Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez about OUT OF DARKNESS

A Star is Born

We’re so thrilled to begin our third year online with a celebration of Out of Darkness by our amiga and co-blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez! Her third novel, which released September 1, is historical fiction, with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. Using multiple points of view, Ashley develops a cast of complex characters who confront brutal racism and violence in addition to the beauty of first love. Amanda MacGregor of Teen Librarian Toolbox said, “Pérez’s story is nothing short of brilliant”, and we wholeheartedly agree! In fact, we think it’s one of the best 2015 releases! If it’s not on your to be read list, it should be. Click here to read Ashley’s post about her work on this novel, and for more insight, see our Q&A with her below.

Ashley, in the last two years, you finished your doctoral dissertation, changed jobs and geographical locations, and gave birth to a second child. How did you manage to write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life?

When you put it like that, it does sound pretty outrageous! The short answer is that, when our first son was one, we moved to Paris for a year. I taught a ton of university English classes, ate yards and yards of bread, and worked on the first draft of the novel. I gave myself that year off from academic research. When we got back, I used the novel as a daily carrot to motivate my academic writing: if I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.

You don’t shy away from controversial territory! This story contains sexual abuse, incest, brutal racism and frank sexuality. Talk about shaping these elements within the boundaries of young-adult fiction.

Wait–there are boundaries to young adult fiction? No one told me!! Really, though, I shouldn’t be glib. It’s just that Andrew Karre (my editor for Out of Darkness as well as for The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait) has always seemed more interested in pushing or crossing boundaries than in upholding them. He’s probably one of very few YA editors who sends emails that say things like, “could the sexual details in this scene be a little more explicit, not so coy?” Speaking more broadly, I’ve found it useful to give myself permission to cross even my own boundaries if I felt like doing so would help me get a scene closer to where I wanted it to be. As Andrew puts it, it’s easier to go too far and then scale things back than to strike the right note by trying to tiptoe forward.

You can tell that the frank depictions of consensual sexual activity is where I feel myself most challenged, but the racism and abuse that are part of the story in Out of Darkness are probably what’s harder for readers to contend with. The reality of racism in the world of 1937 East Texas didn’t seem like something I could—or should—varnish in any way. And sexual predation, now as in the past, flourishes in response to the social and economic vulnerability of potential victims. My main character, Naomi, is extremely vulnerable in both of these areas because of her ethnicity and precarious situation in the household where she lives. Being beautiful only puts her at greater risk.

WHITESonlyWhat went into your decision to use multiple points of view?

I was thinking about angles on the story and contrasts from the time I began feeling my way into the historical material for Out of Darkness. Part of what attracted me to the story was my curiosity—almost entirely unsatisfied by historical sources—about how the African American community experienced the explosion of the (white) New London school. The tensions and interplay between characters’ visions of the world seemed integral to the telling of this particular story. This was especially true since I wanted to recenter the narrative on experiences and perspectives that have been, at best, marginal in mainstream history.

I think readers needed to see the world through a range of characters’ eyes in Out of Darkness to grasp how dramatically different our experiences can be even when we are living in the same community. This understanding is not just a source of interest vis-à-vis the past; it can help contemporary readers reckon with the reality of inequity now. For example, it makes possible reflection on dramatic contrasts in schooling experiences or interactions with police for people of different backgrounds.

The racial complexity in this story is fascinating. As a brown-skinned person, Naomi falls between racial identities and finds doors closing in both the white and black communities. Was New London a mostly white settlement in that era? Did your research turn up instances of Mexicans caught between, as Naomi was?

 Prior to the East Texas oil boom, New London was a small agrarian community with  deeply segregated black and white communities. The discovery of oil meant the influx of many outsiders, both those who were working in oil and those who were simply attracted to the possibilities of a more prosperous community. Even though African Americans were mostly excluded from oilfield work (digging ditches was an exception), newcomers also arrived in search of jobs as chauffeurs, maids, busboys, line cooks, and craftsmen. I could not confirm the presence of a Mexican American like Naomi. Although I strongly suspect that a little girl named Juanita Herron was Hispanic, it’s impossible to know for sure. Still, I was satisfied that it was at least plausible for light-skinned children like the twins to slip into the school in much the way that families in Texas with American Indian backgrounds did. For example, the Drinkwater family in New London probably had Cherokee heritage, and their children attended the white school.

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What was it about this particular event in history that made you want to dive in and create this narrative?

