From the Heartland: Ashley Hope Perez

Some places come into your life, others for a season. These places give us different lessons and memories that often come back to haunt us in one way or another. Will the ghosts of Indiana end up in any of Ashley Hope 2012AuthorPhoto-360x441Perez’s books? Who knows! Perhaps she was too busy during with school work during her time here that she didn’t get to experience Hoosier Hospitality to its fullest. Somehow, I doubt that. As you read through Ashley’s interview, you’ll realize that she engages with people, landscapes and histories. She wasn’t in Indiana very long, but long enough to claim her as an Indiana author. Her books bring the Latino experience to young adult literature. Her books include The Knife and the Butterfly (February 2012) and What Can’t Wait (2011), both from CarolRhoda Lab. Out of Darkness (CarolRhoda Lab) will be out in 2015.

Where did you grow up?

In Kilgore, Texas, which is about two hours east of Dallas and about an hour west of the Louisiana border. It’s an area known for friendly people, lots of churches, and miles and miles of pine trees. Also for its oil fields. My third novel, Out of Darkness, is the first I’ve ever set near where I grew up, and I suppose the seed for it came when I was a little kid. My dad would sometimes take my brother and me on veterinary calls, and I remember him pointing out the place in New London, Texas, where a school exploded killing almost two hundred children in 1937. That historical event is central to the story of Out of Darkness, although I made almost everything else up.

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I was an early and eager reader, so I can’t really remember a time before I loved books. My older brother and I spent most of our summer mornings at the library near my dad’s clinic. Some of my childhood favorites include the original The Boxcar Children novel and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family stories, which are about a large Jewish family with many daughters. Even after I “graduated” to longer books, I still enjoyed lingering over the beautiful illustrations in Ezra Jack Keats books, and I remember being fascinated and a little scared by Chris Van Allsburg’s books, many of which didn’t have any words at all. One of my favorite things about being a mom is rediscovering the world of picture books. My son’s favorite lately is The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez by René Colato Laínez. El Ratón Pérez is the mouse that collects teeth (like the tooth fairy) in Mexico and many other Latin American countries. Besides the obvious appeal of seeing his own last name on the cover and sharing a middle name (Miguel) with the boy in the book, my son loved the beautiful illustrations and humor of the story.

Meat or vegetables?

Both! I was mostly vegetarian until I was pregnant with my son, but something changed then. Now I have come to enjoy pulled pork, bacon, and carne asada on occasion. I’m still perfectly happy to eat vegetarian most of the time, though, and roasted kale and sweet potatoes are ridiculously close to chocolate on my comfort food list.

Which famous person would you most like to have write a review for your book?

Hmmm… there are some famous people I’d love to have read my books (hi, Oprah!), but I’ve never thought about picking a reviewer.

What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?

I’d start with oral histories from “ordinary” black and Latino Texans prior to the Civil Rights Era. I’d also want to preserve gospel and folk music. I got a little silly in the post office recently when I discovered a new postage stamp featuring Lydia Mendoza, a San Antonio music legend who was gaining popularity around the time when my main character in Out of Darkness moves with her twin brother and sister from San Antonio to East Texas.

What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?

I am one of those people who always has a few books going at any given time. I just started re-reading The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, which has long been a favorite of mine. I’m also reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian, and a collection of stories by David James Poissant.

How did your writing career begin?

+-+149293101_70I was fortunate to have several professors encourage me during my college years, but I became a writer because I found my audience. This happened when I started teaching English and ESL at Chávez High School in Houston. Besides meeting all the standards and getting my students ready to have a serious chance at completing college, I wanted them to discover the pleasure of reading, a notion that was pretty foreign to most of my students. As my kids told me about what did or didn’t engage them, I learned that many of them felt “their story” was missing from the library shelves. My first novel, What Can’t Wait, incorporates many of the stories they shared with me, and I finished the first draft just in time to give it to my last group of students (all seniors) for graduation. My students were my first readers, and their excitement still tops every success I’ve had since.  

How do you hope your writing engages young people?

I come at the idea of engagement from two main directions. First, I strive for authenticity, a goal that’s especially important when exploring experiences that have largely been relegated to the sidelines of +-+554058792_70literature. When describing immigrant family life or gang culture, for example, that means walking the none-too-clear line between realism and what might seem like stereotype. I want readers who recognize the world of one of my books to find that how I portray that world rings true. Second, I think about how I can invite all readers into the book, even (or especially) if their life is completely different. That’s been crucial to my efforts to write a novel set in the past. It matters to me that it be gripping to contemporary readers from all backgrounds.

Out of Darkness is due next year from Carolrhoda Lab. You wrote it while completing your PhD. Any tips on time management?

Be sure to sleep. It sounds obvious, but often when we’re overtaxed, we think that stealing hours from sleep will help us get more done. In the end, it only sabotages the next day’s productivity. Also, map out goals week by week and month by month. I also make a semester plan and a five-year plan. Although achieving a goal often takes longer than we expect, putting it down on paper brings us a smidge closer to making the daily choices that will turn the goal into a reality.

Why did you write Out of Darkness? What story did you want to tell?

I already mentioned the school explosion, which is central to the novel. But it’s about much more. At the heart of the novel are questions about who can love whom and how and where certain kinds of love are possible. Quite a bit has been written about interracial romances between white and black characters—Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez offers a fascinating and original take—but there is very little exploration of relationships between black and Latina/o characters during the Jim Crow era. That was one story I wanted to tell, and I also wanted to incorporate glimpses into the tripartite segregation system present in Texas, a system that separated children into white, “colored,” and “Mexican” schools. Hard things happened during these times, and some people would prefer for the sins of the past to remain hidden. It’s a protective impulse, but ultimately we have to face what our community has been if we are to have any hope of forging something better in the future. That said, I hope that my tenderness toward East Texas comes through in the novel.  

There are a few weeks of summer left. I hope you’re able to relax and enjoy them! Thanks!

 

SundayMorningReads

This morning, I began a blog post, reflecting on Ferguson, Eric Garner and other shootings, but then I had to go to my shift at the community garden and my sister came to visit. Isn’t it nice to be able to just walk away from all that violence, racism, hatred and ugliness?

I went to see “The Giver” last night. (Talk about getting away from violence, racism, hatred and ugliness!!) I don’t know what was going on here in the Haute, but the area near the mall was filled with young white boys in their pick up trucks. The trucks were outfitted with loud mufflers, and many burning diesel. Traffic was crazy heavy! No one was paying attention to traffic lights and it took forever to get out of the madness. I can’t remember feeling so unsettled in a very, very long time.

My youngest son has taken to reading the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

My eldest called me recently filled with anger, confusion and disillusionment after watching the video of Eric Garner being killed when a police officer applied an illegal choke hold. I know my son has been stopped by cops for DWB. I know he lives in a city where 14 young men have been killed by police this year. Perhaps you have words I could have used to comfort him.

Oh! “Arms up”.

My daughter left Indy for a larger city where she could live with a little less fear as she chooses to live out loud, proud and gay. My daughter will never hide who she is, nor should she. Doesn’t matter if I’ve had nightmares about trying to protect her. She has to live her life.

My sister sampled the fish I roasted with yam leaves; an African dish. We did some window shopping, had some frozen yogurt and had a really nice afternoon.

No worries.

I’ve got reviews to post this week, all books written by author of color. That’s my fight, getting more books out there with characters of color so that all young readers can realize there are brown kids who matter.

Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

title: Brown 9780399252518Girl Dreaming

author: Jacqueline Woodson

Date: Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin; August 2014

Main Character: Jacqueline Woodson

MIddle Grade Fiction

There are rules to children’s books you know, and Jacqueline Woodson just broke one.

Brown Girl Dreaming is the author’s poetic telling of her childhood and retrospective visits to childhood are supposed to be adult books. Somewhere along when Jackie learned to embrace words and the power they contain, she became entitled to a Poetic License that let this book be produced as a children’s book. Thank goodness!

For me, a Black woman of the same generation who grew up in Ohio with a mother from Mississippi, I quite often found myself pausing and connecting to the story while I daydreamed about my own life. But, this book wasn’t written for me. Will teens relate? Will they find themselves in the spaces Woodson creates when she talks about teeth, not being as smart as, about grandpa’s love and forever friends? I think that they will not only find themselves in these nuances, but they’ll also see how they fit into the larger stories of their family, community and history itself.

In creating a fictional autobiography, Woodson leaves huge spaces that all readers can dive into and find their own meaning. Woodson looks back as adult, but tells the story through the eyes of a child. Her family is her haven whether they’re in New York or South Carolina and even when it looks like things might be going wrong, Jacqueline’s family is perfect in the young girl’s eyes. This girl has a dream to fulfill and we’re going to find out where she gets her strength!

Young Jacqueline is disenchanted with the inaccuracies of memory and the confusion between storytelling and lying.

Keep making up stories, my uncle says.

You’re lying my mother says.

 

Maybe the truth is somewhere between

all that I’m told

and memory.

So, Jacqueline decides to give us her own truths in this story of self empowerment.

I’m so glad Woodson broke the rule!

