Thursday, April 25, 2019

SDSU’s Experimental Theatre Production of Hookman: a Review

Photo by Ken Jacques
On March 24, 2019, I wasn’t sure what to expect from SDSU’s experimental theatre production of Hookman, written by Lauren Yee and directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn. I mean how scary could a hamburger on a hook really be? Was the play scary? You betcha! Some of us in the audience had heard that Hookman could pop out of anywhere, so for a little more than an hour, we shared Lexi’s anxiety, but the comedy helps to lighten the mood as beginning with the first scene.

Lexi (Kennedy Garcia) returns home on a break from college and wants to hang out with her childhood best friend, Jess (Dominique Payne). The two of them are involved in a tragic car accident where Jess is killed. Lexi’s subconscious guilt over Jess’s death manifests into an urban legend from her childhood, Hookman, and haunts her for the rest of the play. Dr. Phillip Serrato, English professor of gothic literature at SDSU, joined the cast for a post-performance Q&A. Serrato explains to the audience, “Hookman is a physical manifestation of all the trauma in [Lexi].” The gothic in this work serves as a modality for discussing serious issues to include college life, date rape and #BelieveWomen, and survivor’s guilt.

The comedy blended with horror and serious topics produces an uncomfortable laughter that forces its audience to consider new perspectives. This seemed to be the case with Thorn’s vision for Yee’s Hookman. One audience member said during the Q&A that followed the production, “The comedy helped me get through it.” Serrato explains that the comedy provides “relief from the real trauma.” In this case, Lexi’s real trauma is her date rape experience and being behind the wheel when her best friend Jess died in the car accident. As for Lexi holding Hookman’s hand in the final scene, one could argue that Lexi has symbolically indicated that she has come to an understanding with her dark passenger and is coping with her grief.

Hookman is spooky on a whole different level!


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Real Identities and Diversity in Children’s Picture Books

On September 19, 2018, Camila Rae Castillo-Smith was born, and all of the sudden, I’m searching for picture books that tell her the story of both her Black and Mexican heritage. All of the sudden, I’m grappling with how to discuss blended heritage and culture with my first grandchild. I thought because my husband is mixed race and because my beautiful daughter is mixed race that I knew exactly how to handle this situation. But when Rocío, Camila’s mother, said that she was struggling to find books with characters that Camila could identify with, I realized this may be more difficult than I thought. The issue is complicated not only by a number of historically political notions about race, but also by the many ways that we identify ourselves, which means I have to ask some not so obvious questions.

Am I Black or African American? Is Mexican the same as Latinx? How Camila constructs her identity will have a lot to do with how we, her mother, father, and their families, define ourselves. In Roberto Carlos Garcia’s article on The Root, “So You’re Afro-Latinx. Now What?,” He notes, “America thrusts black or white upon you quickly, and you have to decide, you have to know who and what you are” (Garcia). This knowing, though, takes time as Camila comes to this realization with a barrage of influences. As she comes of age, she will work through how her family identifies themselves and hopefully discover for herself where she fits. The books that we read to her in the early stages of this development will strengthen her foundation. So, my search for picture books about children who are both Mexican and Black continues.

While there are a number of books about mixed race characters, so many of them seem to focus on children whose race is mixed with white. There are very few stories about children who celebrate their mixed minority races, and I have yet to find one about a child like Camila. My search, though not entirely in vain, reveals a collection of stories that some may say is too specific. But haven’t the books before the push for diversity also been too specific? Just as Camila will likely read books about children who are not like her, the children who are not like her should also read books about children like Camila. This helps to encourage empathy and compassion for people who are not like us.

It is the desire to see one’s self represented that leads to diverse books. “‘Diversity’ should just be called ‘reality.’ Your books, your articles, your curricula need to reflect reality” (Due). So maybe we, Camila’s family, should write the story that we’d like to tell her, children like her, and the children who want to get to know her. Children are very different, and we should be okay with acknowledging that.

I’m extremely proud that Rocío immediately saw the importance of Camila knowing who she is early on. And while I took this for granted when I was her age, I’m open to learning as my family grows.

Click here for a list of children’s picture books that celebrate diverse, real identities.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

"The Poet X" Is the Next Book You Need to Read

“You need to read The Poet X.”

This is what I texted all my friends as soon as I read the last line of this book; I wanted to tell every person I spoke to that this book would not get out of my head.

Born and raised in New York city and the daughter of Dominican immigrants, Acevedo was a National Poetry Slam Champion and coached for the D.C. Youth Slam Team. The Poet X is her debut novel and quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. It also has won multiple awards including the 2019 Michael L. Printz Award and the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. With The Poet X being her debut novel, we are so impressed with her work and cannot wait to see what Acevedo comes out with next. 

The Poet X is a breathtaking novel in verse narrated by the protagonist, Xiomara Batista, who is a passionate and headstrong young Afro-Latina woman growing up in Harlem. Xiomara slowly falls in love with poetry, especially spoken word poetry. Xiomara pours her emotions and reflections of her day to day life into her poetry journal, commenting on topics ranging from pressures from her mother’s religion to gender to sexuality.

Acevedo told Publisher’s Weekly that she “pulls from her experience working with teens and her own high school journals”, which clearly is seen in her poetry, which truly channeling the emotions we can relate to from our teen years. She points to her being first-generation influencing her writing: There are a lot of the cultural things that inspired aspects of Xiomara, like the ways in which who you are outside of your house is a little bit different than who you must be inside because of the cultural norms that exist. That push and pull that Xiomara carries of being first-generation is something I share.” (Publisher’s Weekly, 2018) Because of her own personal connection, her words evoke so much more meaning and carry weight of being something she has lived through.

Xiomara’s words haunted me at every moment I set down this book. A particularly impactful poem is In Front of My Locker (218). In the poem a boy at school grabs Xiomara inappropriately, and instead of waiting for her friend and crush Aman to say something, she has the realization of not needing to wait for anyone. In the poem In Front of My Locker we see Xiomara standing up for herself:

“For the first time since I can remember I wait.
I can’t fight today. Everything inside me feels beaten…
He’s not going to curse or throw a fit.
He’s not going to do a damn thing.
Because no one will take care of me but me.” (Acevedo, 219)

Xiomara is a girl to look up to, with her strength and dedication driving her actions, even when  everything inside her “feels beaten.” Her emotions are so raw and realistic, and from the first page I found myself cheering for Xiomara and her passion for life.

Acevedo excellently captures the struggles of being a minority teen in her novel, and I can see people everywhere being able to see some of themselves in Xiomara’s story.

“There is power in the word” Xiomara says, and yes, there is power in practically every word of Acevedo’s book. (Acevedo, 353)   


Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. HarperTeen, 2018.