I’ve met authors who proudly describe their fiction as “clean” YA. This has always baffled me. I don’t understand what “clean” means except that maybe the writer has taken pains to minimize the possibility of offending anyone.
This much is certain: I am not one of these writers.
With my YA novels, I entrust difficult stories to smart, thoughtful readers, most of whom happen to be teenagers. I do not think about librarians, administrators, parents, or any other gatekeepers that might stand between my books and my readers. From time to time, I do think about the students I used to teach in Houston and the stories they were hungry for. I think about how to help them develop new appetites, think about their world in new ways, and encounter new possibilities and experiences.
So I’m not indifferent to what people think. But writing is, for me, a process of discovery, and there’s simply no room in this process for worries over hypothetical judgments by hypothetical PTA members who might hypothetically read and condemn (or condemn without reading) my books. For the most part, when I write, I train my attention on the story I’m telling and the world that it unfolds in. I try to understand that world by writing my way into imagined hearts and minds. That means writing the scenes that belong in my narrative even when it entails going places I’d rather not. And I know the reading can be difficult, too.
My first novel was largely inspired by the stories my students shared with me when I was teaching in Houston, and I had to think carefully about how I would frame the complex realities I was refracting through my fiction. I wanted to do justice both to the difficulty of those realities and to my students’ resilience in facing them. For some, Marisa’s struggles seem unbelievably grim; for others, they are painfully close to home.
My second novel, THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY, responds to a deadly gang fight and seeks to counter a courtroom narrative that essentially framed young men like the novel’s speaker as waste, as disposable persons. In that undertaking, I weighed the risk of dramatizing violence against my desire to humanize and particularize the lives of marginal youth. Rather than redeem the callousness of my characters, I wanted to position them in a set of circumstances that might give them room to redeem themselves.
My latest novel, OUT OF DARKNESS, takes the 1937 New London, Texas, 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. Reviewers described it as “moving,” “powerful,” and “elegant,” but they also used words like “grim,” “tragic,” and “agonizing.” For Kelly Jensen, it’s a “gut punch” of a novel; Elizabeth Wein called it “absolutely stunning” but warned that “anyone who dares read this … will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces.”
It’s clear, then, I’m not writing about ponies, the love of country, or backyard barbeque romance. That will inevitably be a mark against me for adults like Megan Cox Gurdon, whose now infamous essay, “Darkness Too Visible,” characterized writers of moderately mature YA as “bulldoz[ing] coarseness or misery” into children’s lives. If you listen to Cox Gurdon and her ilk, you get the impression that YA authors are an irresponsible lot. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s just that fulfilling Cox Gurdon’s vision for YA is not among our responsibilities.
I believe I’m responsible for each word I write. I also believe that writing ultimately means making choices without knowing for sure what the consequences will be, both in terms of what people may say and in the more basic fact that what we intend to accomplish in language can never be coextensive with what we actually write. This is not a problem of novices; it is a core dimension of what it means to create from language. Words can mean less, more, and differently than we intend, activating networks of possibilities that we cannot anticipate from the outset. If we are responsible to others for what we write, I think that we are also responsible for nurturing these possibilities.
There’s a weightiness to crafting a work, not just in some direction or in some way, but in response to what makes it unique. Most of my writing happens through rewriting, and my ultimate goal is to make the work more like itself. This does not necessarily mean making the writing prettier or smoother, more eloquent or more pleasing. I stress that point because sometimes I’m asked, “Ashley, for once, couldn’t you write something happy?” or “Did it have to end this way?” In the case of OUT OF DARKNESS, which ends with a different kind of tragedy from the one that opens the action, I fought for some time against the grain of the narrative, trying to evade tragedy and deliver my characters into safety. But it turned out to be a novel about narrating disaster to the end, and the narrative kept on pressing its case, ultimately demanding that I respond to its particularity.
Similarly, in THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY, many of the thematic threads in the novel grew out of what might have seemed, on the surface, a kind of coarseness. (Megan Cox Gurdon would surely have thought so.) I’ll offer you a quick example to show you what I mean. The speaker of THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY is 15, a dropout, and homeless. In this passage, Azael has gone back to the apartment complex where he lived before his father was deported. This is how he sees that place:
The Bel-Lindo was bad parents and crackheads, dog shit and dirt for lawns, and pissed-off fools everywhere, but it was still home. There were things I liked, too. Like Jorge Ledesma’s grandma praying the rosary out on the balcony to beat the heat. Or the soccer games with the little guys on the patchy courtyards between buildings. And nowhere else in Houston could you find Mrs. Guzman selling calling cards and Coronas and spicy-as-fuck Cheetos right out of her living room window.
This was among the first passages I drafted for THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY. As I was trying to understand what the novel would be, I kept returning to the way that, for Azael, the ugly sides of his reality are fused to a kind of beauty, the knife connected to the butterfly. His description of Cheetos as “spicy as fuck” is as much a part of this world as the physical images of what surrounds him. Which is to say, first, that I wouldn’t countenance excising that “fuck” for anything, and certainly not to avoid offending the gatekeepers. And, second, if a work achieves lyricism, I want it to be a lyricism proper to it, just as I want the drama of what I write to be the drama proper to the text, its pathos the pathos that it earns.
All of that to say: even when my work offends, I’m proud to take responsibility for it. I won’t apologize for rendering the worlds of my books with all the beauty, grit, and humanity that their pages can contain.
Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of three YA novels. Her latest, OUT OF DARKNESS, earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Both WHAT CAN’T WAIT and THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY appear on numerous reading lists, including YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. Ashley also has a PhD in comparative literature. She is currently faculty at The Ohio State University where she teaches topics that range from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at http://www.ashleyperez.com/ or find her on Twitter at @ashleyhopeperez.