Can you miss someone you’ve never met?
This is a question posed by not only Emoni Santiago, the main character in bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel With the Fire on High, but by myself as well, as I closed the book for the final time. The characters that I’d come to know and (mostly) love over the short course of reading this book most certainly don’t exist in real life, so how is it that I could miss them before their story had even gotten a chance to end?
Although the answer is still unclear to me, I suspect that I can thank Acevedo’s magic for the majority of those feelings. And despite my internal dilemma, what is clear to me is that I enjoyed every single moment of reading With the Fire on High.
In the story, Acevedo transports us to the cramped two-bedroom apartment of Gloria (‘Buela) and Emoni Santiago in Fairhill, Pennsylvania, a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood of North Philly. Fairhill is known for having one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the United States. And like other novels penned by Acevedo, the story’s main character is also Afro-Latina, so having the story set in Fairhill feels just right.
Acevedo basically gives us a seat at the kitchen table in the Santiago household, and, in my opinion, that is the best place we could possibly be! For such a tiny space, Emoni and ‘Buela’s cooking creates huge memories. Every time I opened the book, I could almost hear the Celia Cruz playing and smell the pernil and tostones roasting.
The story follows Emoni Santiago, a 17-year old, Afro-Boricuan high school student and mother of Emma, or “Babygirl” as Emoni likes to call her. We follow Emoni’s journey of trying to balance motherhood (its ups and downs), dating (or the lack thereof), and school (something that Emoni has always struggled with even before she had Emma). Although a lot of things in Emoni’s life are still uncertain, one thing isn’t: her love of cooking.
Cooking is a cathartic process for Emoni. An escape from all the stresses of the real world. Emoni practices her magic in the kitchen, and it is truly a transformative process. With her culinary creations, she’s able to evoke certain emotions and memories in people. (Completely off topic, but if you enjoy the manga and anime series, Food Wars, it’s exactly like that, minus the ecchi stuff!) Emoni’s food is just as much a character as anything else in this novel. It’s evocative. It’s magical. And most of all, it’s powerful.
Emoni lives by the mantra of “Food feeds bellies and hearts.” And holding firm to that, the only measuring tool she uses for her dishes is her heart. She sees her kitchen much like a conductor sees an opera house. They aren’t just making food or music, but instead, art. Emoni’s cooking has a rhythm to it, just like a conductor’s orchestra. And if done with true heart, both artforms stir up something inside of its consumers called duende, a very difficult word to translate from the Spanish language. Duende is an essential word to this story. It is the fiery spirit behind what makes a great performance stir the emotions. Duende is a struggle. Duende is a power. Duende is magic.
However, when Emoni takes a risk and enrolls into her school’s newly-offered culinary arts course, she learns some hard truths about not just cooking, but life itself. The more Emoni tries to resist the changes, the more she realizes she needs to just let go and change with them. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it makes her life a lot easier and her duende more potent.
And, as if she didn’t already have enough on her plate (get it?), Emoni also struggles with navigating her Afro-Boricuan identity in a world determined to make her “pick a side.” People constantly question her Blackness, due to her name, hair texture, and Spanish-speaking grandmother, but Emoni remains firm that she is 100% Black and 100% proud. Her mother, a Black-American from North Carolina and her father, an Afro-Boricuan born on the island of Puerto Rico are both 100% Black, and Emoni is not afraid to let people know this fact.
In her own words, “You can’t parcel me into pieces. I don’t reduce. The whole of me is Black. I am multiple skylines.” She’s tired of people treating her identity like it’s some sort of long-division problem to be solved. Acevedo, who is also Afro-Latina, does a wonderful job of blending Emoni’s Black and Puerto Rican heritage in this novel. Emoni’s life transitions seamlessly from references to bomba, mofongo, and plastic-covered couches to talks of home training, baby hairs, and pineapples (the hair kind, not the food).
As for the structure, the book is separated into three parts: The Sour, The Savory, and The Bittersweet. And much like the parts are titled, their ensuing chapters fit those themes quite well. In Sour, Emoni tries to resist all of the changes in her life with school, work, and dating. In Savory, she finally starts to take risks and reaps their rewards. And in Bittersweet, she realizes that although things are changing and she’s okay with said changes, she sometimes misses the way that they used to be. Realizations that a lot of us come to terms with on a regular basis.
I really enjoyed Acevedo’s poetic and prose-filled style of writing, a style that she is very well known for. Each chapter is written like a vignette and no longer than 4 or 5 pages. The chapters give you a quick glimpse into a part of the characters’ lives and then quickly whisk you away. I likened it to being in a busy kitchen and realizing that there’s always something else to attend to. And while this might be a stretch, I also believe that one could open this book randomly to any chapter, read it like a stand-alone short story or free-verse poem, and still be able to take away something magical. I appreciated the chapters not giving too much away all at once because it kept me vested in reading and finding out more about these not-so-perfect characters.
The way in which the female characters are written in this book also leaves you with no shortage of inspiring women to choose from. From ‘Buela to Emoni to Ms. Fuentes to Angelica and more, the women in this book are written amazingly, but also realistically. A beautiful balance.
At the beginning of the book, Emoni starts her journey squinting to see her hopes and dreams to basically needing sunglasses to view them by the book’s end. (We love to see it!) And this clearer vision was only possible because over the course of the story, she realizes that she can’t do everything by herself. With the help of her community, she accepts that it truly takes a village. And like her father has emphasized her entire life, “When you support the community, the community supports you.”
With the Fire on High navigates a variety of topics including identity struggles, teen motherhood, the transition to adulthood, and so much more. It’s an enjoyable read, for not only the usual readers of Young Adult fiction, but for all readers, everywhere. I promise that you’ll put this book down with a lot more insight into teen motherhood, Afro Boricuans, or just cooking in general. I say give it a try, and I promise, Chef Acevedo’s creation will most certainly hit the spot!