With Family Lore, a magical saga centered on a family of Dominican American women, Elizabeth Acevedo takes greater narrative risks, reaches deeper into family dynamics and finds an expansive new register for her astonishing storytelling.
Your first book, The Poet X, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. What did that accolade mean to you as a writer, and how did it change your career?
I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time the kind of propulsion that a major award like the NBA can have on someone’s career. It put my work under a particular kind of scrutiny. I’ve always wanted my next work to be better than my last, but it’s hard to hold every future book to the success of my debut. My debut achieved accolades I may never see again. That’s just the truth of it.
But I still have a lot of stories to tell. I’ve had to put in effort to be unswayed by external validation as it pertains to any projects since. What I’m currently making doesn’t grow under the shadow of what my first book did, and it’s been critical I don’t make comparisons. I will forever be grateful to the judges of the National Book Award and the merit they saw in The Poet X. It’s not hyperbole to say that award changed the course of my life because of the doors it opened.
“Poems are like cats. . . . Maybe they want to be in the same room as you, but they’re fine in the corner by themselves, and when they eventually want attention, they’ll piss on your bed and let you know.”
You’re known not only for your novels but also for your poetry. What do you feel you’re able to achieve with poetry that you can’t with fiction? What does the format of a novel allow you that poetry doesn’t?
Ah! I love this question. I think poetry is interesting for me because it’s my most patient kind of writing. I don’t believe in rushing a poem. It can arrive over long lengths of time, one line on one day, an image on another. Poems are a way of thinking, and I don’t have to turn to paper right away for them to begin composition. Poems are like cats. They are independent, OK being alone for a while. Maybe they want to be in the same room as you, but they’re fine in the corner by themselves, and when they eventually want attention, they’ll piss on your bed and let you know. Poems are great containers for an urgent and visceral moment and emotion. I need to shift how I see the world to give language to a poem.
The novel, however, requires me to sit with the character and actions daily. To catch the rhythm of the story, I have to show up again and again, or I lose the thread. The novel doesn’t tolerate being ghosted. I need to pet it daily or it’ll run away. I like that novels allow for ensemble truth-telling. I think that’s what I most often chase in a story—the many versions of honesty and humanity that can exist in one specific world, in one specific moment in time.
You’ve made it clear that one of the most important things for you to capture as a writer is what is true, even if it isn’t the literal truth. Can you expand on this?
In my writing, I’m less concerned with how certain actions happened than I am with the feelings that said actions caused, and how these feelings change the arc of how someone thinks of themselves or others. My stories are trying to capture the fault lines in everyday people and how those cracks occurred and whether or not they can be mended. But I don’t think truth is singular or linear. It’s an assemblage of experiences and interconnections where we make meaning. Sometimes folks try to preserve a memory in amber, and it can be a defining memory, but then you speak to the other party of that experience (if there is one) and they have a wholly different way of seeing the world. Memory is messy. How do we make sense of the distance between when something happened and where we are now, when we might have new information about ourselves and the world? That space is where I want to write into as I mine human dynamics.
Your previous work has been written for young adult readers. What was your first experience writing a novel meant for adults like? Are there any ways in which writing for adults versus teenagers posed new challenges (or afforded new opportunities)?
I like to think of my writing as having different registers. I don’t think the note where my writing is located has changed; I write family stories about messy parents and children and the aspirations of immigrant and first-gen folks to find purpose and self-love. At least I think I do. But the register for the adult novel climbed a bit higher. It let me be spicier in terms of how I discuss sexuality and sexual experiences.
On a formal level, there are ambitions in how Family Lore is constructed that I think would have been a huge ask for young adult readers: time jumps, long asides that break up the narrative, six characters in close third-person, a first-person point-of-view narrator, poetry, historical research. While I like to challenge my younger readers, I’m mindful of still being welcoming. I know I’m requiring adults to do a lot of work in Family Lore, and I’m less concerned with them finding it too hard. The book won’t be easily consumed by folks who don’t do the work.
In your author’s note, you mention that you hate the idea of defining the purpose of a book (or what it is “about”) before you’ve actually written it. For you, the act of writing is what allows the purpose or meaning of a story to come to light. Were there any moments while writing this novel when you found yourself surprised or staggered by something you put on the page or how the story evolved?
I think wanting to be delighted by where the writing goes is one of the reasons I struggle with plot. Even if I have an idea of the pivotal events, I discover so much while getting the characters from one place of action to the next. Often my favorite parts of the novel are those in-between moments I hadn’t accounted for. In Family Lore I don’t think I realized how much the love and protection between the women was going to be central. In many ways, romantic love fails or is incomplete for the majority of the characters. But the sibling and cousin dynamics offer a tenderness and safety net where romantic love falls apart. I needed to write these women’s sometimes bumbling efforts to show up for one another to realize that they are the love they’ve been striving for.
There are, of course, lines and ideas that I didn’t know I’d have before I began writing. I had a myomectomy in 2021 that left me feeling alien in my body. In the novel, the character Ona has a myomectomy, but as I was writing her, I began to touch on light and what it means for light to enter a body where incisions were made. It’s not how I’d thought of surgery myself. But in her voice, I arrived at a new lens of considering what had gone wrong—and right—in my own fibroid removal. Moments like that happened a lot. I think I’ll know what I feel about something, but then the character twists the event in their own mouth, and I need to make room for a new way of approaching the narrative.
The topic of family dynamics, particularly between sisters and mothers and daughters, is one that you’ve explored in several of your novels, including Family Lore. What is it about female family relationships that fascinates you so much, and why do you think they have such universal appeal and resonance among readers?
I write what haunts me. The family I come from and the families I grew up around—including extended family—practiced a good amount of enmeshment. In trying to piece apart my self-identity and self-worth, I had to undo threads that bound me to others. It was—and is—garbage dumpster work. It’s sifting through so much junk I carry that doesn’t innately belong to me. It’s reconsidering what it means to be a part of a community for yourself, not how perfectly you can perform yourself. I still don’t recognize sometimes how I’m thinking of every single person in my life and whether or not they’ll approve. So my novels agitate these webs because my mind agitates those webs. I think what Family Lore does that’s special is it reaches farther back than any of my other books to show historically how these dynamics of dysfunction were created within a family and are being undone or at least questioned.
One core feature of Family Lore is that nearly all of the women exhibit a preternaturally special talent or skill, from being able to foresee death to having an irresistible way with limes. If you could grant yourself with a special ability, what would it be and why?
I used to say teleportation would be the superpower I would want, but I think that’s when I had permeable boundaries and an inability to say no to things when all I wanted was to stay my ass at home. I was very much into hustle early in my career. I was holding a hot iron and striking my little heart away. It was exhausting to feel like my professional success had an expiration date, and my desire for teleportation was often because I was traveling so extensively that I was missing a lot of important moments with family and friends.
These days I would want the ability to fall asleep instantaneously. My anxiety is always worse at night, and my anxiety worsens the less sleep I have—it’s a conundrum. Being able to turn the light switch off in my brain and have deep, restorative rest seems like it’d be such a subtle but game-changing talent—much like the quiet magic of the women in the novel.
You’ve revealed that Family Lore is perhaps your bravest novel. In what ways did writing this novel require exceptional courage from you?
I touch on a lot of taboo and sacrilegious subjects in the novel. And while the novel intentionally meanders structurally, I’m very direct in how things like porn addiction, infidelity, emotional abuse and sex are approached. I think this book is demonstrative of my being less concerned with being liked, or with earning love, and more of my groundedness in what needs to be said in this particular moment. To say that which only I can say, even if it offends someone or causes them to see me as less than perfect. So yes, maybe it’s the book I’ve written most bravely.
Without giving too much away (and echoing something you mention in your author’s letter), the finale of Family Lore feels as much like a beginning as it does an ending. Could you see yourself revisiting these women again in the future and continuing their saga?
Ah! I love the Marte women so much. And I had so much writing that didn’t make the story and so many places I could see these characters going. That said, no. My rule for a book is like my rule for exes: I don’t double back once the story is done.
Author photo of Elizabeth Acevedo by Denzel Golatt.