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Tragedy Reveals 2 Secret Families In 'Clap When You Land'

Elizabeth Acevedo's new Clap When You Land is a novel, in verse, about two sisters losing their father, their hero, and finding each other along the way.

Camino Rios lives with her aunt in the Dominican Republic, and waits all year for her dad to visit her for the summer. Yahaira Rios lives in New York with her parents, and asks every year if she can go with her dad on his annual business trip. Neither sister knows about the other — until their dad dies in a plane crash leaving New York for the Dominican Republic.

Acevedo is a National Poetry Slam champion, and she won a National Book Award for her first book, The Poet X. She dedicated her new book to the lives lost on American Airlines Flight 587 — the Dominican Republic-bound flight that crashed into Queens, New York, in 2001, killing everyone onboard. "I was 13 years old when that plane crashed," she says. "It rocked my community. I mean, everyone knew someone who was on that flight. But I'll say that, like, this story was based on research that I did on flight AA 587. All of these secrets. The indignity of of a tragedy, of the death of folks and the ways that their secrets come out. And so I started reading about people who had a lot of complications around getting grievance money from the airlines because, you know, the person who was deceased had a lot of secrets."

Interview Highlights

On Camino's hunger for stable ground somewhere else

I think that one of the things I've noticed when I've spent time in the Dominican Republic, it's such a diaspora community in terms of who's in the U.S., that even when people feel really satisfied with what they're doing, there's still this desire to see what's in the U.S., what is happening in New York, like, what is this world we're always hearing about? So one of the things that Camino is desiring is, her father lives in the U.S. She's heard all these stories and she wants to experience it firsthand. But she's also growing up in a very particular area, right? Sosúa, which is known for the ways in which young women are brought into the sex trade. And so she is also trying to run away from the expectations that is had of her because she's a young woman.

On what Yahaira is looking for

The question of identity is a big one in the book. What does it mean to not be from here or from there? What does it mean to claim an ethnicity but never have visited the country that your parents are from?

The question of identity is a big one in the book. What does it mean to not be from here or from there? What does it mean to claim an ethnicity but never have visited the country that your parents are from? And so that is one of the questions Yahaira is trying to answer — I want to go back to this place my father loved so much, he would go once a year. So the question of who you are — she believes she can answer by the geographical location: "If I can just go there, I can figure out the answers to all the questions of my father and myself."

On creating the character of their father

I don't imagine I'll ever write a book for young people that doesn't include an intergenerational theme — for me that was such a big part of growing up. And I think literature that is contemplating the family, you need the parents coming in and they can't be perfect. They can't, you know, save the day on their own. And with this father, it was very easy to make him a villain. I wanted it to be more nuanced than that, that a person could be a terrible partner, or have made a mistake, and potentially still have made incredible memories with their children. And for the characters to have to come to terms with who their parents are, even though their parents will never be able to ask them for forgiveness. I feel like that's a big question. You know, I've had to ask — my father's never going to say certain things, but my own growth requires me to be able to forgive.

On the immigrant experience

My mother has told me her experiences of coming to this country, just the shock. You know, she came in winter and wrote this long letter to her mother about "the trees here don't have leaves." And so she thought, "I've been sent here on behalf of my family to exist in this cold place that doesn't even have, like, foliage." Like, I think the immigrant experience to me is that I go forward because I know it is best for myself and for the people I love. But I'm always looking back. It's hard to find stability when you're constantly rotating between the place you are and the place you're from.

This story was edited for radio by Hiba Ahmad and Samantha Balaban, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.