Elizabeth Acevedo Centers Cuisine and Culture in ‘With the Fire On High’


Dominican-American poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo is bringing Afro-Latinx narratives to the publishing world. The Afro-Latina, whose debut novel, The Poet X, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Printz Award for Best Young Adult Novel last year, among others, tackles topics through the lens of Latina women and girls — like us!

I grew up a voracious reader, but clearly not seeing certain stories in books,” Acevedo shared with fellow Dominican author Julia Alvarez during a PEN Out Loud event last April.

The New York Times bestselling author decided to fill that void and released her second novel, With the Fire on High, this May. With the Fire on High chronicles Emoni Santiago, an Afro-Latina high school senior and single mom, who finds much-needed solace in the kitchen. She cares for her daughter, who readers know as “Babygirl” alongside her grandmother or ‘Buela. The kitchen is where we see her cultura, showcasing dishes that reflect both her African American and Puerto Rican roots. Santiago echoes the sentiments of many who navigate more than one cultural identity, or Afro-Latinx identity here in the U.S.  

Acevedo writes in With the Fire on High:

“I’m constantly having to give people geography and history lessons on how my grandmother’s hometown is 65 percent Afro–Puerto Rican, on how the majority of slaves were dropped off in the Caribbean and Latin America, on how just because our Black comes with bomba and mofongo doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. And it seems I’m always defending the parts of me that I’ve inherited from my mother: the roots that come from this country, the facts that Aunt Sarah tells me about our people in the Raleigh area, the little sayings she slips into her emails that I know come from her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother, to the first African mother who touched foot on this here land. The same wisdom I whisper to Babygirl every now and then, a reminder of where, and who, we are from.”

WiththeFireonHigh HC

(Image: HarperCollins)

HipLatina caught up with the award-winning author to discuss how her Afro-Dominican identity shapes her writing style, her latest novel and penning work for young Latinx readers.

How does your identity as the daughter of Dominican immigrants shape your writing?

I have no other basis for comparison in regards to my identity, except for my own upbringing, but I think what being my parents’ child ultimately does is make me aware of the different ways we can tell stories. The jokes and riddles and folktales I grew up with at home become entwined with the hip-hop, first generation, hood stories of the world I live in outside of the house. My writing is an homage, and hopefully upliftment, of the many intersections my body houses.

With this being your second novel, how was the creative process of writing With the Fire on High?

I wrote the first draft of With the Fire on High during National Novel Writing Month in 2013. A month for a manuscript draft is fast! Which meant that revision was slow. There were so many plot lines that needed to be fleshed out, and while Emoni’s voice was clear to me during the multiple revisions, I had to ensure that the other characters and all the other subplots were just as precisely depicted.

Your award-winning debut novel The Poet X speaks to an audience that doesn’t always get centered in the literary world with its Afro-Latina protagonist Xiomara Batista. In With the Fire on High, Emoni Santiago, an African-American and Afro-Boricua aspiring chef, is centered. What was the inspiration behind her layered character?  

I don’t want to sound mystical, but Emoni’s character really did arrive one day. She began telling me about her name and her daughter’s name, about her ethnicity and her thoughts on Blackness. And from there it was an uncovering. I knew she was facing self-doubt and shame and the rest was figuring out how she would confront those things and what lessons she needed to learn to lean into her dreams.

The kitchen is Emoni’s safe space. For Caribbean and Latin American communities, and those across the African Diaspora, the kitchen is where your palate and soul are enriched. It’s where memories are made. How did you meld cultural traditions and cultural nuance when creating the setting?

Emoni’s cooking is a place where she contemplates who she is and who she is from. It’s through food that she learns the stories of Puerto Rico and North Carolina, where her father and mother are from, respectively. Food seems like a natural extended metaphor to layer throughout the text because when we talk about cooking and meals we are also talking about love and nourishment, history and tradition, creativity and innovation. So, Emoni cooks traditional foods from her parents’ hometowns, but she gives them a twist. She brings herself to the plate.

What do you hope young Latinx readers, particularly Afro-Latinx women, receive from reading With the Fire on High?

I write for us. I write for us to see ourselves depicted with tenderness and nuance and ferocity and unflinching honesty. I hope young Latinx readers, particularly if they are Afro-Latinx, see that they are allowed to be the heroes, they are allowed to live loudly and colorfully and with their whole selves. I hope they know they are seen and loved and that I’m rooting for, and cheering on, their triumphs.

What’s next for you?

My third novel, Clap When You Land, will be out in May 2020. This is a story of sisterhood, love, and loss. I can’t wait to keep bringing readers fierce and tender Afro-Latina heroines.

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