The New London explosion happened close to home (about 20 minutes from where I grew up), but I knew almost nothing about it and only rarely heard it mentioned. When I started, I didn’t know where the explosion would be in the timeline of the novel, but I knew that I wanted to incorporate it. The more I explored, the clearer it seemed to me that my way “into” the story would be different from the approach taken by historians, although historical detail is of course very important to the world of Out of Darkness. I wanted to think about what the explosion meant for the victims and their families, but I was even more interested in following its repercussions outward.

What becomes possible in a community that has been shattered in this way? What forms of brokenness in the community beforehand might have been overshadowed by the deaths of almost 300 children? For example, I wanted to explore the quieter, but no less terrible, effects of segregation. After all, black children were spared from the explosion precisely because they had been excluded from the opportunities at the white New London school, which was billed in newspapers as “the richest rural school in the country.”

And, as is usually the case, I began imagining particular characters. In the case of Out of Darkness, Wash and Naomi came first, then the twins, then their stepfather Henry. Once I had Wash and Naomi, I had to find a space for them to be together (a special tree in the woods), and that’s how the Sabine River and the East Texas landscape became important to the story. I loved writing about the natural spaces of my childhood. Sometimes describing that physical beauty was a bit of a reprieve from the harshness of my characters’ circumstances. And I think I even managed to fall a bit in love with Wash myself.

 

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Book Review: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

Evelyn overBy Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: There are two secrets Evelyn Serrano is keeping from her Mami and Papo: her true feelings about growing up in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and her attitude about Abuela, her sassy grandmother who’s come from Puerto Rico to live with them. Then, like an urgent ticking clock, events erupt that change everything. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, dump garbage in the street and set it on fire, igniting a powerful protest. When Abuela steps in to take charge, Evelyn is thrust into the action. Tempers flare, loyalties are tested. Through it all, Evelyn learns important truths about her Latino heritage and the history makers who shaped a nation. Infused with actual news accounts from the time period, Sonia Manzano has crafted a gripping work of fiction based on her own life growing up during a fiery, unforgettable time in America, when young Latinos took control of their destinies.

MY TWO CENTS: The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (a Pura Belpré Author Honor Book) by Sonia Manzano  opens with a frustrated fourteen year old Evelyn getting ready for her summer job at the Five-and-Dime. Her desire to fit in to American society and distance herself from her Puerto Rican heritage is disrupted when her Abuela comes to stay with them. Abuela’s orange hair and bright clothes make her anything but the traditional grandmother Evelyn expected. Abuela taking over Evelyn’s bedroom with makeup, hair rollers, and flashy clothes is only the first of many changes that serves to transform Evelyn’s understanding of her own identity.

While Abuela’s presence creates tension in the Serrano household, a new youth group arrives to challenge discriminations against their neighborhood. The Sanitation Department eventually stops picking up the garbage, and as it continues to accumulate, so does the tension around the Young Lords’ intent to politicize El Barrio. The rise of the Young Lord’s movement gives Abuela and Evelyn an opportunity to discuss the relationship between what is presently happening in their community and the Ponce Massacre (1937) of which Abuela has kept newspaper clippings. The Young Lords organize El Barrio in a way that Evelyn has never experienced, and their demonstrations and marches provide El Barrio with a visibility they later utilize to demand social change. As the political situation intensifies in El Barrio, Evelyn and Abuela become more involved with the Young Lords. Their involvement creates a rift between them and Evelyn’s mother, but it is through all of this process that Evelyn recognizes the importance of her Puerto Rican heritage.

Among many things, Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano is a historical young adult novel. (Re)tellings and (re)imaginings of history are currently a popular strategy in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Like Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy (2005) and Bejamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012), Manzano asks that today’s young adult reader travel back to a time when their grandparents and/or parents were children and adolescents.

This literary move to focus on a historical event is brilliant for many reasons. First, it asks Latina/o readers to examine their own background as a way to understand their present identity. In The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, it is extremely significant that there are moments of reflection that help Evelyn understand that her presence in El Barrio is not coincidence. In other words, Evelyn needed to learn her parents’ and grandparents’ journeys to understand her own identity and her relationship to El Barrio.

