– originally published in the January 23,2022 edition of the Stabroek News
I was introduced to Elizabeth Acevedo back in 2020 when I read “Gilded”, her contribution to the short story anthology A Phoenix First Must Burn. Her tale about a young Taino metalmancer starting a revolution in the colonised Dominican Republic was one of my favourites in the collection. That story’s blend of Caribbean history and indigenous rage made me want to read more of her prose in the future.
And so, here we are, starting off strong in the new year. I devoured her novel With the Fire on High this month, savouring every word of this beautiful YA book full of delicious food, passionate characters, and important lessons about dreams, sacrifice and the roles cuisine plays in our past, present and future. Just make sure you read this one on a full stomach, because at the end of it, you’ll be truly famished, and hungering for more Acevedo in your life.
“’Buela says she just stepped out onto the stoop to clear her head, and when she came back ten minutes later, I had pulled the step stool to the stove, had a bunch of spices on the counter, and had my small arm halfway into the pot stirring.…Nothing charred. In fact, when ‘Buela tasted it (whatever “it” was) she says it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. How it made her whole day better, Sweeter. Says a memory of Puerto Rico she hadn’t thought about in years reached out like an island hammock and cradled her close…All I know is she cried into her plate that night. And so at the age of four, I learned someone could cry from a happy memory.”– p. 16
There is something special about Emoni Santiago. This 17-year-old high school student has a talent for cooking and uses her intuition in the kitchen to create delicious meals that evoke powerful emotions in anyone who eats her food. Once upon a time, she even dreamed of becoming a chef, like the ones she saw on shows like Chopped and Iron Chef.
But life is not so straightforward for Emoni. While she does work hard at school, she claims that she’s not the best student. Her Abuela doesn’t have stable work and relies on disability benefits, and Emoni has been working part time at her local Burger Joint since she was thirteen years old to help make ends meet. Most importantly though, Emoni is a teen mother, and she believes that it would be better to prioritise her daughter’s education and wellbeing by working directly after she graduates from high school, rather than following her cohorts and applying for college to chase dreams she doesn’t think she can afford.
So, when her school offers a Culinary Arts elective with an included immersive trip to Spain, Emoni hesitates to enrol, grounded in her worries about money, time, and the potential consequences the additional workload will have on her other subjects. Eventually, and with encouragement from her abuela, best friend Angelica and advisory teacher Ms Fuentes, she enrols at the last minute. However, she soon discovers that being creative and intuitive in the kitchen are not the only requirements for becoming a professional chef. She needs to learn to follow the rules and learn the technicalities of cooking, not just run off and do her own thing. This eagerness for freedom quickly puts her in conflict with her teacher, Chef Ayden.
Emoni has a choice, then. With the fire on high under her already complicated life, she must either learn to handle the heat and sacrifice some of the freedom and inventiveness she enjoyed as a solo amateur chef or hang up both her kitchen uniform and dreams for good.
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemon Verbena Tembleque
There is so much to love about With the Fire on High. But what made me initially fall in love with this book was Acevedo’s language, and the way she used different media within the novel.
Acevedo is a slam poet and has written two other novels in verse. Even though With the Fire on High is entirely prose, there is a musicality to her words, and the tempo and rhythm shift throughout the book, matching Emoni’s reflections as the chapters bounce back and forth in time, or her passion when talking about her complex identity, struggles and triumphs, or her relationship with cooking.
I especially loved the way Acevedo included other written forms in her book. Through Emoni’s embedded recipes and her email exchanges with her maternal aunt, we get to understand more about Emoni’s psyche and see how important cooking is to her.
Food is complicated for everyone. It tells a lot about someone’s personality and culture, can conjure deep emotions, and trigger powerful surges of nostalgia.
For Emoni, food is also a safe space. When she cooks, not only does her food reflect elements of her personal history and ancestry, but the kitchen is a place where she can be both creative and productive. She can express herself through her food, and provide for herself, her grandmother and her daughter, Emma. In the kitchen, she has control over her life in a tiny way, and so it’s understandable that she would be defensive in this space. But, to grow, Emoni has to find a balance between her desire to express herself and the professional requirements she must meet to become a chef and reap even greater rewards.
