Conservatives Hate Ashley Hope Pérez’s Novel But She’s Not Afraid to Write What We Need to Read

This interview has been edited for clarity, length and flow.

MH: Can you tell me about the first time you heard out of darkness was banned or challenged and how did you feel or react at the time?

HPA: In the midst of the pandemic, I heard from PEN America that my book was among 20 or 30 books challenged in a school district in central Texas; then it was removed from the reading program and there was a kind of revision. And then in August, my book was among those officially banned from use in book clubs. It was the first of many moves.

I think the first one is always the hardest for the writers because it’s just a shocker. And for me, in particular, out of darkness was published in 2015, so it has been in school libraries and has won many awards.

MH: Can you discuss with us how you see the book bans fitting into the broader attack on rights by conservatives?

HPA: The political nature of these right-wing groups really latched onto book banning as a strategy. It’s not about books. This is to signal disapproval of certain identities and create chaos in public schools.

MH: Do you see any overlap with Republican efforts to ban books and the recent onslaught of anti-trans bills and critical race theory hysteria?

HPA: There’s a very powerful group called Utah, Parents United, which has been very influential and, you know, runs this program. But one thing that those of us who have watched these groups have seen is that these groups move very quickly from issue to issue.

A lot of them formed around anti-masking efforts, then they focused on anti-CRT, then banning the books… If you look at the patterns that the books have challenged are in overwhelmingly by or about queer or non-white characters, they are obviously and often common identities that are targeted by right-wing groups.

Parents who have, you know, fueled these narratives basically, in conservative spaces online or on TV, it’s so reminiscent of anti-integration language. I don’t want this book near my child, and they are holding a book with a black character on the front or a strange character. It’s a signal. They wish to exclude these identities from their child’s experience of the world. And they can’t say, I don’t want gay or black kids to go to my kid’s schoolbut they can come up and say, I don’t want these books in my child’s school.

MH: Why is it so valuable for young readers to have access to books written by and about people different from them? Especially when dealing with difficult or delicate subjects, such as sexual violence, discrimination or abuse?

HPA: What happens is they use sexual content as an excuse to challenge books that engage with the experiences of non-dominant communities that deal with important subject matter like police brutality and, in my case, violence race and sexual abuse.

These are subjects that it is important that young people have the chance to explore and access. And what these people are implying is that the presence of all this difficult subject matter and literature is kind of an endorsement of them when in fact it creates space for young people to engage in a way responsible in realities that may not be their own lived realities, but they are some lived reality.

It’s kind of a really simplistic framework, this kind of idea that because you don’t approve of something, it shouldn’t be explored in literature. I write about many behaviors and choices that I don’t approve of because that’s how I can expose what’s wrong with them. That is why out of darkness is important.

It’s not just important for Black and Latinx readers. White readers read it and have a different understanding of how friends their age experience the world and how it can be so different from the experiences of their friends of color.

MH: Has there been any pressure from people in publishing, like your agent or editor, to avoid certain topics or write something differently because of book banning or censorship issues? Did you get a lot of systemic support from industry?

HPA: I have an amazing editor who is extremely committed to exploring human experiences and where that exploration takes us. My agent is great too.

But people are aware that librarians are now afraid to buy certain books. I think for people who are more early-career writers, it’s definitely something that causes people to tiptoe back from important issues that they might otherwise write about.

MH: Are there any anecdotes or interactions with readers that stood out to you?

HPA: I am so grateful. As all of this unfolded I was so pestered by the posts that I was much better at saving the positive posts because you have to counteract that. I am so moved by readers who take the time to share.

The bottom line from the feedback I received from readers is that their hearts are broken and they are equally grateful for the experience of reading the book. It is a very hard book. It’s heartbreaking but there are ways that, having fallen in love with the characters, they want the world for themselves. It gives readers the chance to build a world where people like the characters in my books can safely love, live, and thrive.

And I think one of the gifts of a book like out of darkness What readers often say is that it helps them understand the changes that we need to keep working for because they want certain things. Readers look at it and say, I don’t want this to be what my world looks likee. I want a world that makes room for people.

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Irene B. Bowles