Secondly, novels like Manzano’s center stories that have remained marginalized in mainstream history books. Evelyn is such a wonderful character precisely because she sounds and behaves like a typical teenager. At the beginning of the novel, Evelyn wants nothing to do with her parents and their stories. She is embarrassed of them and her community—and this right here is a very honest and common feeling (that too often remains silent) among Latino children and teenagers of (im)migrant parents. Throughout the novel, Evelyn learns to center her Puerto Rican culture as a way to find empowerment rather than to feel embarrassed by it.

Lastly, Manzano’s novels, and others like hers, create intergenerational discussions around issues of discrimination and gender (to name a few themes present in Evelyn Serrano). In other words, novels like these emphasize that significant social change requires a community talking to one another. While the Young Lords were central in the mobilization of El Barrio, it was also with the support of their elders and younger members that they were able to stand strong against the discrimination the community faced.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano presents a genuine story of identity formation for a young Latina coming of age at a moment in U.S. history when Latinos are violently forced to assimilate into mainstream society or risk their lives by speaking up and challenging the discrimination they experience.

TEACHING TIPS: When teaching The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, it will be helpful to provide a historical context for the novel from which to guide student discussion. Manzano provides a bit of this discussion in her afterward where she explains that the events in the novel are based on true events. The Young Lords: A Reader (2010) edited by Darrel Enck-Wanzer and Palante: Voices and Photographs of the Young Lords, 1969-1971 (2011) are excellent resources for educators to learn more about the group’s history, motivations, and outcomes. Pairing the novel with some of the essays in these sources for more advanced or older students can also provide a basis for discussing race, class, and gender both within the party and in the context of the US.

A thematic approach to teaching Manzano’s novel can be one way to broadly discuss the Civil Rights Movement and relating topics. Novels like Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2011) about three young African American sisters and their adventures with the Black Panthers and children’s books like Monica Brown’s Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (2010) about the leaders of the farm workers’ movement can provide rich conversations about the array of issues impacting people of color at this time. Discussing children’s and YA books on the Civil Rights movement not only allows students to learn more about specific racial discrimination and community empowerment but also creates opportunities for students to discuss how those issues impact them now.

Another approach to teaching the novel is to discuss characters and character development. Evelyn’s relationship with her abuela is a complicated one because they have different personalities and because Abuela represents a cultural heritage Evelyn wishes to avoid. Their relationship, however, is central in the novel. Other YA novels like Claudia Guadalupe Martinez’s The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (2008) and Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (2003) present similar granddaughter/grandmother relationships wherein both characters engage and learn from one another. Asking students to interview their grandparents or a family elder could be a possible assignment for students of any age to participate in an exercise similar to the character development of the protagonists they read.

AUTHOR (from her website)Sonia Manzano has been a presence on Public Television since the 1970’s. Raised in the South Bronx, she attended the High School of Performing Arts. A scholarship took her to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and in her junior year, she came to New York to star in the original production of the off-Broadway show, Godspell. Within a year Sonia was cast as “Maria” on Sesame Street. After ten years as an actress, Sonia began writing scripts for the series and has fifteen Emmy Awards as part of the Sesame Street writing staff. Sonia also wrote for the Peabody Award winning children’s series, Little Bill, for Nickelodeon and for a short time wrote a parenting column for the Sesame Workshop web site called Talking Outloud. In addition to The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, Manzano has written two picture books: No Dogs Allowed! and A Box Full of Kittens.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.orggoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Guest Post: Margarita Engle’s Passion for Writing About Hope and Forgotten Heroes

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By Margarita Engle

Recently, I was asked what “legacy” I hope to leave by writing. Legacy is an intimidating word, but at least one portion of the answer is fairly simple. I love writing about independent thinkers who have been forgotten by history. These lost heroes might have been celebrated in their own times, or they may have worked in such obscurity that their names are unknown. Many are famous in their countries of origin, but have never been introduced to readers in the U.S.

Just a few years ago, any library search for children’s books about Latinos would have revealed little more than a series of shamefully inaccurate works glorifying brutal conquistadores. During the interim, excellent biographies of César Chávez and Sonia Sotomayor have been added, along with a handful of beautiful picture books about artists, writers, and musicians.

