Words that Wake Us: A Guest Post by YA Author Ashley Hope Pérez

image of author Out of Darkness is set in Texas, and it takes the 1937 New London school explosion as the backdrop for a secret romance between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. It’s a book about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

When I began Out of Darkness, my goal was to write a historical novel that would capture experiences largely excluded from the sanitized historical accounts in Texas history books. I wanted to approach the past in a way that would also prompt my readers to think more deeply about the present and the shape of the world around us.

Growing up in East Texas, I heard powerful stories of loss and of survival related to the natural gas explosion that killed nearly 300 students and teachers. But I was driven even more by the stories I didn’t find collected in the archival materials on the disaster. Because the New London school was intended to serve white children, historical accounts of the explosion focused on the tragedy as the white community experienced it; no one recorded how people of color in the area had responded or how they viewed the disaster.

image of book cover Gaps in the historical record catalyzed my imaginings of the two teenaged characters at the center of Out of Darkness: African American Washington Fuller and Mexican American Naomi Vargas. They meet in East Texas, where Wash is a long time native and the son of the New London Colored School’s superintendent. Naomi is a beautiful and painfully shy high school senior who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). They’ve come to East Texas from San Antonio to live with the twins’ white stepfather so that the children can attend the New London School. The lighter-skinned twins quickly settle into their new life, but Naomi encounters hostility and racism. Wash helps her navigate the day-to-day demands of her new life, befriends the twins, and awakens Naomi to her own desire for love and freedom. Wash and Naomi’s love grows through secret meetings and stolen moments in the woods, but they know that they can’t hide forever. What they don’t know, though, is that the worst school disaster in U.S. history awaits, threatening to shatter the school, the community, and their hopes for a future where they can be together.

Because Out of Darkness is set in the South during the 1930s, color lines shape the story. In San Antonio, for example, Naomi and the twins are forced to attend “Mexican” schools with overcrowded classrooms and underqualified teachers. In East Texas, Wash attends a “colored” school with a shorter school day and year, and Naomi is sent to the back entrance of New London’s only grocery store. Although forced segregation of schools and communities may be a thing of the past, the effects—and reality—of segregation linger on. Wash experiences the heightened vulnerability that still characterizes the lives of many today, as evidenced in the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride, to cite just two examples. Racism and violence have deep roots in our history, and these roots are among the painful legacies that Out of Darkness examines.

James Baldwin once noted that, in the U.S., “words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not wake him up.”

Reading fiction is no substitute for engagement with the world around us. I hope, nevertheless, that Out of Darkness confronts readers with words that that wake them to the human cost of racialized violence and wake them to the need for change in our communities.

About the author: In addition to Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of the YA novels The Knife and the Butterfly, and What Can’t Wait. She grew up in Texas and taught high school in Houston before pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is now a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and spends most of her time reading, writing and teaching on topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their son, Liam Miguel. Read her Q&A here.

 

Save the Date! English Alumna to Read and Sign ‘Out of Darkness’ at BookPeople Jan. 8

image of bookYA Novelist Ashley Hope Pérez will stop by BookPeople to read and sign her new book Out of Darkness (Carolrhoda Books, 2015) on Friday, Jan. 8 at 7 p.m.

In Out of Darkness. Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people. Read her Q&A for more about the book.

“[This] layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town is a pit-in-the-stomach family drama… A tragedy, real and racial, swallows us whole, and lingers.” – The New York Times Book Review

“The work resonates with fear, hope, love, and the importance of memory…. Pérez …gives voice to many long-omitted facets of U.S. history.” – starred, School Library Journal

image of authorIn addition to Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of the YA novels The Knife and the Butterfly, and What Can’t Wait. She grew up in Texas and taught high school in Houston before pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is now a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and spends most of her time reading, writing and teaching on topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their son, Liam Miguel.

Before the BookPeople event, she be at the SCBWI Austin lunch with a fellow YA author Cynthia Leitich-Smith on Friday, Jan. 8, 12 p.m. (SCBWI membership required to register). She will also be at a writing workshop at The Writing Barn from 4-6 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 10. In Houston, she’ll be signing at Brazos Books on Saturday, Jan. 9, 7 p.m.

Visit these Facebook events to join in on the online conversation.
Austin-BookPeople:  https://www.facebook.com/events/852434314876257/

Houston-Brazos Books: https://www.facebook.com/events/1649418651976776/

 

A Q&A with English Alumna Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of ‘Out of Darkness’

ashleypicIn March 1937 a gas leak caused a massive explosion that killed almost 300 children and teachers at a school in New London, Texas. Amidst the backdrop of this catastrophic event, a Mexican-American girl falls in love with a Black boy in a segregated oil town.

In a town where store signs mandate “No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs,” Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know not to cross the deeply entrenched color lines. Yet the heart wants what it wants and societal barriers are no match for young love.

