Changing the Status Quo of YA: A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez

Article by liz

I had two quotes running in my head, on and off, constantly, while reading Ashley Hope Pérez's OUT OF DARKNESS: "History is written by the winners," and "hope is the thing with feathers." This painful, poetic novel hits you hard with unflinchingly realized descriptions of the stark racial and class divisions still crippling our society—and then it gives you such wonderful moments of hope and connection that it makes all the tears worthwhile. OUT OF DARKNESS gives full-fledged voice to characters who have traditionally been forced to the margins of society and makes their stories the central focus of a real historical tragedy.

OUT OF DARKNESS begins with the New London school explosion in 1937—the worst school disaster in American history, and the third deadliest disaster in Texas. The tragedy destroyed the white students' school in the growing oil boom town of New London, killing over 295 students and teachers. As the characters race to the site of the accident, Pérez abruptly rewinds us to several months before, and introduces us to Naomi Vargas and her twin half-siblings, sent to live with the twins' white father after their mother's death. Naomi makes a quick friend in Wash Fuller, the son of the principal of the New London Colored School, and their interracial romance—as well as Naomi's inability to pass as white at the segregated New London school—creates waves in the small, sharply divided town—waves that quickly become a tsunami.

It's a heavy subject, and a heavy book. Pérez winds up tension in ever-tightening circles, slowly revealing the characters' histories and relationships, deftly using the voices of multiple narrators—even the collective thoughts of a gang of racist white students—to make every action, every choice, as personal as possible. It's not just a book about one of the worst disasters in history; it's a book about all the minute disasters of daily life that make you feel unsafe in your own home. And it's not an easy read. But in the hands of Pérez, a teacher, a Texas native, and a seriously talented author, it's beautiful and compelling and utterly essential. I was lucky enough to pick Pérez's brain about multiple narrators, taboo subjects in YA, and the future of kids lit, before her reading with us on January 9.

Brazos Bookstore: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that this book arose partially from the silences in the historical record of the explosion—particularly about how the African-American and Hispanic communities in New London were affected. What narratives and perspectives did you feel were important to have in OUT OF DARKNESS? How did you choose which characters got their own narration?

Ashley Hope Pérez: In archives and oral histories related to the explosion, I found virtually no mention of how the event affected the African American community. Similarly, everyone I talked to seemed convinced that there were no Mexican Americans in East Texas in the 1930s. That was an assumption I found reason to question when I came across “Juanita Herron” among the names of the children who were killed. Naomi is not based on this young girl, but her existence—and the possibility that she was Hispanic—got me thinking about how and why a Mexican American girl would have ended up in East Texas during the Oil Boom as well as what that experience might have been like.

So my story focuses on two teenagers from communities too often treated as marginal to “real” history. My desire to put these communities at the center of OUT OF DARKNESS is the primary reason for my choices related to perspective. The novel centers on the relationship that develops between Naomi Vargas, who comes to East Texas from San Antonio for access to a better school, and Wash Fuller, the African American boy who first guides her through the treacherous racial territory and then becomes her boyfriend (in secret). Accordingly, a good portion of the narration adopts the perspectives of Naomi and Wash. The novel also uses three other points of view: Naomi’s little brother, Beto; Naomi’s stepfather; and that of “the gang,” which is made up of the established senior class. These perspectives were useful in how they contrasted with Naomi and Wash’s view of the world—and for the very different information they provide to readers, both to move the plot forward and in terms of the racial and social realities of the 1930s setting for OUT OF DARKNESS.

BB: OUT OF DARKNESS is a beautiful, complex book, and it’s full of a lot of very difficult and occasionally taboo subjects (among many: racism, segregation, sexual abuse and assault, miscarriage, not to mention death...). What value do you see in bringing these sometimes-uncomfortable topics to the forefront in a book for young adults?

AHP: I take up painful realities in OUT OF DARKNESS (and in my earlier novels, WHAT CAN’T WAIT and THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY, too) because they’re part of the world, both now and in the past. I’ve never once considered buffering reality for the sake of my readers. That’s because the readers who made me into a YA author—the amazing students I taught at Chávez High in Houston—were hungry for books that didn’t varnish or sugarcoat the challenges of adolescent experiences. My “kids” are now approaching their thirties, but I see the same appetite in the students I meet on author visits, as well as among my college students, who are really just overgrown teenagers. It’s usually adult readers who worry about material being “too intense” for younger people.

