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.


A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “What Can’t Wait”

authorOn the brink of graduating high school, Marisa must make some tough decisions. Should she stay close to her family, marry a nice boy and get a job at the local grocery store? Or should she go off to college to study engineering at The University of Texas at Austin? Caught at the crossroads, Marisa must decide whether she has what it takes to break free and follow her dreams.

Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston – where many of WCWstackher students faced similar challenges – English alumna Ashely Hope Pérez tells the story of Marisa’s struggle in her debut young adult (YA) novel “What Can’t Wait” (Carolrhoda Books, 2011). She was kind enough to chat with ShelfLife about her passion for teaching, tips for aspiring novelists, her vampire literature class, and what’s up next!

Tell us about yourself. Have you always dreamed of becoming a writer?

Right now, in addition to writing, my jobs include LOTS of reading for my Ph.D. exams in comparative literature this May, being mom to an active 9-month-old little boy, teaching a course on women writers of the Caribbean, and getting the word out about “What Can’t Wait” my new YA novel. Past lives include work as a bilingual literacy tutor and Montessori teacher and several years teaching high-school English in southeast Houston. I also love to exercise and bake cookies, hobbies that cancel each other out and make me happy.

Writing has always been part of my life in important ways, but I used to get paralyzed by a fear of inadequacy and a worry that I’d never be able to write again. I only began to think of myself as an author once I started writing for teens, and I attribute the successful completion of two novels, “What Can’t Wait” plus my next novel, also coming out with Carolrhoda Lab to the fact that my students gave me a sense of urgency about writing that was more powerful than my fears.

What inspired you to write about a teenage girl struggling to carve her own path in life while dealing with a family that expects her to stay close to home?

My students, my students, my students. Marisa isn’t based on any one student, but so many of the circumstances my students faced influenced the world Marisa finds herself in. I wanted to show that, for many teens, using education as a means of advancement also requires tough decisions and scary compromises. Teens like Marisa (and many of my students) deserve lots of credit for having the courage to find ways to maintain connection to family while nevertheless forging their own path. I wanted to honor this reality with my book, which is why it’s dedicated to my Chávez students.

How have your students responded to this book?

From the beginning, they were my biggest supporters and my first readers. One student wrote me an amazing letter (which I still have) telling me how important the book was to him — and that it was one of two books he read from start to finish. Reading that letter, I knew that my book had found a reader for whom it mattered and that — if I persisted — it could find many more.

When I write, I still think of my students, and having a clear sense of audience is a huge help to me. It’s one of the things I like best about writing YA literature.

What do you hope your readers will take away from this story?

Oh, so many things. That you can live your own life without forgetting to take care of the people you love. That you can’t be your best self for others if you aren’t taking care of your dreams. That keeping promises — especially to yourself — is really hard work. That family can be a surprising ally. That it’s always scary to step out into the unknown, but sometimes it’s worth it.

Not only are you an author – you’re also a grad student, a teacher and a parent. That’s quite a heavy load! How do you find time to write?

The truth is that sometimes I don’t have much time at all. But I’m a firm believer that whatever writing we do — no matter how paltry it seems — is better than what we don’t do. So instead of saying, “I can’t get anything done in fifteen minutes,” I focus on how much I can get done in fifteen minutes. Sometimes the time constraint functions like a pressure cooker, and I feel like I get more real work done than when I have a bigger block of time, but feel less of a sense of urgency. Oh, and I also have a very supportive husband who loves to play with his son. That helps a lot.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading La Vie mode d’emploi (“Life: A User’s Manual”) by Georges Perec. This is a wild novel full of crazy catalogs of items, descriptions of paintings, and digressions that nevertheless make me want to slow down and savor the minutia of being human. Lots of times when I’m reading, I’m trying to figure out how I could do what the writer is doing, but this is one of those books I just have to stand back and admire. Haruki Murakami has the same effect on me. What I mean is that Perec’s work is so different from my own on every level that when I think about what it must have felt to write it, it’s like imagining being Martian.

Perec was a member of OULIPO, a French literary association founded around the idea of using constraints to facilitate creativity. You might have heard of him as the writer who composed an entire novel without using the letter “e” (La Disparition, translated as “A Void”). Reading La Vie does tempt me to try using some kind of constraint — although not as extreme as cutting a letter — to generate a first draft. Just as a lark.

What’s the most important piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer?

Recognize that writing well is a process, and develop your own strategies for moving a piece forward. That is, don’t expect the writing to be done after a couple of drafts, but also be strategic about how you rewrite. When you think you’ve done everything you can to improve your writing, put away your manuscript for a while. Check out a great book with writing exercises or strategies for revision, do some practice, and then dig back into your manuscript. Go to a conference. Join a writer’s group. For me, the most important part of writing is rewriting.

The best revision tip I ever got is this: every time you do a major revision, retype the whole work rather than going back into the old file. I know it sounds too simple (or crazy) to be effective, but I can say from experience that it helps me get back “in” the narrative and helps me to resist the urge to tinker without accomplishing any real revisions.

I couldn’t help but notice you teach a vampire literature class. Would you ever consider infusing vampires into a future young adult book?

I actually designed the vampire lit class in response to the interest expressed by students. Before teaching it, I had read little beyond “Dracula.” Together, my students and I developed key concepts for understanding the evolution of the vampire in literature and how writers use the vampire to explore varied concerns. This was a thrilling intellectual project (and so fun that I taught the class twice), but I don’t anticipate any vampires appearing in my novels any time soon. It’s not that I’m uninterested in pushing the envelope beyond the purely realistic, but the vampire figure is so weighted with expectations on the part of the reader that I would feel overwhelmed just thinking about where to position my character with respect to the tradition.

Could you give us a sneak peak into what you’re working on now?

I’m knee-deep in revisions of my second YA novel “The Knife and the Butterfly,” which is coming out with Carolrhoda Lab in 2012. The book follows two teens through the aftermath of a deadly gang fight. There’s Lexi, a troubled girl from a working class background who hangs with a street gang for protection. And there’s Azael, a romantic drifter essentially orphaned by his mom’s death and his father’s deportation to El Salvador. The truth about what happened connects them in a surprising but powerful way.

I also have a third novel idea simmering on a back burner, but I’m a little superstitious and don’t like to “spend” writing ideas before I get a handle on them. Check back with me in another year and I’ll be ready to talk about it!