I adored this book. But it wasn’t always an easy read. It’s a book drowning in grief and desperation, finely wrought and deeply felt, and it’s an understatement to say that at parts it was so good and so sad and so precise in its pain that I was simply made of tears. So fair warning, if your heart can’t handle a story of surviving the unexpected loss of a parent, there’s nothing wrong with finding other, less tear-stained reading experiences.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo tells the story of two sixteen-year-old Dominican girls, one living in New York City and one living in the Dominican Republic. Born three months apart, they share a father, a man defined by his routine absence in their lives. Neither knows the other exists until he dies in a plane crash.
Clap When You Land is a novel in verse, an approach that reflects Acevedo’s own beginnings (and obvious excellence) in slam poetry. I listened to the audiobook version, where Acevedo read the parts narrated by Yahaira and Melania-Luisa Marte read Camino. Both women are truly gifted and display obvious talents nurtured by their shared slam poetry backgrounds. Their displays of grief and anger, fear and sadness are transportive and are perfect for those days when you need something that gives you permission to cry.
Check out the opening of the book read by the author:
As you can tell from the excerpt read by the author and the quotes I have pulled that are below, there is Spanish sprinkled all the way through the book. Non-Spanish speakers, I think you’ll be ok. My only suggestion is to handle this book like I used to handle Shakespeare–keep going until it makes sense! You can’t deny the universality of this story, with or without a little bit of Dominican slang.
Yahaira is your typical American teen–if you, like me, defined your typical American teen as Black, Dominican, and lesbian–with a dope chess game and a sweet-as-pie girlfriend Dre who is also the girl next door. But don’t worry, there is no tragic lesbian story here. This part of the story wasn’t why I was crying! Ok, I mean a little, but like little happy tears. Tears of relief that those girls get to be in love and no one is trying to stop it. There’s no random violence from strangers in public, no harassment in their schools, no parental interference. They love each other and that is not something that is ever debated or denied.
Camino lives in the barrio in Sosúa in the Dominican Republic with her Tía Solana. Her tía is a curandera that serves their community, looking after premature babies, little old ladies with cancer, and everything in between. Camino’s dearest wish is to be a doctor. She wants to heal like tía heals and she wants to look after her community like her tía does. She wants to go to school in the United States so that she can get the best education possible and come back to be a doctor. But her entire existence relies upon her father and the wealth that he sends back to her from the US.
Without her father, she doesn’t have money for anything, not for school, not for food, and not for her future as a doctor. Her mother died ten years earlier and her tía is her only living relative in DR. Camino is a bright young lady and she clearly sees how intertwined her own precarious situation is with the economic realities of living in the Dominican Republic, which feels to Camino like it is only meant to be an island paradise built for tourists.
I am from a playground place.
Our oceans that we need for fish
are cleared so extranjeros can kite surf.
Our land, lush & green, is bought
& sold to foreign powers so they can build
luxury hotels for others to rest their heads. …
Even the women, girls like me,
our mothers & tías, our bodies
are branded jungle gyms.
Men with accents pick us
as if from a brochure to climb
& slide & swing…
I know this is what Tía does not say.
Sand & soil & sinew & smiles:
all bartered. & who reaps? Who eats?
Not us. Not me.
Camino has a stalker, El Cero, and he is a palpable threat to her safety. He is a pimp who her father paid off yearly to stay away, and she fears with her father gone El Cero will force her into sex work at the nearby resorts. With El Cero popping up on every corner and her father’s money gone, she is sure that her slim chance at a future where she is not another thing consumed and discarded is a thing she must grab at before she loses her chance.
Clap When You Land follows both girls through their grief, bouncing back and forth between them as their new reality forms around them. Yahaira’s relationship with her mother grows more complex, as her mother conflicted in her grief for a man who had so openly betrayed their marriage vows. Her mother seems to be extremely depressed from her loss and she struggles with being able to function while also being openly hostile to how Yahaira is mourning, obliquely telling Yahaira she didn’t know everything about her father. That push and pull of mother and daughter, angry at each other because they can’t be angry at him, bewildered and sad in each other’s presence, but unable to offer any comfort was heartbreaking to witness.
I sign myself out of school.
Ignore Ms. Santos’s condolences.
Mami is still crying.
We walk to my locker.
I leave my books in the cafeteria.
Mami is still crying.
I leave school without saying goodbye to Dre.
Mami can’t stop crying.
Mr. Henry waves. I wave back.
Outside the day is beautiful.
The sun is shining.
The breeze a soft touch along my face.
Mami is still crying.
It’s almost as if the day has forgotten
it’s stolen my father or maybe it’s rejoicing at its gain.
Mami is still crying,
but my eyes? They remain dry.
One of the things I struggled the most with this story is that for more than half of it the girls are apart and unaware of the other’s existence. We, as the reader, get to see how this man’s life with his two girls forms a coherent whole from the pieces the girls were given, but we never really get to see those girls develop the same understanding. We only get to see the beginning of their relationship and, while the climax is rightly centered at the most clearly rendered danger faced by one of the girls, I wish more of the story had been given to the girls becoming sisters and learning more about each other. I wish I could have been able to watch the girls give each other the gift of filling the gaps that their father had left behind.
The reason why I struggled with it is because as a reader you feel a bit complicit in the lies that the dad told–it’s like you and he are the only two people that know everything. Even upon his death, the dad is still the center of the universe for both of his girls because of the power he has over what they knew about him. I finished reading the book a few days ago and I still chafe against that echo of the patriarchy that resonated even after his death. But, I don’t think my dislike of that choice in the story is about the writing or the story structure, but me not wanting the patriarchy to win. I struggled with grading this book, which mostly had to do with my discomfort in feeling complicit. I think I’ve landed on giving the patriarchy an F and giving the book an A, because the way the patriarchy winds itself around the story, insidious and uncompromising, is right and true, if not also deeply unsettling. It’s not the book’s fault that the patriarchy is the worst!
Clap When You Land is a beautiful novel about grief, mothers and daughters, newly discovered sisters, and fathers. It’s about the Dominican diaspora and what it takes to stay. It’s about why so many had to leave and in their leaving left something real of themselves behind that they can only access upon returning to their island. It’s about loss–the loss of a parent at their death and the loss of a parent who was never really there. It’s also about the loss of the fiction of a parent once circumstances reveal the hard choices they made and the secrets they sought to keep. And it’s fundamentally about the exploitation of the many beautiful islands in the Caribbean and its residents in the larger global context, the kind of book I’d want to slip to one of my little cousins so they’ll understand the next time one of our relatives starts yelling about the IMF at our family reunions in Jamaica.
I loved this story. I wept over this story. I could fill the internet with quotes from this story. But I’m working real hard to not spoil too much of it, because let’s be for real, my prose can’t compete and you should be heading directly to read Clap When You Land, not hanging out with me.