15 year old Xiomara Batista is a poet, a young woman whose blossoming body earns her unwanted attention from boys and men who think the shape of her body gives them the right to touch it, and also earns her stern lectures from her mother, who wants her daughter to be a saint and a virgin until she’s married, and whose strictly devout religious life causes Xiomara much hurt and misery, particularly as her mother automatically blames her for the unwanted attention she receives.
I think about all the things we could be / if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.
Xiomara starts a new school year and she has a new English teacher who spots her talent and gently encourages her to attend her after-school poetry club on a Tuesday – but Xiomara can’t go because she goes to Confirmation classes then (even though she’s old enough to have been confirmed at least a year ago). The Confirmation classes serve to highlight Xiomara’s difficulties with her mother’s religious beliefs, and she eventually stops going and goes to Poetry Club instead.
Trouble is always lurking in the background for Xiomara but it comes to a head when her mother spots her riding a train home with her boyfriend Aman. The pair are kissing, completely oblivious to the world around them, and Xiomara misses her stop because she’s too caught up in the kissing. When she finally makes it home, she’s confronted by her angry mother, and punished by being confined to the house unless she’s in school or at church for services or her Confirmation classes – she even has her cell phone taken away. She gets through it with the silent support of her older twin brother, Xavier, whom she usually just calls ‘Twin’, and her poetry writing.
Eventually her mother returns her cell, and Xiomara learns about an upcoming poetry slam. She’s both terrified and exhilarated at the idea of taking part, but then her relationship with her mother takes an even worse turn – on the morning of her birthday she accidentally leaves her notebook full of poems on the kitchen table, and she leaves the poetry club to find two missed calls on her cell – her mother is waiting for her at home.
Xiomara rushes home and is confronted by her mother who’s angry not only at her daughter’s disobedience and defiance (she’s been pretending to go to Confirmation classes, not having told her mother that Father Sean had suggested she hold off on continuing with them since she has so many questions about her faith), but also furious about what she’s been writing in her poems. They end up having a massive row in which Xiomara flings scraps of her poetry at her mother while her mother flings Bible verses back. It culminates in her mother setting fire to her notebook, which brings her twin brother and her father (who’s always left parenting up to his wife) rushing into the room. Xiomara suggests that her mother burn her too since the poems are inside her, and then she rushes out.
Although she and Aman had split up a while before because he hadn’t stepped in to defend her from the unwanted attentions of another boy who’d grabbed her ass in the hallway by her locker, she calls Aman and asks if she can visit him. She spends the night at his place, just the two of them as his father works nights and his mother is absent, and they spend a lot of time kissing, then eventually get undressed, but she quickly realises she’s not ready for sex yet, and Aman respects that – to her complete astonishment as she’s too used to the idea that girls ‘put out or you get out’.
Mrs Galiano has her for first period English the following morning and she knows something is wrong as she’d worried about Xiomara’s abrupt exit following the previous afternoon’s Poetry Club when she heard her mother’s voicemail. Mrs Galiano had got Xiomara’s home number from the school directory and spoke to her father, who’d said they were all worried about where Xiomara had gone. She lets Xiomara cry and tell her all about it, then tells her that she’ll have to go home and see her family, and that she needs to talk to her mother properly, and figure out a way to have a relationship with her.
Leaving at the end of the day with Aman, Xiomara finds Caridad, her best girl friend, and her twin brother, who goes to the ‘genius’ school across town (for the academically gifted) are both waiting for her, and Xiomara realises that she’s not as alone as she’d thought. And she also realises who she can ask to help her to talk to her mother without another screaming match.
She arrives home with her twin brother and Father Sean, and when her mother sees the priest, she breaks down, and Xiomara is able to hug her mother and realises that she does love her even if she thinks she hates her.
Mother and daughter go to the church on a regular basis for sessions with Father Sean, and sometimes Twin and her father go too, and her mother begins teaching Communion classes to the youngest children at the church, and that makes her happier than Xiomara can ever recall her being before.
And her parents, and Twin, and Father Sean, and Aman and her Poetry Club friends, all go along to the Slam too, and Xiomara performs one of her poems, and afterwards they go back to Xiomara’s home where they eat pizza and also rice and beans, and talk and listen to music, and her father dances with her. And Xiomara knows that she and her mother may never go and buy a Prom dress together, but at least they can have a relationship that isn’t solely about her mother’s fears that she’ll end up pregnant before she gets married.
I loved this book. I’ve never read a novel written wholly in verse before, so that was a treat, as was Xiomara’s strong, fierce, and powerful voice. I fell in love with Xiomara from the very beginning and was willing her on, wanting her to find a way to voice her feelings and questions, her fears and her experiences of being a young black woman who’s talked over, talked down to, or simply ignored at every turn.
This book made me cry, made me cheer, and made me happy to have met Xiomara, a beautiful, brave, black girl. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.