LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Camino Rios lives with her aunt in the Dominican Republic and waits all year for her dad to visit her for the summer. Yahaira Rios lives in New York with her parents and asks every year if she can go with her dad on his annual business trip. Neither sister knows about the other until their dad dies in a plane crash leaving New York for the Dominican Republic. "Clap When You Land" is a novel in verse about two sisters losing their father, their hero and finding each other along the way. It's written by Elizabeth Acevedo who is a National Poetry Slam Champion and who won the National Book Award for her first book, "The Poet X." And she joins me now.
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO: Hello. Hello. Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's wonderful to have you. You dedicate this book to the lives lost on American Airlines Flight 587. And that was the Dominican Republic-bound flight that in 2001 crashed into Queens, N.Y., killing everyone on board. Did that tragedy influence this story? Was that the inspiration?
ACEVEDO: It was. I was 13 years old when that plane crashed. It rocked my community. I mean, everyone knew someone who was on that flight. But I'll say that, like, this story was based on research that I did on Flight AA-587...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, really?
ACEVEDO: All of these secrets - yeah. The indignity of a tragedy of the death of folks and the ways that their secrets come out. And so I started reading about people who had a lot of complications around getting grievance money from the airlines because, you know, the person who was deceased had a lot of secrets.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most of the book takes place in the DR, where Camino Rios lives with her aunt. Would you read just from the first two pages so people can get a sense of the place, the description of Camino's home but also just the power of the verse?
ACEVEDO: (Reading) I know too much of mud. I know that when a street doesn't have sidewalks and water rises to flood the tile floors of your home, learning mud is learning the language of survival. Don't let it stain you. Diaz always said, but can't she see this place we are from already has its prints on me. To be from this barrio is to be made of this earth and clay, dirt packed, water backed, third world smack, they say. The soil beneath a country's nail, they say. I love my home, but it might be a sinkhole. Trying to feast, quicksand, mouth pried open, I hunger for stable ground somewhere else.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Powerful. Tell me about what Camino's trying to get away from.
ACEVEDO: I think that one of the things I've noticed when I've spent time in the Dominican Republic it's such a diaspora community in terms of who's in the U.S. That even when people feel really satisfied with what they're doing, there's still this desire to see what is in the U.S., what is happening in New York. Like, what is this world we're always hearing about? So one of the things that Camino is desiring is - her father lives in the U.S. She's heard all these stories, and she wants to experience it first hand. But she's also growing up in a very particular area, right? So Sosua, which is known for the ways in which young women are brought into the sex trade. And so she is also trying to run away from the expectations that is had of her because she's a young woman.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it might seem like Yahaira has a better life in New York. She goes to a good school. Her girlfriend lives next door. Her family owns their apartment. But she's missing something, too. What is she looking for in the DR and in her sister?
ACEVEDO: The question of identity is a big one in the book. What does it mean to not be from here or from there? What does it mean to claim an ethnicity but never have visited the country that your parents are from? And so that is one of the questions Yahaira is trying to answer. I want to go back to this place my father loved so much, he would go once a year. So the question of who you are she believes she can answer by the geographical location. If I can just go there, I can figure out the answers to all the questions of my father and myself.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And at the center of the story is, of course, the father...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Who's essentially lied to both of his daughters, hurt a lot of people in his life. But there is a lot of nuance. You know, he was lovable, generous. People wanted to be around him, but he was very imperfect.
ACEVEDO: Right. I don't imagine I'll ever write a book for young people that doesn't include an intergenerational theme for me. That was such a big part of growing up, and I think literature that is contemplating the family you need the parents coming in and they can't be perfect. They can't, you know, save the day on their own. And with this father, it was very easy to make him a villain. I wanted it to be more nuanced than that - that a person could be a terrible partner or have made a mistake and potentially still have made incredible memories with their children and for the characters to have to come to terms with who their parents are even though their parents will never be able to ask them for forgiveness. I feel like that's a big question. You know, I've had to ask - my father's never going to say certain things, but my own growth requires me to be able to forgive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you to read this last passage. It's about the father, where the two sisters are talking about his life.
ACEVEDO: (Reading) It was like he was two completely different men. It's like he split himself in half. It's like he bridged himself across the Atlantic, never fully here nor there. One toe in each country, (speaking non-English language).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's something about the immigrant experience - right? - because you always leave something behind. Sometimes, it's a part of yourself. Sometimes, it's another family, and you always go to something else.
ACEVEDO: Yeah. When my mother has told me her experiences of coming into this country, just the shock. You know, she came in winter and wrote this long letter to her mother about, the trees here don't have leaves. And so she thought, I've been sent here on behalf of my family to exist in this cold place that doesn't even have, like, foliage. Like, I think the immigrant experience to me is that. Like, I go forward because I know it is best for myself and for the people I love. But I'm always looking back. It's hard to find stability when you're constantly rotating between the place you are and the place you're from.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the title mean, "Clap When You Land?"
ACEVEDO: Oh, I had the title before I even knew there was going to be a story. I've - I visited the Dominican Republic the first time that I at least had memory of it when I was 8. And I remember the plane landing and just being astonished that people began, you know, clapping but also joining in. Like, I didn't know why, but I knew it felt right - that communal exhalation on a flight of we made it, we're here. Thank God. Thank the pilot. Like, whatever that energy is you participate in as a group. And I've always loved it. I think it's such a beautiful little moment. And it says something about returning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elizabeth Acevedo - her novel is "Clap When You Land." Thank you very much.
ACEVEDO: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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