As I was reading the last few chapters of “Clap When You Land” news broke of a horrible plane crash in Pakistan that I can’t help but find similar to the crash that acts as a catalyst in Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel.
The crash that inspired Acevedo was Flight 587, which due to pilot error and mechanical failure, crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens shortly after take off.
The flight was en route to the capital of the Dominican Republic, and as Acevedo writes in her author’s notes at the end of the novel, ninety percent of the passengers were of Dominican descent, many of whom were returning home. She shares her personal experience as a young girl as the New York Dominican community was shattered.
Twenty years later, Acevedo was able to use that tragedy and the stories from her community that came out of the event to craft a poetic novel of family, of resilience and the strength that can be found when one is able to meet their history head on, even if in grief or anger or betrayal, and make it their own.
Now, in a city on the other side of the world, another plane destined for another capital city has crashed into a heavily populated area. Mechanical failure is again seemingly to blame, with reports of malfunctioning landing gear preventing a safe landing at the nearby airport.
But that certainly won’t comfort the families of the 99 people on board or the dozens believed to have been killed on the ground. Families who, like Acevedo’s main characters, will oscillate between denial and hope and heartbreaking grief in the weeks ahead.
One further tragedy of Flight 587 is how it was overshadowed by 9/11 as it occurred two months and one day after that event. When the cause of the crash was ruled pilot error and not terrorism the story seemed to be abandoned by the media and many of us not affected by it probably have little or no memory of it even happening.
I would hope that our memory of Flight PK8303, overshadowed this time by a global pandemic, is not so short as it was in 2001. But as Acevedo proves by so powerfully and poetically capturing the dynamic and turbulent grieving process of her characters, and her own memories and experiences two decades ago, there will always be those who remember, who transform their memory and heartbreak into something tangible and shareable, and in doing so welcome those of us not touched directly by tragedy into their community.
This was an accidental story. Well, I supposed they all are when it comes down to it. A stray thought unconnected to the events around you, an overheard snippet of someone’s conversation, a glimpse of graffiti passed in the car—
Or, while in a towel ironing my shirt, the sudden image of a distraught man sitting along at the bar.
“It stung. He pretended not to notice, but knew anyone could see his grimace/cringe. He didn’t want it.”
I had to grab the first piece of paper I could find; an envelope, and get that one short paragraph that followed down in writing, into the real world, and out of my head before the memory of the words was twisted out of its original shape and lost. That’s the danger here—it’s the dance with the devil every writer attempts, to repeat the piece of perfection (or so we believe it to be) again and again in our mind because we believe we’ll remember it forever and be able to write down later. We won’t. We never do.
So, standing in a damp towel, the iron forgotten about in the other room, I wrote against the ticking clock of my flawed short-term memory. And I found myself at the start of a story I’d never intended to tell, one I didn’t think there’d be a reason to tell; of what drives a man to take his own life, of what events come together to crush someone who was always relied on, always envied as being the strong one, the successful one, the one who got all right? What does it take for him to realize that man doesn’t exist? Not in fictional stories or the real world.
But not everyone realizes that. Some believe he does exist. Some believe they are that man. Only the idea of that man has ever existed, and it’s when he realizes that, that he finds himself more alone then he had ever imagined possible, ordering a drink he doesn’t want, to forget the events and the people that brought him there, trying to find some comfort at the end of his world.