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Embrace the Power of Imagination: Ashley Hope Pérez Talks Latinx Literature and Contemporary Global Issues

The author of three novels for young adults, Ashley Hope Pérez’s most recent work, Out of Darkness, has received national acclaim. Here she discusses the representation of latinx literature in the discussion of global lit.

The author of three novels for young adults, Ashley Hope Pérez’s most recent work, Out of Darkness, was described by The New York Times as a “layered tale of color lines, love and struggle,” and was named one of Booklist’s “50 Best YA Books of All Time.” Pérez teaches world literature at Ohio State University and regularly offers writing workshops at the Highlights Foundation. She is at work on her fourth novel, Walk It Down.

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What are some discussions you lead in your world literature classrooms that you’d love to see carried out more broadly in the reading and writing community at large?

For some time now, I’ve dedicated the first weeks of my undergraduate classes to helping my students learn to talk about privilege, racism, class, gender dynamics, colonialism, cultural difference, and other so-called tough topics. We approach these ideas with the expectation that we will continue to grapple with them as we engage with texts and one another. Building this framework provides context for the discomfort that often accompanies students’ experiences as they read challenging texts that call for shifts in perception, understanding and feeling. They aren’t alone with that challenge; over the course of the semester, the class becomes a community. Together, we work to understand our initial responses as provisional and to re-route them imaginatively in light of new perspectives and interpretations. Discomfort is often the horizon of new possibilities; our reading and writing communities would be richer and stronger if all of us were to embrace that discomfort fiercely.

We’re writing in a politically charged time, specifically with respect to immigrant communities and other marginalized groups. How do you see literature—particularly Latinx literature—making an impact on the current political conversation?

Latinx authors have been writing path-shifting literature for decades—think of the work by Tomás Rivera, Gloria Anzaldúa, Helena Viramontes, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and Ana Castillo, among many others. For Latinx voices in young adult and children’s literature, the Tomás Rivera and Américas book awards have wonderful lists of winners and recommended titles. Two recent favorites of mine are Isabel Quintero’s Gabi: A Girl in Pieces and Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper series. The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos made me want to remake the world with a ferocity that I haven’t felt since back when I was teaching high school in Houston.

What’s new, then, is not Latinx talent but rather the will to elevate these voices and the awareness that Latinx authors can and should impact broader conversations. Latinx communities have dealt with exclusion and oppression for centuries now, and they house a wealth of wisdom, resilience, resourcefulness and tactical knowledge. Those who care about the recent assaults on immigrant communities and the marginalized in America can find fuel and focus for their action by engaging with what Latinx authors have said and are saying now.

In fact, let’s not limit ourselves to those who already care: When we figure Latinx and other diverse experiences as a given in American literature, we embrace the power of imagination. The reader’s mind rises to meet the author’s, and the result can be a profoundly expanded sense of the world as a place where people of color matter as voters, citizens, friends and lovers. Literature humanizes readers by inviting them to humanize others.

[Online Course: Advanced Novel Writingwith Terri Valentine]

Out of Darkness has garnered such wonderful accolades. Is there one particular reader interaction or industry recognition that has stood out to you as the most meaningful?

Each of the recognitions has come with unique opportunities. The Printz has fantastic visibility with teachers and librarians, the Américas Award meant speaking at the Library of Congress, and the Tomás Rivera Book Award foregrounded my connection to the Mexican American community in Texas and beyond—not to mention the fact that it honors a writer I hold in great esteem. Having a book reviewed in TheNew York Times was a bucket list item I assumed I’d have to wait much longer to have happen.

But the most gratifying response to Out of Darkness has come from the ordinary readers who feel deeply for my characters and connect the struggles depicted in the novel to the marginalization and discrimination that still afflict many in our world. I remember in particular speaking with a young white woman who, through her tears, described how the novel allowed her to feel, in her heart and in her body, the physical vulnerability endured by black and brown Americans in public spaces, a vulnerability that her privilege had previously kept her from experiencing in any personal way. I credit much of the way the novel has landed with readers to the fact that we are finally having a sustained national conversation about racialized violence and police brutality. Readers of Out of Darkness see the connections between present inequities and an often-disavowed past characterized by the systematic devaluing of black and brown lives. And when they are willing to reckon with discomfort, they can turn those connections into grounds for action.

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ROAR:

Writer's Digest Turns Up the Volume on Underrepresented Voices in the Writing World

Read more from this extended series, entitled "ROAR," which appears in the May/June 2018 issue of Writer's Digest. Feel the thunderous reverberations of authors and industry pros working to broaden our perspectives—as writers and readers alike. Plus, learn how underrepresented voices are rising in the writing world, all in these articles:

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