When most Americans think of the year 2001, the September 11 attacks immediately come to mind. But the Dominican community experienced not just one but two tragedies that year. The crash of Flight 587 took place just two months following the World Trade Center collapse. The American Airlines plane was headed from New York to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, with 260 passengers aboard — with over 90 percent of them being of Dominican descent. No one on the plane survived, leaving many Dominicans mourning family members and friends. In her latest novel Clap When You Land, Dominican-American author and National Book Award winner, Elizabeth Acevedo touches on the devastating incident that mainstream media chose to ignore but that the Dominican community has never forgotten.
Whether you lost someone close to you or not, if you’re Dominican you most likely at least knew someone who lost someone on that flight. It deeply shook our community and yet it didn’t really receive the attention it deserved, largely due to the fact that it happened during the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. But we felt it and Acevedo captures those stories of grief and loss in her fictional depiction of the event. Like many Dominicans living in NYC at the time, Acevedo herself didn’t lose any family but she certainly lost friends of friends and even neighbors from her barrio.
“It didn’t feel like the larger society of NYC or even the country — was thinking of what that impact could be on the Dominican community,” Acevedo tells me. “But for us [Dominicans], we were talking about it and trying to figure out what happened. It felt big to me and in my household — in my community — but not everywhere else. The story really came from wanting to look at that discrepancy and wanting to say this might not have gotten the attention at the time that I think it deserved. But maybe 20 years later we can have the conversation of who gets media attention and who gets the dignity or respectful commemoration.”
Clap When You Land tells the story of two 16-year-old sisters, Yahaira in New York City and Camino in the Dominican Republic. Both girls are completely unaware of the other’s existence and only learn about each other after discovering their father died in this tragic plane crash. The title itself refers to a tradition Acevedo and many Dominicans share, which is the popular custom of applauding once a plane safely lands.
“It makes me incredibly emotional and proud,” Acevedo says referring to the cultural tradition of clapping once a plane lands. “I think especially in this age where it seems like it’s a tradition that’s dying out. It makes me really proud when people do it because it’s like outside of whatever everyone thinks is cool, we’re still grateful and we’re still hopeful. It just feels like a very large exhalation of everyone on the flight. We made it, we’re here. We thank god, we thank the pilot but also each other. I think it’s just an appreciation of we’re okay and we’re also we’re home.”
While the novel’s mission is to help folks not only remember or in some cases recognize the tragedy of the Flight 587 crash but also understand how it has impacted the Dominican community even today. Acevedo hopes that the story makes those who lost someone on that flight feel seen, feel like their story in some way was told, and experience at least some degree of healing. And though the incident took place 20 years ago, Acevedo chose to set the story in modern time which is alluded based on the technology the characters use that did not actually exist yet in 2001.
“I think that social media has changed the game in how we consume information and so I feel like there would have potentially been more attention just because even if the larger American society wasn’t affected by it, I think those of us who were affected or who were paying attention, would be able to at least make our voices heard and find each other,” Acevedo says. “But I did feel like I needed to bring it to this moment. I didn’t feel comfortable being the person to speak specifically for that flight. I want to commemorate that flight. The story is inspired by that flight… I wanted to create enough distance where it didn’t read like I was creating shadows on the people who were on that actual flight and I did need technology [to do that]. I did need the ability for the characters to be able to communicate without a phone card and so part of what ended up making it this era was just needing the distance and justing needed the tech that we currently have.”
Much like her other novels, in Clap As You Land, Acevedo who proudly identifies as Afro-Latina herself, explores Afro-Latiniad, racial identity, and the concept of blackness that exists within Dominican heritage. The character Yahaira is a dark-skinned Dominicana who proudly identifies as Negra.
“You would think coffee and condensed milk will you give you some kind of light brown, Yahaira reflects in the novel. “But I came out papa’s mirror, his Bella negra.”
Acevedo says she knew very early on in writing the story that she wanted the character Yahaira to be dark-skinned, unlike her previous protagonists who were Afro-Latina but lighter. “I wanted to keep pushing the conversation around Afro-Latiniad. In The Poet X, the character calls herself Morenita and is very proudly so. With The Fire on High, the protagonist calls herself Afro-Latina or Afro-Boricua. She has that terminology,” Acevedo says. “With this one, I wanted it to be very clear — Negra. Negra and beautiful and she never has had any hesitation about her beauty because it was instilled so early on. Her father was so clear with her from the beginning — you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful. So she has the ability to say, I know I’m lovely.”
She wanted to explore the interplay of color and highlight, not just the racial nuances that exist within the Dominican community, but also the terminology and language one uses to express their own identity.
“I think for me, it was how can we continue the conversation around the names we have for ourselves?” she adds. “How can I assure that someone that reads all three of my books and sees different ways of blackness depicted? That there’s no one way to claim your blackness and that everyone is going to approach that conversation from a different entry point.”
Acevedo who was initially looking forward to meeting and connecting with her readers affected by the Flight 587 crash was devastated when she learned her book tour was canceled, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But the response she’s received from her virtual tours has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The response online is bigger than anything I would get from an actual event because people are posting screenshots and people are posting quotes and people are posting their notebooks. There were also people from all over the world at my launch and there’s no way I could have had that if I was doing an in-person tour,” she says. “I’ve had people literally from DR.”
In between promoting her new novel, Acevedo is also taking time during this quarantine to reflect and make time for self-care.
“I’ve been trying to be very gentle. There are days I wake up and I’m like it is really hard to get going and so I have different pep talks I give myself to get out of bed, to make sure I eat breakfast, to try to keep moving and exercising,” she says. “I talk to my mom — I’ve been Facetiming her a lot more… I check in with my best friend every day. I’m taking walks with my husband. I’m cooking more. “ Her advice to folks who are struggling during these difficult times? “If there’s any advice I’d give, it’s, ‘Be kind to yourself.’ Every day you’re going to need something different. What does it mean not to shame yourself for that and also what are the priorities that perhaps you weren’t able to focus on prior to this moment that you might be able to find time for now? It might be people. It might be exercise. It might just be one thing that you can try to do from home that you weren’t able to do before.”
Clap When You Land is available for purchase at barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com. Her next virtual book tour is on Thursday, May 14 at 7 P.M. EST in collaboration with Mahogany Books. Tickets are available for $20.