Surrende TreeThe work of reclaiming lost heroes has barely begun. My own approach is not strictly biographical because I love writing verse novels, and I also love writing first person interpretations of historical events. I often mix historical figures with fictional characters. In other words, I feel free to explore, experiment, and imagine. It’s a process that feels like time travel. Diaries, letters, and journals are my most important research materials, because they contain the emotional essence of history, along with the meticulous details of daily life. When I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba, I was fortunate to have access to Juan Francisco Manzano’s autobiographical notes, which had been smuggled off the island by British abolitionists. For The Surrender Tree, I could not find anything written by Rosa la Bayamesa or any of Cuba’s other courageous wartime nurses, so I read the diaries of rebel soldiers, as well as interviews with reconcentration camp survivors. The Lightning Dreamer is based on the poetry and prose of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who wrote a groundbreaking interracial romance novel that was published more than a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only was Sab far more daring, it was also more influential in Europe and Latin America. So why don’t North Americans know Avellaneda’s name? Does it make sense to learn only about our own little corners of the world?

Hope is at the heart of every topic I choose. I love to write about people I admire. In general, I admire them because they were independent thinkers, far ahead of their times, or because their courage took the form of kindness. I don’t see history as a series of wars, with dates of battles to memorize and names of generals who are automatically assumed to be heroic. My heroes are the ordinary people who made hopeful choices in times that must have seemed hopeless. Tropical Secrets and Silver People are examples of topics so huge—the Holocaust, and construction of the Panama Canal—that I chose to write primarily in the voices of fictional composite characters, rather than individual historical figures. For Hurricane Dancers, the absence of first person indigenous Cuban accounts of the Conquest forced me to rely on a combination of legends, imagination, and the diaries of priests. I read the journals of conquistadores with skepticism, because they were written with a specific agenda—trying to make themselves look heroic, so that they could apply for additional funds from the Spanish Crown.

final Silver People cover-1Lightning Dreamer notable-1

Not all of my books are verse novels, and not all are for young adults. One of my favorite challenges is writing picture books about people who are not considered “famous enough” for biographical works. This limitation has actually helped me present my historical picture book manuscripts simply as inspiring stories, instead of struggling to make the subjects seem more famous than they are. Some are not famous at all, simply because Latinos, other minorities, and women, have generally been omitted from earlier historical writings. Sadly, recent history books tend to copy the earlier ones. The result is an entire segment of classroom curricula and pleasure reading with no representation of forgotten groups.

At present, I have several biographical picture books already in the publishing pipeline, and several that are still searching for publishers. None of them are about easily recognized names, if you live in the U.S. Thankfully, with the help of wonderful editors and fantastic illustrators, I hope that these picture books will inspire young readers. Drum Dream Girl (Harcourt, 2015) is being illustrated by the amazing Rafael López, whose gorgeous art will help illuminate the life of a ten-year-old Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke the island’s taboo against female drummers. The Sky Painter (Two Lions, 2015) will have beautiful, scientifically accurate illustrations by Aliona Bereghici, to show how a boy of Puerto Rican origin became the world’s greatest bird artist, by allowing birds to live, instead of following Audubon’s tradition of killing and posing them.

If children have heard Latin jazz or visited New York’s Natural History Museum, they’ve heard and seen the results of Millo Castro’s courage and Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ kindness, even though they are unlikely to have seen those names in a library or classroom. I firmly believe that it is time to make room for books about the lives of people who should be famous, rather than limiting young readers to books about people who are already famous.

No discussion of biographical writing is complete without the subject of autobiography. Writing a childhood memoir has been the greatest challenge of my life. It is strictly nonfiction—no imagining, only remembering. Certain memories are excruciatingly painful. I love recalling childhood trips to visit my extended family in Cuba, but I dread remembering the October 1962 Missile Crisis that ended those journeys. Enchanted Air, a Cold War Memoir (Atheneum, 2015) combines the two. Positive and negative. Joy and sorrow. Despair and hope. With a powerful cover illustration by one of the world’s greatest artists, Edel Rodríguez, this memoir already feels like my life’s work. It is a book that helps me reclaim the separated half of my family, and along with them, the half of my identity that was almost destroyed by politicians.

Writing about lives is a process of exploration, so even though the memoir feels like my life’s work, I’ve already found other people I hope to depict in verse novels and picture books. I’ve returned to the research stage, reading history, and deciding which parts of history have not yet been honestly portrayed.

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Margarita-HavanaMargarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino/a. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Awards and Honors, as well as three Américas Awards and the Jane Addams Peace Award. Margarita’s newest verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, and her newest picture book is Tiny Rabbit’s Big WishShe lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the forest to help train her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs. For more information, visit her author site and enjoy interviews by Caroline Starr Rose  and Robyn Hood Black.