person. With the Fire on High succeeds because she is so real, so distinct, and yet, so relatable. Her love story (not with the baby daddy) was particularly compelling, as she tries to find happiness and enjoy some of that normal, teenage head-over-heels joy that she was denied in her first experience. As Emoni navigates dating-post-baby, you can’t help but root for her.
The same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo, the author behind both books. I’m excited to meet her next heroine and would like to put in a request — can we meet a Latina who falls in love (and even has sex!) without consequence? Boys get to do it all the time. Even white women are starting to do it (see An Education, Girls, even Sister Carrie.). I’d love for Latinas to have a turn!