GW Taught Elizabeth Acevedo to ‘Carve Out Space’

The award-winning author and poet joined fellow GW alumni for a virtual conversation on writing and life.

Elizabeth Acevedo
Elizabeth Acevedo in a photo taken for GW Magazine in 2018. (William Atkins/GW Magazine)
April 08, 2021

By Ruth Steinhardt

Before she became an award-winning poet and author, Elizabeth Acevedo first found her voice on the fifth floor of her apartment building in New York City, singing to her babysitter’s plants.

“I would make up these songs and these poems and these stories, and I would have this whole affair with, you know, my audience,” Ms. Acevedo said. “And then the next day I would be upset because I couldn't remember any of the words, because I was four, and my memory wasn’t that good. I remember thinking: Just you wait until I know how to write. When I know how to write, I'm not going to forget any of the words.”

Ms. Acevedo, B.A. ’10, did learn how to write. She received the 2018 National Book Award for her New York Times bestselling novel, “The Poet X,” which also won the 2018 Boston Globe- Horn Book Award for Best Children’s Fiction. She is the author of “Clap When You Land,” “With the Fire On High” and the chapbook “Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths.”

As part of GW’s bicentennial celebration, Ms. Acevedo returned virtually to GW Tuesday evening for a conversation with fellow alumna Jenny Abreu, M.T.A. ’09. The lively, wide-ranging discussion was part of “Five Questions with GW Alumni,” an interview series in which prominent GW alumni share their perspectives on a range of topics. The event was sponsored by the GW Alumni Association.

Ms. Acevedo said she came to GW intending to transfer—the school had no creative writing major at the time—but Leslie Jacobson, then head of the Department of Theatre and Dance, set her on the path that changed her mind. Ms. Jacobson, a “cool character,” accepted her advisee’s stated intention but pointed out to Ms. Acevedo that at GW she could design her own major. She could take creative writing classes, theater classes, production classes, anthropology, sociology and more, both to inform her writing and “to teach myself how to analyze the subject matter that I’m writing about.” She would go on to found a student poetry club, Griots, and to reestablish a GW chapter of her sorority, Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas.

She still has vivid memories of her time at GW—"Hanging out in Kogan Plaza with the homies, you know, getting Slurpees from the 7/11 and going to Kogan Plaza on a nice spring day like today”—and met her husband at the university. “I had an amazing time at GW,” she said.

“I think being at GW really taught me the ways in which there might not be an exact thing for you when you enter something, but look at how you can carve out space,” she said.

Ms. Acevedo has carved out space in plenty of arenas, beginning in her boisterous childhood home—father playing music, mother in the kitchen, brothers playing video games—when she would shut herself in the bathroom to write. (She still prefers to write in complete silence: “I cannot hear the characters in the story when there’s too much noise.”) As a preteen she moved from plant audiences to human ones, participating in informal hip-hop freestyles, or cyphers, with older aspiring and casual rappers in her neighborhood. Though she eventually changed her performance focus from hip hop to slam poetry, “The dudes on the corner with their cypher were my first writing workshop,” she said.

Ms. Acevedo’s Dominican heritage is both a point of pride and also a clarifying lens through which her work addresses American culture. “Clap When You Land” recalls the tragedy of American Airlines flight 587, which crashed just after takeoff into a Queens, N.Y., neighborhood in November 2011. All 260 passengers, mostly nationals of the Dominican Republic, were killed, as were five people on the ground. As a child, Ms. Acevedo said, she knew people on the plane and was deeply affected by the way the media and outsiders talked about members of her community—and how they seemed to be forgotten once the post-9/11 media determined the crash was not an act of terrorism.

 “I remember this moment of dissonance of how this country responds to certain kinds of tragedy,” she said.

Ms. Acevedo began writing prose as a kind of pressure release at a time when her grueling graduate program in poetry “made me feel so small and like I wasn't a poet,” she said.  

“I knew I was going to lose my writer’s voice unless I moved into a different genre that still had the joy in it, where I didn’t feel like I was getting my work demolished on a weekly basis,” she said. “I was writing fiction, honestly, to keep my love of language and my love of words and storytelling.

“I can teach myself any genre. The important thing is to always believe I have something to say.”

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