This is the second novel written entirely in free verse that I’ve read, the first being A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. I’ve really warmed up to this succinct type of format and would definitely read more of this type of novel. It’s such a unique way to tell a story and the more I’m exposed to this type of storytelling, the more it resonates with me. And this is coming from someone who is not a fan of poetry.
While reading this, I felt as though I were reading an autobiography, but all in verse.
The book follows Xiomara Batista, a teenage Dominican girl, who has a twin brother. It’s interesting to note that her name — Xiomara — literally means “one who is ready for war” and this name fits her perfectly. Because of her mature and shapely body, is the target of sexual harassment from her peers – consisting of endless groping, objectification and lewd comments — causing her to continually defend herself with harsh words and her fists. She’s not one who hesitates in doing battle when necessary.
This quote from the book sums the harassment she had to experience nicely:
”I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong.”
So in this way, there is a good amount of body shaming and body guilt in this story, not only by the boys at school but also by her mother.
She also often has to defend her brother, Xavier, a shy meek boy who is also bullied at school. I love how Xiomara never refers to her brother by name, but only as “Twin” because, according to her, she is the only one who can call her that.
Her mother is ultra-religious to the point of being extreme, and from the story, it seems that her entire world revolves around her religion. There is no middle of the road with her — everything is black and white, and not to be questioned.
Xiomara, however, questions her religion but keeps her questioning to herself, fearing her mother’s wrath. It’s worth mentioning that the manner in which her mother force feeds Xiomara her religious beliefs borders on abuse and she uses her religion to harm both Xiomara and her brother emotionally.
Another secret that Xiomara has kept from her mother is her poetry — notebook after notebook worth, in which she pours all of her frustrations, her hopes, her dreams and her doubts. It’s through her poetry that she find freedom — the freedom to breathe in her otherwise constrictive, suffocating world.
There is also a boy named Aman that Xiomara has been seeing. It’s worth mentioning that dating of any kind is a huge no-no and her mother expressly forbids it until she’s in college. Her mother has a very low opinion of men in general for which we learn the reason as the story progresses.
So her English teacher invites and urges Xiomara to join her school’s slam poetry club which she wants to do more than anything, but she knows that this is something her mother would never agree to and would no doubt severely punish her if she found out about it.
But regardless of her fear, Xiomara joins the club and skips her Confirmation classes to do so.
And it’s through this club that Xiomara experiences a who new level of freedom. But the question is: how long can she keep it up without her mother finding out?
Of course, Xiomara is unable to hide who she really is indefinitely, and it’s no surprise that it all coalesces into a gigantic explosion.
WHAT I LIKED
First off, I loved Xiomara’s teacher. She really struck a chord with me because I had a similar teacher when I was in high school who encouraged me to pursue writing. I even had an extra assignment to keep a writing journal that I had to turn in every week. I can’t underestimate the importance of teachers like this, who encourage you when other’s don’t. So it’s because of this teacher that Xiomara dared to take that frightening first step.
The story is told from Xiomara’s perspective, so we get a peek at what’s really going on in her head. Though to the world she shows only her tough exterior, we see a confused and vulnerable girl instead with at times raging emotions as she pours her heart into her poetry.
I found Xiomara’s character so relatable even if you don’t necessarily come from a home with strict, religious parents because that sense of not belonging or insecurity are feelings that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.
I especially liked the strength and conviction she exhibited even when faced with what seemed like insurmountable obstacles, such as her mother forcing her to obey the laws of the church or the blatant sexism and harassment she encountered at school.
So though her writing, we see Xiomara’s views on body image/body shaming, religion, sexuality, family, womanhood, sexism, and abuse, all very intense but important topics.
I also loved how via her inner strength, she moves past her mother’s rules and abuse as she begins to explore her sexuality and learns to understand that her feelings toward Aman are not wrong, wicked, evil or sinful.
This story is a phenomenal exploration of a young girl who, though constantly told that she’s not feminine enough, devout enough, or good enough, moves past these judgments to a place of pride at who she is — an admirable positive message to any young person who may face similar judgements in their lives.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything I didn’t like about this novel. I would have loved to have learned more about “Twin” and about his and Xiomara’s relationship. Because the story is recounted through Xiomara’s singular perspective, the other characters weren’t entirely as developed as they could have been. I would have enjoyed learning more about her mother’s past and what events brought her to the religious extremism. This was touched on a bit in the novel, but more detail would have been welcome.
My one real niggle with the book was in Xavier’s portrayal. He’s gay and is portrayed as timid, shy and unable/unwilling to fight his own battles. In fact, his sister has to step in and fight his battles for him repeatedly. These kinds of stereotypes really bother me in stories — where the gay person is portrayed as weak and emasculated. Sure, I do understand that this was used as a plot device to illustrate Xiomara’s aggressive nature. But I wish the author could have done so in a different way, without resorting to negative gay stereotypes.
I was utterly blown away by this book so much so that I devoured it in one day. This is a powerful, revelatory and sometimes raw coming of age story with a courageous and admirable main character.
Child abuse is a subject that I especially struggle with, so I found parts of this difficult to read, similar to my experience with The Dangerous Art of Blending In, another book I read recently.
But though The Poet X is heartbreaking and raw in places, it is ultimately hopeful and positive, as compromise is reached. I wish I had read this book when I was a teen.
In summary, this is a touching and emotional story of survival and of triumphing to become one’s authentic self, and I recommend it, even if you’re not one who typically goes for poetry. As I said, I’m not a poetry person, but this book blew me away. I loved it and gave it 4 stars.