Post-High School Pressure
The world puts a lot of pressure on teenagers to make decisions about their post-high school futures. Should they go straight to university or college? Get a job? Find a way to balance both work and school? Everyone has unique circumstances that can make these decisions difficult, and I loved the way Acevedo portrays how uncertainty can make even the most supported teens anxious about their future. Teen mothers like Emoni have their anxieties doubled because they have others to think about, and either don’t have the support they need to pursue their ambitions, or – in Emoni’s case – they have support, but are being pushed toward paths that know may not benefit them in the long term.
Emoni is intelligent, hardworking, and mature enough to make tough life decisions. She’s also fortunate to have a supportive grandmother, and an advisory teacher who worked hard to keep her in school during and after her pregnancy.
Yet, she’s understandably cautious about being hopeful about her future, and she lays out the full extent of her logic throughout the novel, but her thoughts about her advisory teacher’s blind spots regarding her circumstances is as grounded as it is melancholy:
“I look at Ms. Fuentes,” Emoni says. “She’s young, maybe early thirties, not like a lot of the teachers at the school. And she’s hip to most things like fashion and music, but she doesn’t have a kid. She doesn’t have a grandmother who’s spent the last thirty-five years raising a son and then her son’s kid and now her son’s kid’s kid…p. 124
“I don’t tell Ms. Fuentes that I just don’t think more school is for me. That I’d rather save my money for my daughter’s college tuition instead of my own. That when I think of my hopes and dreams I don’t think I can follow them from a classroom. That my hopes and dreams seem so far out of reach I have to squint to see them, so how could I possibly pursue them?”
We can see the layers to Emoni’s hesitation in this quote. School is expensive and she doesn’t have much money. She also doesn’t think her academics are strong enough for more classrooms and she has her daughter and grandmother to worry about. So, the most solid option in her mind is to go straight to work after high school to gain experience in a kitchen, rather than wasting time and money racking up school debt.
Emoni is able to make an informed decision by the end of the book, mostly because of the experiences and connections she builds over her final year at high school, but I loved that Acevedo showed the long and sometimes frustrating process she had to go through both internally and externally, and how hard she had to work to make a choice that works best for herself and her daughter.
“I’ve always been small: physically petite, which made people think I had a small personality, too. And then, all of a sudden, I was a walking PSA: a bloated teen warning, taking up too much space and calling too much attention.”p. 23
Lastly, outside of anxieties about future planning, Acevedo shows how Emoni’s community and outsiders react to her pregnancy. Some people were supportive, like Ms Fuentes, her best friend Angelica and her abuela. Angelica actually attacked people who scorned Emoni in school, and made her alliance with her clear for the whole school to see.
Others were neutral, not seeming to care whether Emoni was a teen mother or not. They were more interested in her as an individual, rather than her circumstances, which became a form of support itself.
Then there were those who greeted Emoni with contempt, dismissiveness, or open antagonism. One character tried to weaponize her status as a teen mother to try to curry favour with a boy she liked. Baby Emma’s father was quick to move on from Emoni when she was pregnant and didn’t defend or support her when his parents started spreading rumours about her. Emma’s maternal grandmother – despite not wanting much to do with Emma nor Emoni – even went as far as threatening to report Emoni and her grandmother for being negligent and possibly slapping her with a custody case after the one time neither Emoni nor her abuela were able to pick up Baby Emma from day care.
Despite this, Emoni refused to regret or resent Emma. She holds her head high and proudly marches forward despite what people think about her or the difficulties she faces. Through her, Acevedo shows that with community and assistance, teenaged mothers can empower themselves and achieve some of the same goals that their childless contemporaries can. It will be harder, and there may be more sacrifice involved, but if their community gives them a chance, they can.
With the Fire on High was a delight to read, with the experience elevated by the sprinklings of poetic language and mild magical realism Acevedo integrated into the novel. While I mostly felt hungry while reading the book, I also felt hopeful and more empathetic to teen moms, who are just doing their best in their circumstances.
I’d recommend this book to any teenager who’s going through that difficult transitory period between high school and the rest of their life, or teen mothers who are unsure about their own futures. Acevedo shows that they can overcome their difficulties and can take advantage of their inherent gifts to make their mark on the world and care for their families, too.
Want to read more of Acevedo’s work? Check out her novels and poetry:
- The Poet X
- Clap When You Land
- Beast Girl & Other Origin Myths
More interested in Acevedo’s slam poetry? Check out her contributions on SlamFind: