Elizabeth Acevedo

Allowing Space for What Isn’t Said: A Conversation with Elizabeth Acevedo


You know when you click on someone’s Instagram Stories and there are so many posts that the dashes at the top look like dots? That’s what my Stories looked like over the weekend I read Family Lore (Ecco) by National Book Award–winning author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo. I posted passage after passage that I just had to share because they moved me that much. I shared so many I thought I would get in trouble for piracy.

In her first novel for adults, Acevedo tells a spellbinding multigenerational story that spans past and present, between Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and New York City, of the inseparable Marte sisters and their offspring as they anxiously await a gathering they are reticent about celebrating. The second-born sister, Flor, possesses a gift: she can predict when and how someone will die. When she decides she wants to invite her family and community to a living wake, her other sisters, daughter, and niece, while supportive, are more surprised than festive. Her sisters—Matilde, Pastora, and Camila—some of whom also possess magical abilities, speculate amongst each other; her daughter, Ona, tries to elicit details, like whether her mother has foreseen her own death, but Flor remains close-lipped. They continue to question her motives and contend with their own secrets too. Ona and her cousin Yadi grapple with their own respective challenges. As the wake approaches, the women of the Marte family confront the desires and regrets that live between the words left unsaid, revealing the impenetrable strength of the love and loyalty that bonds them—for life and beyond.

Before Family Lore’s publication, I caught up with Acevedo over email to talk about her approach to the sweeping family saga, the importance of creating space for absence, and her uncanny ability to lift magic off the page.


The Rumpus: I keep coming back to this word when I think about you book: intimate. There are so many moments that feel like they were written just for the reader, like an aunt telling you something at a family party that you hold close and don’t feel the need to share with anyone else. It was just for the two of you. That’s what this whole book felt like. 

Elizabeth Acevedo: I really like the word “intimate.” I think that could describe a lot of my writing. I like getting really close to a moment and character, creating the ideal scenario for revelation. Family Lore, for example, has a lot of characters that have been taught silence as a method of self-defense. There will be entire passages of things characters wish they could have said but didn’t. And I think that’s really human, especially if you grow up with adages like “boca cerrada te vez mas bonita” (closed mouths look prettier). So I’m writing about inherited silence, and I’m writing about restraint, and then I need to push these characters through heightened situations of passion, shame, anger, to finally reveal these tenderest parts of themselves. But I have to know them well. I have to know all the jokers they hold in their hand so I know how they would play or hold them—and I think it’s that level of intimacy I’m constantly trying to learn as I write.

Rumpus: Can we talk about your wizardry with timelines? The mastery of layers, and then streamlining them in such a way that makes it easy for the reader to follow! I need to know: What was your organizational process like? Was it something that unfolded alongside the writing process, or did a wall in your home look like you were trying to solve a crime with a bunch of pinned notes and drawn arrows?

Acevedo: Oh, God! I wish I was so organized. I did have a bunch of pinned notes on a wall, but they were mainly plot points in no discernable order. I wrote the first and second draft and then began trying to clean up timing so things matched. And in some cases, because this book is largely interrogating how memory is and isn’t reliable, you’ll notice characters stumble on whether or not things line up. Kind of like when you’re telling a story and trying to figure out who all was there with you and you’re looking around like, “Was cousin so and so alive then? I think it was after the divorce.” The puzzle of leaping back and forth in time, and the disorientation of how remembrance can be prompted while doing dishes, walking the dog, eating a bowl of asopao, I wanted time to be malleable enough to hold how one trips into nostalgia and memory.

But in the present day of the novel, the two days before the day of the wake, that’s a bit more linear and straightforward. This was a concession to the reader, to keep this a bit neater. The present day needed to have less jumping around—I had to force time to behave—as a contrast to the nonlinear storytelling within the flashbacks. And near the end of the novel readers will notice the flashbacks stop entirely; the entire cast is finally together and experiencing the moment without needing to return to the past without considering what was.

Rumpus: Speaking of organization and writing process, in your letter to the reader, you tell us, “I preoccupy myself only with: Is this true? Note, I am not saying ‘truth.’” Tell me more about how you differentiate between the two.

Acevedo: Ah, I think of “the truth” as something that can be considered fact. And I don’t write nonfiction, so this doesn’t hold any appeal to me. Even if I’m given “the truth,” I’m going to murk it up and stretch it to make it fit whatever character I bestow it on. “Trueness” to me is about feeling, you feel me? It’s more of a chord that one finds resonant, less Can I provide evidence to prove this and more Did this strike the right note?

Rumpus: I think that’s especially true when talking about our families’ stories. There are things we may never know, people we’ll never meet, for one reason or another, and I think oftentimes we are seeking closure when we should be seeking trueness.

Acevedo: First, I feel you very much on wanting closure over trueness! Closure is the pursuit of comfort, right? A lack of closure is a knot—this thing that remains in the way. Closure, it’s a set of fingers gentling the tension.

Rumpus: Do you think closure could be synonymous with trueness?

Acevedo: Seeking what’s true seems like it might often be the opposite of closure, unless one can make peace with Well, at least I know all I’ll know about this topic.

And so sometimes maybe they’re synonyms, and sometimes they don’t play as nice with one another. But the naming of something, whether or not the thing itself is resolved, is what I think can bring real solace. And you’re exactly right, that when we are talking about family stories there are things and people we never know. As a writer you not only have to write through the gaps to make sense of what’s absent but you also have to put language to the fact that the gaps exist. What you write and language might not be exactly true to life, but the feelings, the emotions, what comes up, the practice of finding words for that, [need to be] as precise as possible.

Rumpus: That’s another thing I loved about this book: You honor the gaps. Why was it important for you to write them in?

