Author Elisabet Velasquez will show Park City readers how it feels ‘When We Make It’
Presentation part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival
New York-based poet and author Elisabet Velasquez wants to introduce a girl named Sarai, a first-generation Puerto Rican eighth-grader, to Park City.
Velasquez will do that during an author presentation on Sept. 29 that will cover her debut young adult novel, “When We Make It,” which tells Sarai’s story.
The free event, which is presented by the Park City Library and the Utah Humanities Book Festival, will run from 7-9 p.m. in the library’s Community Room.
“It will be my first time in Utah,” Velasquez said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“When We Make It” follows Sarai, who can see the truth, pain and beauty of the world both inside and outside her apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which happens to be where Velasquez grew up in the 1990s.
Along with her sister Estrella, Sarai navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, according to Velasquez.
“Sarai is trying to figure out what it means to make it, and her story is inspired by my own life and my own questions about where my life was headed as a young adult,” Velasquez said. “With this book, I wanted to raise questions about the kinds of lives we’ve been told we have to live before we can say that we’re successful.”
That idea stems from when Velasquez became a single mother at 16.
“I had to leave high school to look for a job to support my daughter,” she said. “I was raised in a hugely religious family, and from the moment I found out I was pregnant I received messages and statistics from my mom, the news and pastors and society who kept telling me that I ruined my life.”
But Velasquez decided not to believe what the “experts” were saying, and turned to her imagination to find solace.
“I refused to be defined by those messages, and I began to dream up worlds that I previously hoped to live in,” she said.
Those vivid dreams led Velasquez to writing poetry.
“I think poetry is a good segue into hope, and I have always felt that even though we find ourselves in situations that seem completely hopeless, we still experience moments of hope,” she said.
Velasquez’s poems, which are an exploration of her own life, hit a nerve, and a few years later, she found herself performing at Lincoln Center Out Of Doors, the Pregones Theatre, the Bushwick Starr Theatre and other venues and events.
Her work was then featured in other media, including the Huffington Post, Latina Magazine, Vibe Magazine and on NBC.
Working on “When We Make It,” which she wrote in verses, was a different type of literary experience, she said.
“I feel like I’ve been writing this book my whole life, because I had fragments of poems, as well as complete poems, that I had been publishing through social media,” she said. “By the grace of the universe, folks related to my writing and began sharing them, and they went viral.”
The poems caught the eye of a publisher at Dial Books.
“The publisher reached out to me and I thought it was a joke at first,” Velasquez said with a laugh. “But it wasn’t and we met for lunch.”
At that time, Velasquez only had 40 pages of the story written.
“She told me to send her the pages, and then a week later, she told me she wanted to publish the book on the strength of those 40 pages, which meant I needed to come up with a narrative arc,” Velasquez said with a laugh.
Velasquez knew she wanted to keep the book in verse format, because she wanted to connect with her readers on different levels.
“I wanted the poems to be able to stand on their own, so someone could read from any page and take something away without getting lost in the story,” she said.
Velasquez also wanted to write against the expectations people put on each other when it comes to impressions regarding race, class and gender.
“Each of us were born with a number of rules based on what people see, and I feel that those
rules become limitations,” she said. “When I got pregnant, I felt like I was in a movie that everyone had ended for me. So, I had to walk out of that theater and write my own script that hadn’t been written yet.”
Velasquez also wanted the book to take issue with people’s perceptions of success.
“Folks tend to celebrate the singular story of how people overcome situations and get their doctorates,” she said. “The narrative is, ‘I did it, and you can, too,’ but what is happening is that we become accustomed to sizing ourselves and our accomplishments up against those feel-good stories, when sometimes getting out of bed some days or just staying alive are huge accomplishments.”
Katrina Kmak, Park City Library’s youth services librarian, said Velasquez’s trip to Park City was made possible through Willy Palomo, program manager for the Utah Humanities Utah Center for the Book.
“Her narrative speaks to so many people from so many different backgrounds, and I think everyone in our community will find something of themselves in this book,” Kmak said. “There are different perspectives shs provides. The local Latinx community deserves to have a voice and she provides that voice, and I think she will make a tremendous impact on the youth in our community.”
When: 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 29
Where: Park City Library Community Room, 1255 Park Ave.
Web: parkcitylibrary.org and elisabetvelasquez.com
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City Hall and the Arts Council of Park City and Summit County presents Pumpkin Fest at Bonanza Art Park next week.