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In 'Family Lore,' Elizabeth Acevedo explores 'what makes a good death' through magic, sisterhood

Pamela Avila
Elizabeth Acevedo is a best selling author of “The Poet X,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Carnegie medal and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. She’s also a National Poetry Slam Champion, and in 2022, the Poetry Foundation named her the year’s Young People’s Poet Laureate.

Women are often taught to shrink themselves, feel shame over sexual desires and bury their traumas deep in their psyche. Some carry that heaviness to the grave, and lucky are the ones empowered to speak their truth

If that's a building block of womanhood, then how do we tell our stories? Poet and author Elizabeth Acevedo asks: "How do we collect our stories when we come from women who keep a lot to themselves and don’t say what’s happening to them?"

The National Book Award-winning author seeks to answer that in "Family Lore" (Ecco, 384 pp., out now), which marks her first novel for adults. In 2018, she released her debut novel in verse "The Poet X," followed by two more young adult bestsellers, "With the Fire on High" in 2019 and "Clap When You Land" in 2020. 

Acevedo paints a multifaceted portrait of Dominican American women coming to terms with mortality, navigating womanhood, past loves and self-love in "Family Lore." It follows the Marte women as they prepare for a wake arranged by Flor; her gift is she can predict the day someone will die.

"Family Lore" by Elizabeth Acevedo.

When she arranges a living wake for herself, the family is left to wonder: Has she foreseen her own death or someone else’s?

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In the 72 hours prior to the wake, the Marte sisters and their daughters are forced to confront the past and present – and brace themselves for the unknown journey ahead. 

Writing a novel for adults was a 'natural progression' for Elizabeth Acevedo

Acevedo never wants to write the same book twice. 

She’s "constantly trying to pivot and stretch and be a different kind of writer." After 14 years in the making, writing her first adult novel “felt like a natural progression” into adult fiction. While her young adult novels touch on race, class, identity and grief, Acevedo knew the audience for "Family Lore" was going to look different.

"There's a lot of mature subject matter and it's handled in a mature way where it's not all easily resolved," she says. Loosely inspired by her mother and her mother's eight sisters, the novel introduces us to a close-knit group with magical gifts. Flor can see foresee people's deaths and her daughter Ona possesses a magical alpha vagina with bulletproof powers of attraction. Flor's sister Pastora knows the truth about everyone, and her daughter Yadi has an affinity for limes. The eldest Marte sister, Matilde, doesn't possess any magical power – except she’s the embodiment of kindness. 

They're complicated women, each dealing with intergenerational wounds. They experience heartbreak, infidelity and grief, and some are finding a way back to their bodies through sexual pleasure.

"Then on a craft level, there are choices I’m making that might be harder for younger readers to see past or to stay in the story," she adds. "There’s third person, there's first person, it's nonlinear and so someone has to be comfortable with the discomfort of a timeline that isn’t moving straightforward."

Reading 'Family Lore' by Elizabeth Acevedo 'feels like bachata'

"Family Lore" serves as a practice in oral history and inheritance. "What do we receive? What do we carry with us? What have we been taught to leave behind?" Acevedo asks.

The book's erratic form and its asides − with no easy beginning, middle, or end − mirrors the way Acevedo's Dominican family tells stories and shares gossip. "You'll be in the middle of someone telling you a story and they'll be like, 'But before I tell you that, let me tell this other story so you understand.' Trying to capture that style of storytelling, that was the project," she says.

Reading "Family Lore" may also resemble the sensual hip motions, swift turns and step-step-step-tap footwork of dancing to a musical genre that originated in the Dominican Republic in the 20th century. "You know, it feels like bachata. If this book had form, it goes back three steps and it goes forward three steps," fellow Dominican author and friend Cleyvis Natera told Acevedo.

"You can cross an entire ballroom that way," Acevedo adds. "The book does that. It gets to the end, but you have to go back in time and then you have to go forward, and then you have to go back in time, then you go forward. That's so specific to me because it felt like this is how my elders tell stories."

Acevedo wants to preserve that form of storytelling. She hopes readers feel she's "writing like music, like our music we make. I want to tell stories that feel like how we speak."

How grief, sisterhood and magic coexist in 'Family Lore'

"Family Lore" was the first time Acevedo thought about writing about the women of her family. It was when visiting one of her aunts in 2009 that it clicked, that "this Dominican elder is exactly who I would want to be the protagonist of a story." (It wasn't until 2019 that she actually started writing based on a separate conversation she had with one of her cousins.)

By invoking magical realism and giving every Marte sister a supernatural gift, Acevedo wanted to "bridge the old school and a new school" of tradition in Latin American literature.

"I was struck by the idea of what does it mean to not only get your flowers when you're alive but to choose, 'I'm going to get my flowers,'" she says, adding it served as a springboard for the Marte women to think about: "What made a good life and what would make a good death? And all the ways that certain parts of themselves had to die or had to transform in order to move forward."

Unlike her mother, Acevedo doesn't have any sisters, although many of her books are about sibling relationships. That didn't deter her from writing about the Marte women's sisterhood in this book. "There's something about how a collective of women save each other and how they heal and heal together," she says. "And what it means to offer grace to someone you love, even when they can't offer it to themselves and how that is safety in a world that can be really cruel toward women."

Elizabeth Acevedo wrote 'Family Lore' while pregnant: 'It felt like a superpower'

As Acevedo wrote about motherhood in "Family Lore," she was expecting a child with her partner. 

Pregnancy made the writing process feel more streamlined, she adds; she needed to meet a deadline and she needed to keep a routine. "There were no distractions, I had to have this book done before the end of October because there was a kid coming," Acevedo says. "The urgency there made this unlike any other thing I’ve had to write."

Her characters in "Family Lore" – some mothers already and others attempting to become mothers themselves – mirrored her real life.

"It feels like a superpower to be pregnant (and) to be writing a book about magic while your body feels this transformation … a lot of that made its way onto the page," Acevedo says. "It was special to be writing while so much was changing within me."

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