Family Lore and Womanhood
Acevedo's novel places women—across every stage of life—front and center
[Dear readers: This issue contains discussion of white supremacy.]
"The generation I was raised by felt like their relationship to their body was very othered," says Elizabeth Acevedo in an interview with NPR. "When I speak to my cousins, when I think about myself, it's been a return to desire, a return to the gut, a return to health in a way that isn't necessarily about size but is about: who am I in this vessel and how do I love it?" In Family Lore, Acevedo’s first novel for adults, we follow the Marte women, four sisters and two of their daughters (HarperCollins, 2023). Through recounts of the sisters’ childhood in the Dominican Republic and eventual immigration to New York, as well as their present day relationships with one another, life, and their selves, we see the women at their fullest. Family Lore places women across every stage of life front and center.
Acevedo crafts a multigenerational tale, focusing on the Marte sisters (Matilde, Flor, Pastora, and Camila) and two of their daughters (Ona, Flor’s daughter, and Yadi, Pastora’s daughter), as well as memories of their mother, Mamá Silvia. Most of the women possess an affinity—Mamá Silvia of births, Matilde maybe or maybe not for dance, Flor of deaths, Pastora of truths, Camila for herbalism, Ona an alpha vagina, and Yadi a taste for limes. Through the course of interviews with Ona, we learn not only about their affinities, but also their wants, needs, and desires.
But “how do lineages of women from colonized places, where emphasis is put on silent enduring, learn when and where to confide in their own family if forbearance is the only attitude elevated and modeled?” Ona asks (Acevedo, 138-9). By showing us the interiors of each of these women, and through the format of Ona’s interviews with her family, forbearance is cast aside, histories and identities reclaimed. Acevedo crafts each of these women—affinities and beyond—to the fullest, not shying away from age, physical encounters, and much more. We see them across all ages at their most mundane (Yadi’s “brown poo was gorgeous, full of healthy stomach bile”), in satisfaction (“I reached down with my own fingers to inspect the wetness there”), in fear (“that her sister would see her scarred, bruised, withered like rotted fruit, made her gag”), in passion (“Matilde in a fast-double spin, arms flung out”) and in grief (“the sob she attempted to pull back instead echoed into the room”) (123, 97, 178, 56, 340). By confiding in Ona (and the reader), each of the women carry their stories a little less alone.
(A note: There are men in the novel, yet Acevedo crafts them as peripheral. We see the role they play only through the stories of the women, and even then they aren’t the focus. (As the Washington Post notes: “Some readers may note that three of the Marte daughters were born in the 1950s during the 30-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, yet there is no specific reference to his tyranny, his notorious preying on campo girls or the measures families took to protect them.”) At the living wake, Samuel, the four sisters’ only brother, “worked his way to the side of the room. Not with his sisters and nieces, but alongside them, at least” (340-1). And this depiction is telling for the entire story: Just because the men are not the purpose of these women’s lives or stories, does not mean they cannot or should not be supportive.)
“Each one had departed [the Dominican Republic] in varying stages of womanhood, facing a country armed to harm them, and they with very few shields,” Ona says of the Marte women (293). The United States was not built to benefit everyone, especially immigrant women from non-European countries. Family Lore is not just about centering the expansiveness of womanhood on the page, but about how that intertwines with history, and preserving legacies that whitewashing attempts to erase. Just as Acevedo said to NPR, Family Lore explores who each of these women are as individuals and as a family, probing “who am I?” a question we all ask at some point in our lives. In the novel, that self is rooted in legacy and future.
Combating attempts to whitewash history
In the US, we’ve seen a stark increase in governmental legislation over the past years with regards to bodily autonomy and educational access. From bans on gender affirming care to the removal of books (predominantly those by and about BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ identities) from school libraries, the lengths legislators—and “parental rights” groups—are going to assert white supremecist ordeals is not a surprise, but nonetheless alarming.
As part of that attempt to assert control, we’ve also seen a number of changes made to educational lessons and access in states. Take Florida, for example, in which DEI programs are now banned from public institutions, students are taught that enslaved individuals could “benefit” from enslavement, and PragerU is an approved platform for classrooms to utilize. Family Lore could easily be put in conversation with these changes to our educational systems, as Acevedo attempts to uncover and preserve a family’s history that the US has attempted to erase.
So how can we as readers also fight for more accurate depictions of the country’s history?
Just like with book bans, attending school board meetings is increasingly important. Whether you’re a parent or not, showing up to your local district’s meetings allows you to voice concerns.
Donate and volunteer for organizations that are working to heighten understandings of the country’s history, such as SPCL’s Learning for Justice.
As always, read and amplify the work (whether books, academic papers, news articles, etc.) of individuals from historically excluded identities. These new laws and instructional guides are attempting to further silence such stories, so all of us can play a role in making sure they’re seen and read.
“Each one had departed in varying stages of womanhood, facing a country armed to harm them, and they with very few shields.”
—Family Lore, p293
Other’s thoughts on Family Lore
@BusyBlackBookworm: “Throughout the novel, Acevedo emphasizes the strength of the collective: each individual woman in this story of course has her unique struggles and desires that are often complicated and thwarted by other family members, but there is a profound power that emerges when these women are gathered together. There is beauty both in the individual and in the togetherness.” (Also check out’s newsletter!)
@ScienceOwlReads: “By the book’s culmination, readers are wont to crave more resolution and detail, but that’s the point: histories are crafted in the present, and despite all the questions we may ask our elders, we can never know them fully. Nevertheless, through the Martes, we see that faith can be the greatest act of love, that a series of losses has no bearing on the blessings to come.”
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