After the success of her debut novel in verse, The Poet X, whose cover is now adorned with the National Book Award and Printz Award medals, Elizabeth Acevedo’s new novel, With the Fire on High, explores similar themes of family and heritage. Told in prose, the book follows high-school senior, mother, and budding chef Emoni Santiago as she forges a future for herself and her daughter in Philadelphia while defining her own rules and boundaries. Acevedo spoke with PW about portraying an underexplored side of teen motherhood, deciding how best to communicate a character’s story, and the importance of Emoni’s Afro-Puerto Rican and African-American heritage to her experience.
With the Fire on High overlaps thematically with your debut The Poet X, but is a very different book. What was the inspiration for this novel?
With the Fire on High was an attempt to think about young and teen mothers. In the children’s category, we have books where [teens] are trying to decide whether to keep a child, but I really wanted to look at a character who had already made that decision. I wanted to explore what happens next.
So, Emoni Santiago was pregnant her freshman year of high school. She’s in her senior year of high school when the story picks up and she isn’t sure if she has the same kinds of choices that her classmates have because she’s also a parent. I wanted to treat this subject matter with dignity and tenderness. I wanted a young woman of color to triumph and have hope. I wanted to turn the tropes about inner-city women with kids on their head.
Why did you choose to tell Emoni’s story through prose rather than verse? How do you decide the best approach for each of your projects?
I think that, depending on what kind of writer you are, you might have a different answer. For me, when I know that a story is going to be in the interiority of the character and the majority of the struggles are ones that require a more introspective-type of conflict, I want to drop readers into the characters head and verse is a great way to do that. This was true of Xiomara: a lot of the conflicts she had was her body and her own thoughts, and breaking out of that conflict was her speaking up and pushing out.
Emoni Santiago’s story has a lot more action, the conflicts are different, and there are a lot of characters. I find it incredibly hard to pull off that kind of cast and that kind of narrative arc through verse because there’s a lot that you lose. For example, [verse] gives you a sense of setting, but it doesn’t give you long descriptions. I knew I wanted to “get” Philadelphia and Spain and I knew that she was going to be moving to a couple of different settings, so that made me lean into prose. There is also a lot more dialogue [in With the Fire on High] because readers need to hear how Emoni speaks and codeswitches. All of that is a lot easier to communicate through prose. Emoni herself arrived with an attitude and these really long sentences and a way of moving that I knew would be more vignette-like? Yes. in style, too.
Why did you choose to set the story primarily in Philadelphia and Spain?
I taught summer school in Philadelphia when I was becoming a teacher. The school where I worked was the first that I’d been to that had a culinary arts program and, when I looked into it, I found out that Philadelphia has more technical schools than the majority of the major cities in this country. The school I was teaching at had a culinary arts program through which students would get full and partial scholarships to go to college. I kept that kernel in the back of my head, thinking that’s a really cool and amazing thing this school is doing. The head of the football team or the punk rocker could show up to this class and learn a skill and how to tell a story through food. I kind of latched onto that. One day I was watching a Chopped teen competition when the character idea of a kiddo who loved to cook started to form. I thought back to Philly.
For me, it’s interesting to think of stories that are in cities outside of New York that have large demographics of Latinx young people. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Philadelphia just fit, especially knowing what I know about those schools and their culinary arts programs. Plus, Emoni is Puerto Rican, not Dominican like me or Xiomara, and, traditionally, Philadelphia is a city that has one of the the largest population of Latinx folks, so I really wanted to pay homage to that.
Spain came because I traveled there in high school. I remember that moment of realizing that I speak the language and come from a place that has a relationship with this country and the food is amazing, so it’s familiar, but also incredibly unfamiliar. It’s also a huge multi-pot for food. There’s French influence and African influence; depending on the border, you’re going to get a different cuisine. Because Emoni is also made up of different cultures, it felt like the perfect place to drop her.
Emoni’s heritage—Afro-Puerto Rican and African-American—influences her personality, art, and point of view. Can you speak about your decision to create a character with this specific background?
Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have had a long relationship. Puerto Rico was the first place that my mother went to in the United States to work. A lot of the food I grew up eating, and even my references, were influenced by this relationship between the two islands and my mother’s specific relationship with Puerto Rico. When I started thinking about the food Emoni would be cooking, I had that basis in the back of my head.
I researched what would be traditional based on where in Puerto Rico her grandmother would be from, which is a very specific Afro-descended part of Puerto Rico. Emoni’s father’s politics are very reflective of the movements that are happening on the island that are maybe less covered or considered on the mainland, which I wanted to be a part of the story. But there’s also Emoni’s mother who is black American with North Carolina roots. I wanted to explore what it means to be from these Black places in two different parts of the world, if you will, and see where the cultures overlap and where they don’t. How will Emoni fuse these things together? I felt there were a lot of questions in this experience that would be fruitful.
Emoni is a gifted chef who is dedicated to her craft and whose food evokes memories in the eater. Why did you choose food as a link to memory?
I was really drawn to the experience of coming from a culture where history has been severed. In Emoni’s case, her mother passed while in labor, so she didn’t grow up with her mother and has a tenuous relationship with [the African-American] side of her family. In Puerto Rico, the stories she hears about her paternal family feel almost like an ephemeral idea. When you grow up like that, there’s a longing for memory and for an inheritance of stories about who you are. Her food doesn’t bring up feelings for her, but that’s what she’s looking for. She’s trying to find history and create a mythology of who she is through her cooking, but she can only evoke that sense of memory for everyone else. Her desire, her searching goes into what she cooks: she wants to remember, wants to know, wants to use this ingredient as a way to look back and create a window into the past. This also felt very true for [Emoni] because she’s a little bit afraid of the future and what it’s bringing. She’s living in a moment, believing that if she can just remain in retrospect, she doesn’t have to look forward.
There are many references to different dishes and recipes throughout With the Fire on High. How did you choose which foods and flavors best fit into Emoni’s story? Are these personal recipes, recipes you’ve gathered, or were they created specifically for the novel?
It’s a mix of things. I very much drew on Puerto Rican and Southern black cooking as influences, so you’ll see that there will be polo rosado or mofongo, which are very Puerto Rican, coupled with collard greens or black-eyed peas or sweet potato pie, which are Southern. I tried to meld these things. For me, it was thinking through what Emoni is feeling when she’s cooking and what she is trying to bring together.
One of the passages that I felt was an anchor was Emoni’s losing her virginity. The meal that made the most sense was these sweet plantains. There’s the phallic reference, obviously, but sweet plantains are also such a comfort food and a staple of Caribbean cuisine. Emoni’s inability to eat plantains—because they are so sweet and coupled with such a bittersweet memory—felt fitting. I tried to find metaphors and symbols reflected in the food that would add subtle layers to the moments in her life.
And there are no measurements in the recipes in the book! People can try to make these recipes, but they’re instinctual. There is no cup of sugar; it’s about what you bring to and add to the recipe that allows you to figure out how to measure it perfectly.
The explorations of romantic and familial relationships in this book are thoughtfully drawn, especially Emoni’s relationship with her daughter’s father and a new classmate who expresses romantic interest in Emoni. Can you speak about the choices you made regarding Emoni’s romantic relationships, especially regarding boundaries and communication?
When I was working with Emoni and trying to find what I ultimately needed her character to say, I was thinking about how she was going to have to make her world work according to her rules. She has this fear of being pushed out of what is considered a traditional experience; it felt so important that her decisions be on her terms. I wondered, what does it meant to be a young woman of color who receives so many messages about who you are supposed to be in the world, and to respond, I’m actually going to set my own boundaries and rules and live according to what I think will serve me best. For her to say, this is how I want to interact with the opposite sex, my father, my child, according to what I think will allow me to keep growing, felt important. I feel like I didn’t give myself permission to do that. I’m still working on boundary setting. I just wish that there were more books that told young women that they can enjoy their own company. That’s fine. You can tell boys this is what I will do for the next 10 years and that’s okay. There’s no pushing past that; this is where my line is. All of this can happen exactly how you want it to. Of course, that doesn’t always work out easily because humans are messy, but at least that permission [to set boundaries] is there. The message that you can make your life as you will, without worrying about what people tell you it has to be, is there.
After winning the National Book Award for Children’s Literature, the Printz Award, and other honors, do you feel your writing or awareness of your audience has changed or shifted?
I don’t know. I have a sense that I receive more messages. My Twitter always has pictures and comments from people responding to my work in a way that wasn’t necessarily happening initially. There are a lot more eyes. But I also show up to a lot of middle schools where no one has ever heard of me and they don’t know the book and it’s the most humbling experience of like, “I guess people know me, but not really.”
I have a healthy sense of what my work is doing and that it is being received, but I debuted with a book that succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and I don’t have anything to compare to. I had been touring for years with my poetry, so I’m used to a very small sect of society kind of knowing my work, and now that sect is much larger. But I live in D.C., not in New York, so I’m very protected from these big events and experiences that make you feel like you can’t walk through hallways without people knowing who you are. So, in general, I feel pretty regular until I show up to an event where people know me.
Are you visiting schools often? Do you still do workshops and work with youths?
The amount of touring I’m doing hasn’t changed because I book so far in advance and my schedule was set before the awards were announced. I do about 80 to 100 events per school year.
The schools I’m visiting have changed through. I was mostly doing colleges and universities [before The Poet X], but now I visit more high schools and middle schools, so the work I’m being brought in for is different. I’m there not so much for the poetry or the performance, but as an author.
What stays with you from these interactions with readers?
I quote Rudine Sims Bishop all the time: “Books should be windows and mirrors.” Books are an opportunity to see yourself and an opportunity to experience something different than your own life, but, when I’m really faced with it, it really does startle me. I’ll do an event in Washington Heights or Harlem, where the majority of the students are young first-generation kids or immigrants, and the way they respond when they hear Spanish or slang that feels like home. They say, “We were expecting someone really boring, but you were great!” There’s this excitement of “oh, you sound like us.” That’s amazing. But then I’ll go do an event in Kansas and a young farm kid will come up and quietly tell me how much the book meant to them and how they’ve read it multiple times. I never imagined that this kid could also be my target audience, but there they are. These experiences remind me what the point of the book is. That this is what literature can do.
What do you most hope readers find within the pages of your books?
I hope readers find permission to figure things out on their own terms.
I also hope they wonder what it means to look at the communities around you with grace and a righteous fury that asks, how can we make these places better? My books do highlight the gender roles, gentrification, and poverty of specific areas. I want readers to question what it means that we have all this brilliance in parts of the country that goes unnoticed. It happens that both of my characters are brilliant and talented at the things they love to do, but I didn’t do that to show them as exceptions. They are not exceptional in these ways; they are one of many kinds of kids that have that spark. Let’s not forget these young people. Let’s not deny them what they need: stories that are full of love and are gentle and hopeful and funny. Let’s not talk down to them. If you write for young people, you should be hanging out with them and have a sense of how they speak and who they are. I want my stories to read to a young person like they could be dropped in and it would feel authentic, but hopefully older readers will learn from these stories as well.
What can you reveal about your next book?
I don’t know if it’s too early, but I’m going to reveal stuff anyway! My third book is called Clap When You Land and is loosely based on a flight that fell in 2001 on its way to the Dominican Republic, and the aftermath of a community shattered by how many people died aboard the flight. It’s a dual narrative in verse about two sisters who don’t know about one another. One lives in the Dominican Republic and the other lives in New York City and they only learn about each other when their father dies in a plane crash and one inherits grievance money from the airline. It’s this race by the sister in NYC to bury the recovered body, while the situation for the sister from the Dominican Republic is becoming incredibly dire now that her father can’t send money or protect her. As the sister from NYC is traveling to the Dominican Republic for the burial, the other sister is trying to get to the United States. Along the way, they discover their sibling bond and learn the truth of who their father was. It’s about loss and gain and immigrant narratives. I’m incredibly excited. I feel like I’ve been trying to write this story for years.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo. HarperTeen, $17.99 May 7 ISBN 978-0-06-266283-5