Have you been reading any new novels or poems lately? If yes, there’s a high chance that you’ve been introduced to characters that are diverse and belong to one or many marginalized communities. Literature with diverse characters, plots, settings, and overall storytelling have soared in popularity due to the increasing and timely demand for more representation.
Yet, as we’re now realizing, diverse representation does not equal accurate and equitable representation. Having diverse characters in literature is not enough when those characters are still being portrayed with stereotypes and harmful cliches, are token characters with no depth, or exist merely for trauma porn.
This is where The Poet X comes in. The Poet X is a young adult novel written by National Poetry Slam Champion Elizabeth Acevedo that deviates from the diverse representation portrayed in the mainstream and the literary norms of storytelling.
Through a poetically written and structured novel under 370 pages, The Poet X tells the story of Xiomara Batista, “a young girl in Harlem [who] discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world.”
Xiomara, the 15-year-old Dominican American protagonist of Acevedo’s New York Times-bestselling debut novel, “feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.”
She channels her frustration into poetry and joins her school’s poetry slam club, where she grows the courage to perform her poems “because, in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.”
I came across Xiomara’s story two years ago as a teenager trying to find her voice as a girl of color. As an adult, reading Xiomara’s story now (thanks to WEW’s Summer Book Club!) made me realize the Importance of Deviant Diverse Representation in Literature.
I was first introduced to the concept of deviance last year in my Social Problems class, and I’ve since been fascinated by it. Now, in a Criminology class taught by a professor who keeps chanting “we’re all deviants,” I can’t help but see the connections between The Poet X and deviancy, especially as it relates to diverse representations of characters in literature.
To be deviant is to deviate, differ, or depart from the usual social standards, behaviors, or norms set in a particular place or time. And to deviate from harmful- or at the very least tedious forms of representation in literature is to follow the steps laid out by The Poet X.
At the start of The Poet X, the readers are immediately introduced to a fierce female character who lets her knuckles talk for her.
We meet a character with a name that “labors out of some people’s mouths,” a name that would be easily termed as “difficult”: a scene too many BIPOC folks recognize as familiar.
This breath-of-fresh-air character, Xiomara, is a testament to people who don’t fit the diverse quota being filled in popular literature that try to tick off representation.
She is an ode to those deviant marginalized populations whose experiences aren’t reflected at all or enough in literature and beyond. Yet Xiomara isn’t the only character in the novel who deviates from the norm; her twin brother, Xavier, whom she nicknames Twin, does so as well:
The beauty about the deviancy of The Poet X is that no matter your background or identity, the storytelling resonates with you. You feel heard.
Because if indeed we’re all deviants like my Criminology professor keeps reiterating, then it’s high time diverse representation in literature reflects that. Enough with the token characters, enough with stereotypical and cliche characters, enough with the diverse characters who still portray harmful, traumatic, and colonialist norms.
It’s high time we see more deviant diverse works like The Poet X and more Xiomaras and Xaviers represented in literature.
Priscilla Ojomu is a Nigerian-Canadian 3rd-Year BA student majoring in Psychology and minoring in Sociology at UAlberta. Priscilla's work at WEW is fuelled by her passion for promoting awareness of the experiences of marginalized communities through accessible information and resources.
Literature, tea, podcasts, Studio Ghibli movies (Fun fact: she has 100+ collectible postcards of the feature films from 1984 - 2014), art, volunteering and advocating for equity keep her busy.