The particular set of discomfiting topics in OUT OF DARKNESS help debunk the false nostalgia that sometimes crops up when we talk about the past. For example, the novel reveals the deep roots of contemporary racism in the U.S. The discomfort that such a revelation may provoke is, I hope, productive. I think we have to talk about race and not treat racism as a merely historical phenomenon, a boogeyman of the past. I hope that readers will put events from OUT OF DARKNESS in critical conversation with the racialized violence that continues to afflict our communities.

BB: Since ours is a Texas bookstore, I have to ask the Texas question! This book is literally close to home for you—you grew up not far from New London, correct? Did researching and writing this book change the way you see East Texas, or deepen your understanding of it?

AHP: Yes, I grew up a short drive from New London and often passed the site of the explosion while riding out on veterinary calls with my dad. Present-day Northeast Texas is home to many, many big-hearted, generous people who strive to be good neighbors. But, like much of the South, it’s also a place where racism is still alive and well and unmistakably rooted to painful histories of racism, appropriation, and segregation. I don’t think the research or writing process for OUT OF DARKNESS changed my view of East Texas as much as it contextualized it in relation to history.

There were definite areas of discovery for me in writing, though. For example, the experience of segregation for Mexican American children in Texas was a history that I didn’t know well. Unlike African Americans, who were taught by black teachers committed to helping students use education to combat their unjust circumstances, Mexican American children were almost invariably taught by white teachers, some of whom found theirs an undesirable placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students.

Most Latina/o kids were essentially forced out of school by sixth grade. Enormously overcrowded classrooms in the “Mexican” schools made learning difficult, putting the students further behind their white peers with each year. On top of that, in Texas “Mexican” schools, elementary grades were often divided into two years (for example, “lower first,” “upper first”). The result was that, by middle school, Latina/o students were often told they were “too old” for the grade they should have been able to join in the (white) middle school. In Houston in the 1930s, only a handful of Mexican Americans (usually lighter skinned) graduated from high school at all despite a significant Latina/o population in the area. They faced discrimination in white schools, and there was no “Mexican” public high school.

BB: I actually found out about OUT OF DARKNESS from a “This Week’s Diverse New Releases” post on the Diversity in YA Tumblr blog! You co-run a site for diversity in young people’s literature, Latin@s in Kids Lit, that connects readers to books in a similar way. What role do you see communities like these having in the future landscape of kids lit?

AHP: Thanks so much for following Diversity in YA and for the shout-out for Latin@s in Kid Lit! One of the reasons that I write for teen readers is because kid lit is the publishing realm where there’s real energy around changing the status quo when it comes to representation of varied experiences and backgrounds. At Latin@s in Kid Lit, our main goal is to draw attention to the great books that are being written so that teachers, librarians, parents, and young people can find materials that reflect or broaden their experience of the world. I think we share this goal with other diversity-oriented sites and projects.

It’s important for folks to learn about the great new books coming out all the time because, especially when it comes to minoritized groups, there’s a tendency for teachers to default to a handful of titles. When I was in the classroom, Sandra Cisneros’s (wonderful) THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET was a prime example. By the time my kids got to my senior English class, they’d encountered it at least a dozen times. Every teacher who used it with them had good intentions but likely lacked a sufficiently broad knowledge of Latin@ literature. If anyone’s reading this with a pang of recognition, come visit us at Latin@s in Kid Lit! We’ll get you set up with TONS of reading recommendations to complement the old (and usually deserving) standbys.

BB: Young adult literature is growing so rapidly these days—every single week at the bookstore, I feel like I’m shelving something that either plays with form or content in really new ways. How do you see YA as a genre developing? Is there anything you feel it’s important to keep in mind as the genre grows and changes?

AHP: What readers of YA—whatever their age—have in common is some interest in adolescence. I think editors and publishers are beginning to recognize that this is a pretty broad appetite, which means that we YA writers are getting more room to experiment. First person novels with strong voice are—and likely always will be—mainstays of YA, but increasingly we're seeing novels that embrace other narrative approaches. So it's becoming possible to unfurl a larger canvas and try new techniques without losing legibility as YA. There’s a lot of really literary, really exciting YA being written now, and I’m happy to see the snobbery (sniff, sniff, why would adults read YA?) begin to dissipate. I write YA because it gives me access to smart, savvy readers who happen to be teens. Anyone else is welcome to come along, too.

Staff Pick Badge
Out of Darkness By Ashley Hope Pérez Cover Image
ISBN: 9781467742023
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Carolrhoda Lab (R) - September 1st, 2015

Ashley Hope Pérez signs OUT OF DARKNESS on Saturday, January 9 at 7PM

Reserve your copy online or call 713-523-0701

Article Type Terms: