“El corazón de la auyama, sólo lo conoce el cuchillo,” reads the Dominican proverb on the epigraph of Elizabeth Acevedo's third novel Clap When You Land. “The heart of the squash is only known by the knife.” The saying, popular in the Dominican Republic, means that we can never truly understand someone else’s suffering. This dicho (saying) is at the core of the Dominican-American author’s novel, which published last May. The New York Times bestseller was inspired by the crash of Flight 587 that took place on November 12, 2001, just two months following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, which investigators confirmed were not connected.
The incident — which is the second-deadliest plane crash in U.S. history — deeply impacted the Dominican community, with over 90 percent of the passengers being of Dominican descent flying from New York to Santo Domingo. Although this story was overshadowed by the immensity of 9/11, Acevedo's lyrical fiction version of this new story is now being adapted into a television series, imploring audiences to learn more about this tragic event that took the lives of 265 people. The news was announced last month after producer Bruna Papandrea's Made up Stories acquired the rights to the bestseller — and Acevedo is excited to not only see the story of Flight 587 be told but also have Dominicans represented authentically on-screen.
"I'm obsessed with how Dominicans have come to be," the National Book Award winner exclusively tells Refinery29. "The history and cultural elements that have shaped us; I think the richness of who we are hasn't been explored enough [and] hasn't been offered enough nuance."
The novel, which centers around two estranged 16-year-old sisters — Yahaira in New York City and Camino in the Dominican Republic — is told through their dual narratives. The two unknowingly share a father and are entirely unaware of the other's existence, only to learn of one another after discovering that their father died in the devastating plane crash. Acevedo doesn't just capture the stories of grief and loss in her fictional depiction of the event, but also of the double lives many immigrants experience after arriving in the United States. With Dominican stories often being left out of the mainstream Latinx narrative, fans are excited to see the representation this will bring to television screens, showing how multifaceted this community is while also shining a light on the humanity behind the people who are often stereotyped or misrepresented.
"I think there's a powerful way to center the intimate longings and hurts of a community we don't often see on TV," Acevedo says, also sharing that family members of Flight 587 victims have reached out to her with positive sentiments. "I hope to honor that grief while also showing how rich the world of the story can be, even as it demonstrates communal and individual mourning."
As for representation, the novel's two protagonists are Afro-Dominican sisters with brown complexions who proudly wear their naturally curly hair, as the story illustrates — something we don't often see on television shows that feature Latinx characters. Acevedo also details the complexities of the Dominican-American identities while also celebrating the uniqueness of both cultures by telling the story in two settings: New York City (with a population of over 740,000 Dominicans) and the Dominican Republic. She quite often jumps from English to Spanglish in a seamless and organic way, even throwing in the occasional Dominican slang that never feels forced or out of place — details that hopefully get translated just as authentically on the screen.
With a story that has diversity naturally weaved in, fans are already anticipating the casting direction. Acevedo, who is executive producing and writing the show's pilot, says she is still in the early stages of production when it comes to casting. She is currently finishing the script of the movie adaptation for her second novel, With The Fire On High. However, she recognizes the importance of casting actresses who best resemble Yahira and Camino and what this signifies for Afro-Latinx representation in film and TV. Given the delicateness of the tragic story inspiring the series and the importance of the authentic portrayal of her culture, Acevedo is considering every detail of this anticipated project.
"Casting is a notoriously sensitive component of making a show, and I'm honestly not sure what it will look like. Everyone at Made Up Stories understands how important it is to me to get precise and thoughtful renderings of my people. So, I know we'll be keeping that at the center of all that we do," she says before jokingly sharing her family's interest in participating. "I have had requests from [my] mami and tias to make cameos, so trust me, I know there's a long list of casting wishes."
"The richness of who we are hasn't been explored enough [and] hasn't been offered enough nuance."
When it came to finding the right partner, Acevedo found working with the U.S.-based Australian producer, Bruna Papandrea of Made up Stories, to be a natural fit. Papandrea is known for prioritizing the production of female-centric content and enabling female writers, directors, producers, and actors to tell their stories. The producer has worked on popular titles like Big Little Lies and The Undoing.
"I was lucky enough to have several production companies interested, and I took a lot of meetings when trying to figure out the best partners. Bruna and her team struck me immediately as folks who were passionate about the text and passionate about my writing," Acevedo shares. "In general, I like working with innovative OG's; people who've been in the industry for a while and can put weight behind my work, but who are flexible with how storytelling is changing and what it can become. Bruna and the team at Made up Stories showed they cared about the characters and the integrity of the lives I'm trying to depict."
The screen adaptation of Acevedo's stories, like Clap When You Land, comes during a time when actors, directors, and audiences are calling on Hollywood to better represent the intricacies, nuances, and diversity that exist within Latinidad. In 2019, studies found that twenty- four percent of all Latinx speaking characters across 200 popular films were shown to be criminals, 12% were “temperamental or angry,” and 36% isolated, without community, or anything specifically tying them to their heritage. It's because of findings like these that Acevedo is proud to be bringing the authentic depiction of her culture to life. But whether or not you're of Dominican descent, Acevedo feels that this series will transcend cultures and relate to many on a human level — regardless of your background.
"I have many hopes [for the show], but like a good Dominican, I'm also superstitious," she says, referring to the superstitions and spiritual beliefs woven into fabric of the Dominican culture. "So, I won't say too much about all that I hope and dream folks will get from this TV show. I'll just tell you all to stay tuned."