Elisabet Velasquez’s knock-out YA novel-in-verse When We Make It begins with its young protagonist’s rendition of the biblical story of Abram and Sarai. In all of the beautiful, raucous, and vibrant language of a long-lost Brooklyn from the ‘90s, Sarai reflects, “I’m named after a homegirl in the Bible who couldn’t have kids. Her man Abram was all like: 'Yo Sarai, God promised me I would be the Father of nations.' Sarai was all like: 'Nah B, you must be buggin’, you know I can’t have no babies.'” Inspired by Velasquez's own struggles and triumphs as a young teenager, the novel shows what it’s like when girls of color break free from the scripts and rules placed on them and redefines what it means to "make it."
A poignant portrait of Puerto Rican girlhood in Bushwick, When We Make It also addresses the complex issues of housing, food insecurity, race, colonialism, and identity. But Velasquez does so without abstraction, using the sharp, humorous, and at times devastating observations of the novel’s 14-year-old protagonist to describe how a young person first understands the world around them. In one poem, Velasquez might make playful references to Sábado Gigante and Ricki Lake; in another, she’ll pivot to talk about the violence of state institutions and schools: “All the buildings are built like weapons/ even our schools are gated/ and the welfare office is spiked.” In writing about the oversexualization of Puerto Rican girls and women, Velasquez has the young Sarai wonder “what it would cost to keep me for a night/what it would cost to set me free.” And in a particularly moving poem that shares the book’s title, “When We Make It,” Sarai reflects, “We’re supposed to wanna get outta here./ When we make it, that’s what we’re supposed to do —/ leave.” But she ends the poem challenging that mentality: “Who taught us to be so afraid of ourselves/ that the dream is to find new places/ & new people to be afraid of us, too?”
Here, Velasquez talks with Refinery29 Somos about freeing ourselves from society’s standards of success, what motivated the novel, her writing process, and more. When We Make It is now available where books are sold.
This interview has been edited and condensed
What attracted you to writing a novel-in-verse for young adults?
This book started off as a memoir. But I was having a really hard time piecing my history together, partly because of trauma, partly because my parents were not good historians. I was stuck for a long time. I had these fragments of my story, and I just couldn’t get it together. But I knew that it was going to exist in some way, in some form. I just didn’t know how. Then, during a meeting with my editor, we ended up talking about my life, and I realized that young Elisabet has a lot of things that she wants to say that she hasn’t said. It’s just been older Elisabet talking in hindsight about her. I went home, and I thought, This is the voice of a young girl who wants to speak. Before, it was Adult Me talking about Young Me. Then I changed the voice to a 14-year-old girl, and the story took off.
I was also confronted with a lot of trauma, and I found that the voice didn’t want to focus on the trauma. The protagonist wanted to focus on the ways she was surviving and the ways she was making it. Meanwhile, the adult was focusing on all the shit she went through. So it just made sense to transform that. I think that poetry has a way of allowing hope to exist, so this needed to be a novel-in-verse and it needed to be for Young Me. I hope it gives permission to young people to write about their lives right now and not just when they're adults.
Was it a difficult task to remember what 14-year-old Elisabet was like? What were some things that you did to channel that young voice? What did you do to remember?
I don’t think I ever really grew up in a lot of ways. I think that you kind of move forward, especially if you come from traumatic experiences; you just kind of keep going. But there is a hope that stays with you for the rest of your life from the moment you decide you are going to stay alive. I always come back to that young girl. I always come back to that Elisabet that’s hopeful. I’m also very protective of younger me. I don’t have a lot of baby pictures. There are no pictures at all that exist of me before the age of 15. I don’t know what I looked like as a child. I relied very heavily on memorizing myself (as a young person) because there was no image of me in a photo. There was no image of me in a television show. There was no image of me in the books that I was studying. There was no image of me anywhere. So the image of me had to be created and ingrained by me. When you sear yourself into your own memory, it (the image) doesn’t really go anywhere. You kind of get to know yourself really intimately because no one else is going to get to know you in that way.
Why is it important for you to redefine what it means to “make it” through the character of Sarai?
Women of color live in a world where making it is often defined by what degree you have achieved, how much money you make, and what oppression you overcame. I want us to value our worth even when we don’t have anything the world says we should have. Look how brilliant we are just by waking up, breathing, crying, and laughing. Look at how my excellence is defined internally. Any extra accolades I achieve outside of myself is just the world catching up. When we say “I’m going to make it,” we are saying “I have the will to begin the journey.” When we say “I’m making it,” we are saying “I have started on the journey.” When we say “I made it,” we are saying “I am the journey.” Making it has always been us.
In this novel, you write about a Bushwick that for the most part has disappeared or is in the process of disappearing. How did you decide on what parts of Bushwick you wanted to bring back to life in the book?
I think that even the parts that don’t exist still exist in our lives; it's in the ways in which they shaped us and the stories that we tell our children about how we got here. So even if they have “disappeared,” they never really disappeared. That’s part of what I wanted to do with this book: create an archive of what this neighborhood looked like. And even what folks are still contending with today.
The effects are still trickling down to how people perceive themselves and perceive how they are able to be successful or not because of the place that they came from. And I have to contend with the fact that I wrote about the past that is still very valid in the present. It’s set in the ‘90s, but it touches on a lot of topics and systems that are still relevant today. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t using buzzwords to talk about what was happening. For instance, we see in the book that the neighborhood is changing, but I didn’t want to say, “Oh, the neighborhood is being gentrified.” That wasn’t language that I had in the ‘90s. That’s also not language that a lot of young people have today. I knew that I wanted to write a book that really talked about these things from a lens that was not academic, that was not jargony. I also wanted to honor young folks who may be experiencing a lot of this systemic oppression and systemic neglect without necessarily really having the language to articulate it, and understanding that it's still valid. You can say, “I’m hungry. We ain't got shit to eat today,” and not understand that that’s food insecurity. Mami used to say things like, “¿Con que te va comprar eso? You think money grows on trees?” So, I really just wanted to speak in the language that we knew, not what is “buzzy.”
There is a way that this book is speaking to other Nuyorican poets very consciously. For example, in one poem you have a list of names: Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, and Manuel, and of course that’s a very famous chorus from Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican obituary. In what ways are you in conversation with other poets? Do you see your work inside the tradition of these iconic Puerto Rican writers that have given us so much?
I definitely see myself as part of the Nuyorican tradition. That is my lineage. I, of course, didn’t know that for a long time because I didn’t have access to Pedro Pietri, to Nicholasa Mohr, or to Esmeralda Santiago (who was writing in the ‘90s, while I was living this life). I didn’t have access. And there are still young people who don’t have access today, and who won’t have access to my work until their 30s, 40s, or maybe never. As a teen mom, I didn’t even have the energy to go to the library after working a full day and having to come home and take care of my daughter. I didn’t want to hear anything about books.
What I love about the Nuyorican tradition and its writers is that a lot of those poems honor where people are right now. One of the things that I tell young folks is “even if you never read another person’s book, your whole life is a book. You and your life right now matters.” So I really want young people to start looking at their lives as worthy of being archived, and that is what I took when I started reading Tato Laviera, when I started reading Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, The Boy Without a Flag by Abraham Rodriguez. ... These are pictures. These are snapshots. This is not something that you find in a history book. You are the history! I want to make sure that we’re telling folks that we come from people who have been working hard to make sure that our stories are not erased.