Like a ticking time bomb, the tension builds as their love blossoms. And when tragedy strikes, the young lovers struggle to find a shred of light amidst the shroud of darkness. Will they overcome the forces of hate and intolerance that loom over their town, their school—even their own homes? You’ll have to read the book to find out! Out of Darkness hits shelves Sept. 1, 2015.

The author Ashley Hope Pérez—who just so happens to be a proud Longhorn—was kind enough to share some insight into this multifaceted tale of love, loss, family and the ugly forces that drive people apart. Read on to learn more about the book—and how many of the themes touch on issues we face today in American society.

What made you decide to write a story about the 1937 New London school explosion? 

I grew up about 20 minutes from New London. The explosion—which happened at 3:17 on March 18, 1937—was always a kind of shadowy event that I’d hear whispered about from time to time but rarely discussed openly. At one point, I remember driving by the site of the disaster with my father and him telling me the story of a little girl who could only be identified because she had colored her toenails with a crayon. I didn’t know many specifics of the explosion, only that it had killed hundreds of children. When I returned to the event as a novelist, I was interested in more than the explosion itself: I wanted to examine how this kind of tragedy might ripple through a community, bringing out the best in some and the worst in others and catalyzing more loss. 

How can readers relate to the characters in your book?

Okay, first some quick introductions. Four characters are at the heart of the story in Out of Darkness. There’s Wash Fuller.The teenage son of the New London Colored School’s principal, Wash has always lived in East Texas and prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the Black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy girl from San Antonio who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). The three of them have been brought to East Texas by Naomi’s white stepfather after he has a conversion experience and decides he ought to bring his family back together.

Wash is easy for readers to relate to; he’s funny, loyal and passionate. Naomi is a quieter character, but readers quickly identify with her determination to protect the twins and her ability to persevere in spite of considerable hardship in the present and secrets from her past. Once Wash and Naomi fall in love, it would be impossible not to want them to have a future together. Romantic love intertwines with the love both Naomi and Wash feel for the twins, who also play an important part in the story. Some of the most beautiful parts of the book are when the four of them are together in the woods of East Texas.

What do you hope readers will take away from Out of Darkness?

I hope that readers will admire Naomi and Wash for their efforts to seize some joy for themselves at a time when the happiness and well-being of brown people was of little importance to most of American society. I hope that the barriers and flat-out cruelty that Naomi and Wash encounter in the world of 1937 may galvanize readers’ commitment to supporting people’s right to love whomever they love and build families around that love. That’s what Naomi and Wash try to do for the twins—make a family together in the secret still places along the Sabine River. 

Are there any themes in Out of Darkness that are relevant to current issues in our society? 

One of the most problematic views of racism is that it is “a thing of the past.” Out of Darkness shows racism and prejudice in the past, but it also creates opportunities to recognize the distressing continuities between our history and the present. We continue to see racialized violence in the news, both hate crimes like the church shooting in Charleston and acts of brutality by police and others that underscore disparities in how different members of our community are treated. This injustice and the distrust it breeds have deep roots. Out of Darkness asks readers to reckon with some of those roots as they existed here in Texas.

Beyond the blatant discrimination and violent expressions of white supremacy that unfold in the characters’ experiences, the novel offers glimpses of systematic discrimination, as in the tripartite segregation of schools into white, “colored,” and “Mexican” in cities like San Antonio. I taught for three years in an inner-city school in Houston, and I can tell you that the consequences of that segregation and the disenfranchisement it produced are still being felt in African American and Latino communities. 

What are you working on now?

A new novel, this time exploring Latino experiences in the Midwest. (Although born a Texan, I’ve been in the Midwest for nearly a decade, and apparently that’s about how long it takes for a new place to show up in my fiction.) The new book also involves family and tragedy, but that’s about all I can say about it at this point because I’m wildly superstitious about discussing details of work in progress. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I hope Texans will not be scared off by some of the difficult issues in the novel and that they will instead embrace the chance to dive into our history in the company of characters worthy of their love and attention. Some people have suggested that Out of Darkness is a “brave” book, but I think it’s equally important to acknowledge that reading about painful features of our past takes courage.

And, of course, a big thank you for the chance to share a bit about Out of Darkness with Longhorn readers. Many of my formative reading and writing experiences took place right on the UT campus between the wonderfully deteriorated walls of Parlin Hall. So… Hook ‘em!

Want a sneak peek into the book? Visit the Texas Observer to read an excerpt!

banner imageAbout the author: In addition to Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of the YA novels The Knife and the Butterfly, and What Can’t Wait. She grew up in Texas and taught high school in Houston before pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is now a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and spends most of her time reading, writing and teaching on topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their son, Liam Miguel.