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Philadelphia-based novelist Francisco Font Acevedo now has funding to concentrate on cementing his place as one of the most significant Puerto Rican authors of our time.
Font Acevedo is among 20 inaugural recipients of the new, national Letras Boricuas Fellowship. A collaboration between the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Flamboyan Foundation’s Arts Fund, the grant program is designed to “enrich and sustain literary tradition in Puerto Rico and across the U.S. Diaspora.”
When the competition was announced last spring, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the most famous artists in the Puerto Rican diaspora, touted the fellowship as “an important means of supporting Puerto Rican artists in their journey to tell more stories.”
Font Acevedo told Billy Penn he’s usually skeptical of writing contests. But after several colleagues and friends urged him to apply, he went for it — and was amazed to hear he’d won.
“It was a surprise, and at the same time a relief,” the 51-year-old author said. Though he’s written three well-reviewed novels, he’s always had to work other jobs, most recently as an English-Spanish interpreter.
Born in Chicago and raised from the age of 5 in Rincón, he moved to Philadelphia in 2018 to reconnect with his sister, who’s been living in the city for the past two decades. Adjusting from the lush, tropical weather of Puerto Rico wasn’t easy, he said, but it expanded his possibilities as a writer.
Living in Philadelphia has meant “other experiences, other perceptions, another change of perspective,” he said. “All of that is going to pay off in writing.”
How did he learn about the city when he moved here? “The sports news,” Font Acevedo said with a laugh. “It told me a lot about the spirit of the city.”
Having spent nearly his entire life on the island, he thinks his viewpoint is different from what he calls a “Phillyrican” — someone born into a Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia — but they each share in a broader definition of the culture. “There’s many ways to be Puerto Rican,” Font Acevedo said.
Though he’s connected with some other Puerto Rican writers, he’s more of a solitary guy.
“Yo perreo bastante solo,” he joked, referencing the famous song by Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny that roughly translates to, “I twerk alone.”
For his craft, it works. A reviewer in 2016 even described Font Acevedo as “one of the most interesting prose writers of recent years … in all of Latin America.”
The Letras Boricuas Fellowship is unusual in the amount of financial support it’s offering to Puerto Rican writers across genres, Font Acevedo said. He hopes the publicity will motivate more people to read their work.
“It’s a great stimulus,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to give recognition [to Puerto Rican literature] that institutionally does not occur very frequently.”
For now, he is going to embrace the economic relief that the award will offer him in order to finish his next novel, which, though it takes place outside of any defined spaces or cities, carries within it a “sensation” of Philadelphia, the writer explained.
“In a world less delineated by flags and nationalism and imperial violence, etc., in a world less politicized, at the cultural level, cultures should converse,” Font Acevedo said, explaining his goal as a writer. “As an artist, that is what I do.”