This novel-in-verse follows Sarai as she questions the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives with determination and an open heart.
“The extraordinary poetry of Elisabet Velasquez takes the reader through the streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn,” said Connie Griffin of Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It’s a journey of energy, turning corners, facing roadblocks, and finding paths. Sarai, her sister, and mother are almost always moving, and survival is almost always on the line. Nothing is easy with her mother, but through it all Sarai keeps telling her story in this heartbreaking, heart-mending novel-in-verse. Her voice is powerful. Her story looks fragile but steel runs through it. Read it once, read it again, then look for more poetry by Velasquez!”
Velasquez is a Boricua writer born in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her work has been featured in Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Latina Magazine, We Are Mitú, Tidal, and more. She is a 2017 Poets House fellow and the 2017 winner of the Button Poetry Video Contest. Her work is featured in Martín Espada’s anthology What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, and When We Make It is her debut novel.
Here, Velasquez and Griffin discuss writing When We Make It.
Connie Griffin: What drew you to locate your story in Bushwick, Brooklyn?
Elisabet Velasquez: When I was growing up in Bushwick in the '90s, the overarching message about those of us growing up in a neighborhood that was severely neglected by government officials was that we wouldn't grow up at all. There was a narrative that the people who lived in Bushwick — the majority of whom were people of color — were lazy, dangerous, and plagued with addiction. These narratives attempted to shift the focus from systemic neglect onto the coping mechanisms of people living under extreme economic disadvantage doing their best to survive. I wanted to highlight the innovation, beauty, skill, and imagination of the people who lived in and survived Bushwick because we were always artists. Surviving systemic neglect is an art form.
CG: Would you talk a little about the teeter-totter of hope and despair?
EV: I believe (and this is definitely me speaking in the wisdom that hindsight provides) that even when we are in situations that feel completely hopeless, we can still experience moments of hope. For example, in the story when Mami didn’t have money for food, the bodegero created a system that allowed her, and anyone else in the neighborhood who needed food and supplies, to obtain them from his bodega even if they did not have the money right then and there. Mutual aid efforts are not readily identified as hopeful moments because we are conditioned to feel shame for seeking help, and it isn’t a moment that permanently removes us from the despair of poverty and food insecurity, but it does provide some respite. If, in that small moment of relief, we can catch our breath enough to hope, then hope gives birth to the imagination and imagining is the first step to creating our realities. You can’t imagine yourself out of despair, but you can imagine pathways that allow you to step into your power and challenge the way things are.
CG: Sarai is writing entries in her journal. Has journal writing played a part in your development as a writer?
EV: I am going to quote the great scholar and poet Louis Reyes Rivera here: “The responsibility of the writer is not only to tell it like it is but to tell it like it ought to be.” Journal writing is another great entryway into the imagination. Journaling was absolutely instrumental in my development as a writer because it allowed me to look at my reality and question it. I wanted to know why I was living the way I was living. To quote another great scholar and poet Cardi B: “What was the reason?!” I definitely drew that inquisitiveness into Sarai’s character. What is my reality, and what would my reality be in a world that is fair and equitable?
CG: What was the first thing Sarai said or thought that made you want to throw all your energy and support into writing her story?
EV: “What does it mean to make it in a world that has already decided that I have failed?"
CG: Sarai talks about names. What importance do names hold for you?
EV: As someone who has had my name misspelled and mispronounced my entire life, I quickly learned how easy it was to not correct folks when they mispronounced your name or allow them to shorten your name for their comfort. When I started studying literature, I noticed some of the greats had what some would consider “difficult names,” but no one seemed to have any trouble pronouncing Geoffrey Chaucer or shorting his name to Jeff or misspelling Allen Ginsberg by removing an L or adding an A in place of the E. Was this perhaps because they are considered literary greats and people take great care to ensure historical accuracy? One day I decided that I am a literary great, simply by virtue of the fact that I am alive and writing my stories. We all deserve for our stories to be remembered accurately — that includes our names.
When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez (Dial Books, 9780593324486, Hardcover Young Adult, $18.99) On Sale: 9/21/2021
Find out more about the author at elisabetvelasquez.com.
ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.