Elizabeth Acevedo’s ‘Clap When You Land’ Is a Moving Story of Secrets, Grief & Newfound Sisterhood

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezlca

On Nov. 12, 2001, an American Airlines flight headed to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, plummeted in Queens, NY. All of the passengers and crew aboard the plane were killed, along with five people on the ground. The majority of them were Dominican. Because the crash occurred two months and one day after the September 11 attacks, there were initial fears of another terrorist attack. But the National Transportation Safety Board later attributed the disaster to a pilot error.

The tragic AA Flight 587 crash shook many in New York City’s Dominican community—including Elizabeth Avecedo, who was 13 years old at the time. The deep loss of those who perished, how quickly the crash was forgotten in the media and the many family secrets that emerged from the wreckage inspired the National Book Award winner’s latest novel, “Clap When You Land.”

The novel-in-verse follows Camino and Yahaira Rios. Camino lives in Sosúa, Dominican Republic, with her Tía Solana, a well-respected curandera (healer). Though Camino’s mother died years ago, the aspiring pre-med student has always had her dad’s support and looks forward to his visits every summer. In NYC, former chess champion and fashion-loving Yahaira is accustomed to having her father leave to the Dominican Republic for the summer months.

On the day her father is supposed to arrive, Camino skips a math test to arrive at the airport and wait for him. Her world collapses upon hearing of an accident. In New York City, Yahaira is called to the principal’s office, where she finds her mother crying as she says everything and nothing with “Tu Papi.”

In “Clap When You Land,” Acevedo maintains her signature poetic style, capturing the raw emotions of both teens who, at first, are in disbelief about their father Yano’s death aboard Flight 1112 on that fateful fifth of June. The chapters alternate between the voices of Camino and Yahaira, piecing together rich perspectives of the unique bonds they had with their father. Acevedo does an impeccable job in unraveling who Papi was—specifically how complex he was, and how he managed to secretly see-saw between two lives and daughters over 1,000 miles apart.

“Most families are messy; most parents will fail to live up to the hero worship of their children,” Acevedo writes in her author’s note. “In Clap When You Land, I wanted to write a story that considered who matters and deserves attention in the media, as well as a more intimate portrayal of what it means to discover secrets, to discover family, to discover the depths of your own character in the face of great loss—and gain.”

Because this novel is as much about loss as it is about the bittersweet bond between Camino and Yahaira, Acevedo carries readers through the teens’ grief by structuring it in a way that counts how many days have passed since the crash. For example, three days following the accident, Yahaira ignores her classmates’ calls. The teen wants to fold her ears like empty candy wrappers—wrappers small enough no words will fit inside them.

“I’m afraid if I close my eyes/I will have accepted/his will never open again,” Acevedo writes.

Meanwhile, Camino is now an orphan who fears for the future. What will happen to her and her Tía Solana? Without her father, Camino has found herself having to fend for herself in a battle against a dangerous man named El Cero, who grooms local girls for sex tourism. And, without Papi’s Western Union remittances, the bills from her private school continue to pile up.

Camino processes the bombshell news of a sister, as well as the ugly truth of her father’s years of lying, below:

I am not alone
but the only family
I have besides Tía

are all strangers to me.
I want to put my fingers
against my sister’s cheek.

I want to put my face
in her neck & ask
if she hurts the way I do.

Does she know of me?
Would my father have told her?
Did she share in his confidences?
While the whole while he lied to me?

For readers not used to verse novels, “Clap When You Land” can at times feel a bit choppy. But each line crafted by Acevedo is deliberate, rich and meaningful. Thus, the novel is best devoured through long chunks of reading time. The author beautifully captures life in the Dominican Republic and in New York City, with vivid images of everything from the generator para cuando se va la luz (for when the power goes out) in the DR to the fire escape lined with plants that Yahaira shares with her girlfriend, Dre, who happens to live next door.

The tension in “Clap When You Land” builds as the sisters prepare to meet in the Dominican Republic to bury the remains of their father. Separately, Camino and Yahaira wade through their new identities as someone’s sister and readers are given an intimate look at what this means through Avecedo’s poetic and lyrical prowess.