Acevedo: One of the conceits of Family Lore is that these passages are essentially being collected as oral history by the narrator. And I think whenever we ask someone to tell us their story, they’ll give pieces and disclose things, but it’s very likely that what’s most important to them about their life won’t fit easily into a timeline and won’t cleanly fill in all the information. But I also think the nature of coming from families that may not be forthcoming with family history is that silence plays as big of a role in the stories as the narratives do. And so I allow space for what isn’t said.

Rumpus: I feel like oral history is not only forgiving of these gaps—of what isn’t said, of what remains absent—but embracing of it more than any other vehicle for storytelling. They are honored in this tradition, not relegated to the shadows.

Acevedo: Yes, very true. And also, I think with oral storytelling, you have to consider when someone is in the middle of a story and can’t finish it, or they move to an aside, or they interrupt themselves and then don’t come back to the original story because it might be painful to look at. That one may need many attempts to “get the story.” And those elisions are doing something—they are in and of themselves revealing a core element of the storyteller and the story listener.

Rumpus: You also mentioned listening to a lecturer talk about how funeral practices are changing. What about living wakes made you want to center the book around Flor’s?

Acevedo: I knew I needed one of the characters to propel to the forefront the reasons we were learning these stories, and early on I had two characters whose magical talent I knew: Flor and Ona. When I was first writing, there was more mystery involved, the reader—and I!—didn’t know who Flor dreamed about. But as the novel took more shape, I realized the wake could only work for one person. Flor’s relationship to death was intriguing to me. She doesn’t fear death. And so, I wondered what facing your family could look like if you were comfortable with the afterlife. Would it hold, that confidence? Or as humans, do we all waver when we think the end might be near? Working through the question of what makes a good life, a good death was an interesting pin to hold the entire novel together, and she was the character most proximate to the beyond to carry it off.

Rumpus: How did the poet in you influence the writing in this book?

Acevedo: I think a lot of the craft risks I took are informed by poetry—allowing for the meandering memory form, the way the title of each section kicks off the first line of the passage, the consideration for how the prose looked on the page, especially when dropping into a memory—all felt like poetry was guiding the hand that made those choices. I’m also a stickler for trying to elevate language. Even though this novel is in prose, the part of me that writes verse always wants to think about the texture of the words, incorporating sound and repetition and rhythm to indicate feelings and mindset: prosody! I think a lot about prosody. I may have two or three drafts where I’m line editing toward beauty. Those considerations might be ones every writer makes, but the urgency feels like the poet in me makes sure to leave their mark on the novel.

Rumpus: Have you shared this book—or parts of it—with your cousin, Limer, whom you introduce to us in your note to the reader?

Acevedo: Yes! I’m lucky to have two cousins who do a good amount of beta reading for me, Limer, and her sister, Mabel. I’m lucky they’re both avid readers and they both keep it real with me. I think it’s also important for me as a writer to be mindful that although I feel comfortable writing about the Dominican diaspora, and I do significant amounts of research to get things accurate. I was born and raised in the United States, and so having readers who were raised back in the Dominican Republic keeps me honest about what I do and don’t know and that my audience is not only American. It prevents a kind of othering of my own people that I think would be easy to fall into if I didn’t know I had two early readers who would be calling me out on my shit if I didn’t keep it funky.

Rumpus: Of course, there are elements you’ve pulled from your real life and fictionalized. Has the process of doing this revealed anything to you in terms of what you set out to explore writing this book?

Acevedo: The one storyline that felt most autobiographical is how the character Ona describes needing to have uterine surgery to remove a fibroid. I had a myomectomy in February of 2021, and my recovery and experience was less than stellar. But in writing Ona, I stumbled on this character who saw herself being opened, and light entering into her body, as something that led her closer to her ancestors, as something that created new questions as to what was most important in life. And I did not go in expecting to glean that, in regards to the character, from an experience I thought I knew so well.

Rumpus: I’m fascinated with Samuel’s (the eldest Marte sibling) tangential role. He’s mentioned here and there, but we don’t know much about him as we do his sisters. Was this a conscious choice? If so, what was your purpose behind it?

Acevedo: Totally conscious. In my family and many of the families I know, the stories are carried and passed down by the women. Men aren’t even privy to the internal lives of women, despite how much is happening on a daily basis. So this was a book that privileged that interiority and wanted to show how the absence of concern by men for the story of women in their lives left them out of fully knowing the people they love.

Rumpus: How do you feel unleashing your first adult novel into the world?

Acevedo: I’m excited! It feels good to have made something that is in conversation with my past writing but also departs in a big way. I like to continuously push my writing, to see how expansive it can be, and I’m glad I trust my work enough to let it stretch and reach different audiences.

And also, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge I’m super nervous! This novel wasn’t the only one where the stakes were high for the characters, but I think they felt high for me as a writer. I took a lot of chances, and soon the book will belong to the world and we’ll see how many of those chances paid off—but I made art. And now it doesn’t only belong to me.

Rumpus: I always ask the authors I interview what is something new you learned about yourself writing this book, but I also want to know what is something new that you learned about family, and your place in yours?

Acevedo: I learned that writing ambitiously is a kind of joy, it’s thrill-seeking the way some people only feel alive when jumping off of a cliff. I’ve always found writing [as] a kind of magic, but this novel, in the middle of the pandemic, was pure, unadulterated joy-finding. And I hadn’t realized just how having a writing practice could help keep loneliness at bay.

I think what I learned about family is the level to which we need to forgive our elders; the more you learn their stories, the more you realize how much they, too, have been hurt and perhaps had less language and resources to make sense of it. That doesn’t mean you excuse the hurt or ignore it, but forgiveness doesn’t require either. Simply showing grace to the vulnerable human in another.




Author photograph by Denzel Golatt

Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →