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Banned Books: Author Ashley Hope Pérez on finding humanity in the 'darkness'

Ashley Hope Pérez published Out of Darkness in 2015 to critical acclaim. The novel re-contextualized contemporary issues of race providing a historical framework in a not-so-post-racial America.

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This discussion with Ashley Hope Pérez is part of a series of interviews with — and essays by — authors who are finding their books being challenged and banned in the U.S.

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Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of the award-winning Out of Darkness, a young adult novel that has faced challenges and bans in the U.S. in recent years.

Pérez — who is a comparative literature professor at The Ohio State University in addition to having authored three novels — centers her writing on Latin American narratives, making space for young Latino readers to see themselves in her work. She published Out of Darkness in 2015, a year that invoked a national conversation surrounding issues of race, environmental racism, racialized violence and police brutality.

Out of Darkness is based on a true-events: In 1937, a natural gas explosion at a school in New London, Texas, killed nearly 300 students and teachers — one of the deadliest school disasters in U.S. history. This historical context is foregrounded by the fictional love story between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. The characters cross color lines and navigate familial tensions and traumas.

The novel re-contextualizes contemporary issues of race, providing a historical framework in a not-so-post-racial America. After many years on bookshelves, in 2021 this frank portrayal earned the book a spot on the American Library Association (ALA) Banned Book List for "depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit."

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On writing about the human experience, even the hard parts

Out of Darkness, like many works of literature, engages with all kinds of aspects of human experience. And as a literature professor myself, I can tell you that literature from the Bible to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Faulkner deals with difficult topics because those aspects of life are the materials literature... it's not to be provocative or to distress anyone, but because when we want to write about human experience honestly and completely, we have to include the pain of being a person. And so I think that Out of Darkness is literature. And in many ways, what book banners in the present moment are suggesting is that literature that honestly engages human experience is somehow inappropriate for teenagers. And when we hear things like 'there is pornographic content in school libraries,' what we're really hearing is engagement with human experience, such as sexual experience — we're hearing that being portrayed as pornographic. But that's not that's not that's not true of Out of Darkness or the other books that have been vilified in this movement any more than it's true of the Bible being pornographic because it has sexual content.

On books about the past being resonant in the present

With Out of Darkness I was trying to do something a little bit different, which was to write the historical novel that readers like my students wouldn't be able to put down. A historical novel that, though being about the past, would seem powerfully resonant with their lives. In Out of Darkness, for example, I engaged the histories of school segregation in Texas, not just the ways that schools were segregated to separate Black Americans and white American students, but also what happened to Mexican American kids or anyone who was didn't fit into those categories. Texas had "Mexican schools" that were unequal in different ways and in some ways more damaging. And my students didn't know that history. So I thought with Out of Darkness about what my former students would want in a book about the past so that it would speak to them now. And a lot of what they wanted was honesty, not to see things sugarcoated or sanitized.

On bans overwhelmingly targeting authors who are marginalized

There will be people who buy the book because of hearing this interview. But for the hundreds of authors whose works have been banned but who haven't been interviewed on NPR, this can be career ending. I mean, losing access to school and library markets can be career ending for authors. And since these bans are overwhelmingly targeting people — authors of color and authors with other marginalized identities, this is a real threat to the modest progress we've made in diversifying children's literature and literature for young adults.


Claire Murashima produced the broadcast version of this story. Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for the web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

"Out Of Darkness" is a historical novel set in 1937 in the oil-rich region of East Texas. A natural gas leak caused an explosion at a school, killing nearly 300 students and teachers. Ashley Hope Perez uses this backdrop to tell a fictional story of what was back then considered a forbidden love between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. It's a story about race, power and class. When it came out in 2015, it received wide recognition in young adult literature, but last year it started to get pulled from some libraries when a parent at a Texas school board meeting complained about sexually explicit content. Video of that parent's rant went viral and turned into a nightmare for the author. Perez says her book was taken out of context, much like other books that have been targeted by conservative groups.

