With Elizabeth Acevedo’s texts, the simplicity is deceptive. In a recent interview about her verse novel Clap When You Land the author felt, after writing 40,000 words, that something was missing and she ended up rewriting the whole story. She thinks very carefully about how form is dictated by the subject matter – sometimes writing in verse and sometimes in prose. She also insists in the interview ‘I’m a better reviser than writer’ which emphasises to me the craft of her writing.
Clap When You Land takes a real-life event as its starting point. Two months and a day after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, a plane crashed in Queens, New York. It had just started its flight to the Dominican Republic and 265 people died, many returning home to see family. Acevedo was a child at the time and she was aware of the stark difference between public responses to the terrorist attack and the aviation crash. It was about who matters and who deserves attention, she said.
The verse novel is written in two distinct voices. Two daughters both suffering the impact of the crash while trying to piece together their secret intertwined family history. The opening, from Camino’s perspective, is all about living in mud, how it invades your home and how you have to keep it at bay.
‘To be from this barrio is to be made of this earth & clay:
dirt-packed, water-backed, third-world smacked:
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,
The ‘somewhere else’ reference threads through the story and the characters’ lives, reflecting the migrant experience and the universal hope for a better life. I was also reminded of Dickens’ description of fog in Bleak House, which also conveys the oppressive effect nature can have. ‘Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards’. In both stories there is a sense of how we are shaped by and connected to our environments.
In Clap When You Land it is easier for the reader to empathise with Camino who dreams of studying medicine in the US. Acevedo has shaped her voice into tercets full of idiomatic turns of phrase. The moment the crash is announced at the airport is vividly conveyed:
‘An airline employee
& two security guards
approach the crowd
like gutter cats
used to being kicked.
& as soon as the employee
utters the word accident
the linoleum opens
a gnashing jaw,
a bottomless belly,
I am swallowed
by this shark-toothed truth.’
In contrast, Yahaira, living in New York with her mother, speaks in clipped couplets of school, her girlfriend, plants and fashion. Her experience of hearing of her father’s death is different but she is still part of the Dominican community abroad:
‘Here in Morningside Heights,
we are a mix of people: Dominicans
& Puerto Ricans & Haitians,
Black Americans & Riverside Drive white folk,
& of course, the Columbia students
who disrupt everything: clueless to our joys and pains.
But those of us from the island
will all know someone who died on that flight.’
As the verse novel continues we share in the joint grief of the two sisters and gradually see what they have in common as both have been threatened by strange men in their short lives. Through Camino, the reader becomes aware of the sex tourism at work on the island as well as the colourism, pervading the communities. As Acevedo says, Camino gave her the chance to see the events through a new lens and she was a voice that even the author nearly ignored. It was only later in the writing process that she decided to include her voice but she reflects that each sister lifts the writing of the other.
Clap When You Land would make an excellent KS3 text, introducing students to the power of verse novel. Time could be spent exploring how the author makes each voice distinctive and yet also manages to give depth to other characters. The way in which the novel is also infused with Spanish and idiomatic phrases would also be an excellent springboard for discussions regarding home languages. Elizabeth Acevedo’s novels are consistently varied, dramatic and beautiful.
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