ASHLEY HOPE PEREZ: We have seen over and over that the sexual content is a pretext. You know, folks know they cannot show up to a school board meeting in 2022 and say, I don't want queer kids in my kid's class.

SCHMITZ: The paperback version of "Out Of Darkness" exposes the racial backgrounds of the central characters.

PEREZ: There's a Black boy and a Mexican American girl on the front. You hold that book up and say, this is disgusting pornographic trash, and you are telegraphing a powerful message to students who share those identities, right?

SCHMITZ: Perez says book banning as it's unfolding right now is really not about the actual books. Oftentimes, parents calling for book bans haven't even read the material. The books are a tool, she says, that become part of a coordinated strategy for signaling opposition to certain identities.

PEREZ: The book banners and the spaces where they share information and they say, show up, say this - they're very clear. They're - I even have seen a Facebook post that someone shared with me where the poster is explicitly reminding people, don't talk about race or sexual orientation. Remember, you have to focus on the sexual content.

SCHMITZ: Texas has the most book bans of any state, according to PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression. By PEN America's official count, Perez tells me that her book has been banned 29 times.

PEREZ: "Out Of Darkness," like many works of literature, engages with all kinds of aspects of human experience. And as a literature professor myself, I can tell you that, you know, literature, from the Bible to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Faulkner, deals with difficult topics because those aspects of life are the material of literature. You know, it's not to be provocative or to distress anyone, but because when we want to write about human experience honestly and completely, we have to include the pain of being a person. And so I think that in many ways, what book banners in the present moment are suggesting is that literature that honestly engages human experience is somehow inappropriate for teenagers.

SCHMITZ: You became a published author after years of teaching high school English, and you said you wanted to give your students the books they said they wanted to read but that they couldn't find. What kind of books did your students feel were missing from their library?

PEREZ: Well, anybody who knows a teenager or loves a teenager knows they're a little self-centered. They wanted books about themselves. You know, my first novel was basically about my students. You know, it was like - the main character was a composite of many of my students. And my second novel is also set in Houston, where I taught. With "Out Of Darkness," I was trying to do something a little bit different, which was to write the historical novel that readers like my students wouldn't be able to put down, a historical novel that, though being about the past, would seem powerfully resonant with their lives.

And I think that in "Out Of Darkness," for example, I engage the histories of school segregation in Texas - not just the ways that schools were segregated to separate Black Americans and white American students, but also what happened to Mexican American kids or anyone who was - didn't fit into those categories. So, you know, Texas had, quote-unquote, "Mexican schools" that were unequal in different ways and some - in some ways more damaging. And my students didn't know that history. So I thought with "Out Of Darkness" about what my former students would want in a book about the past so that it would speak to them now. And a lot of what they wanted was honesty, not to see things sugarcoated or sanitized.

SCHMITZ: I'm curious - after the viral video and the controversy over not only your book but many other books that have been called to be banned, especially in Texas, has this led to more publicity for your book? Has it led to better sales? I'm curious if it's having an effect that the people who are seeking to ban your book would not want, that it's having the reverse effect.

PEREZ: Yeah. Well, they're getting the effects that they want because at the end of the day, whether a copy of my book is returned to the library bookshelf, so long as the librarian in a school is positioned to no longer feel confident that they can make decisions about what books to include based on the needs of students, the book banners have won because the censorship that is currently coming from outside - the goal is to implant that in the librarians and educators themselves. And it's working extremely well in places like Texas, where this is happening more than anywhere else.

There will be people who buy the book because of hearing this interview. But for the hundreds of authors whose works have been banned but who haven't been interviewed on NPR, this can be career-ending. I mean, losing access to school and library markets can be career-ending for authors. And since these bans are overwhelmingly targeting people - you know, authors of color and authors with other marginalized identities, this is a real threat to the modest progress we've made in diversifying children's literature and literature for young adults.

SCHMITZ: That's Ashley Hope Perez. She's assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University and the author of "Out Of Darkness" and other novels. Ashley, thank you.

PEREZ: Oh, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.