I reviewed an ARC and am looking forward to adding a final copy to my collection as it will also contain photos.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Jacqueline Woodson grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from college with a B.A. in English. She now writes full-time and has recently received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. Her other awards include a Newbery Honor, two Coretta Scott King awards, two National Book Award finalists, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. source

From the Heartland: Elsa Marston

Considering authors who write about African American, Latino, Arab or Muslim Americans, Native Americans in my state of Indiana has uncovered a true wealth of authors. It’s a bit funny to see such richness in this state when Indiana in YA is usually seen as the last place on earth. But, to those teens who live here, Indiana is the center of the universe. 

Elsa Marston is an Indiana writer who expands the universe of all young readers. She’s very active in the wThe-Compassionate-Warrior-330orld of YA lit, whether she’s hosting a listserv chat, speaking at a local conference or
 writing another book that focuses on the people and cultures of the Middle East. Elsa has written over 20 children’s and young adult books including Santa
Claus in Bahgdad And Other Stories About Teens In the Arab World and Figs
 and Fate: Stories About Growing Up In the Arab World Today.  Her most recent book, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria has won the following awards. 

  • Co-winner of the 2013 Middle East Book Award for best “Youth Nonfiction”
  • Finalist for 2013 Midwest Books Award in the categories “History” and “Young Adult Non-Fiction”
  • Finalist for 2013 Foreword Review “Book of the Year” Award in the category “Young Adult Nonfiction”
  • 2014 Eric Hoffer Award, First runner-up in the “Culture” category
Later this year, she’ll release The Olive Tree. 
A story for all ages, about how an old olive tree in Lebanon caused conflict–and inspired reconciliation. Based on the author’s award-winning and much reprinted short story. With illustrations by Claire Ewart.
Let’s meet Elsa!

Where did you grow up?

I’m a New Englander from way, way back;  I grew up in Newton Centre, Massachusetts; and then my parents moved to a small town on the Massachusetts Dscf0689bw_web-330coast, Duxbury, just north of Plymouth.  It’s a beautiful place, with beaches, marshes, pine woods, and fascinating houses from the 17th-19th centuries.  I still feel steeped in the culture and history of  New England.  One of my current works-in- progress is set on the coast of Maine at the start of the American Revolution.

How did you end up in Indiana?

So I’m not a Hoosier at heart.  But Bloomington has been a great place to live!   I came here with my husband, Iliya Harik, who was Lebanese (I met him when we were students at the American University of Beirut).  He taught Middle East government at Indiana University for his entire career, with occasional leaves overseas. That made it possible for our family to live in such places as Cairo, Beirut, and Tunisia . . . wonderful inspiration for my writing.  But it was always nice to come home to Indiana.  (I have three sons: Ramsay, a secondary-school teacher of religious studies in Austin, Texas—and my first-line reader!  Amahl, proprietor of a fitness-training studio in Providence;  and Raif, a computer guy in Austin.  And grandchildren Savannah, starting health-care studies, and Kahlil, a 2-year-old ball of sunshine.)

What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?

I grew up in a book-filled home—my dad was a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston—so becoming a reader was as natural for me as loving to climb trees. From my very young childhood I remember Barbar the Elephant, and in grade school I loved the E. Nesbit books and Mary Poppins—delightful blendings of fantasy and realism.

What three things would you like to add to a list of world treasures?

Oh my,  I’ll probably have some brilliant ideas tomorrow—but here’s what I’m thinking today.

The coast of Northern California, for the sheer beauty of its long, wide beaches, golden grass-covered slopes, redwood forests…..

Two or three piano concertos by Mozart—although I dare say he’s already on the list.

The translucent alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, every inch covered with tiny hieroglyphs painted  a heavenly blue—for the beauty and sheer amazingness of the thing. (It’s in the Soanes Museum in London.)

What book(s) are you currently reading?

One I read recently that made a big impression on me was Big Fat Disaster by Beth Fehlbaum (Merit Press, 2014).  It’s about a girl in Texas, a compulsive eater, whose dad—a rising politician—has just been hit by scandal;  he abandons the family and they have to move, virtually penniless, to another small town.  So Colby has a lot to feel bad about, and she handles it by gobbling sugar.  What I especially liked  is that Colby is not particularly likable: she’s irritable, irrational.  But we always care about her and hope that eventually she’ll find the strength to become the confident, sympathetic person that’s hiding inside all that baggage. 

When did you realize that you are a writer?

My dad was a writer and a storyteller, who made up bedtime stories for my sister and me.  I think that gave me the idea that I could tell stories, too.   At the age of eight or nine, I started to write two “novels,”  one of them set in ancient Egypt.  Naturally neither got beyond the second page, but I enjoyed them while they lasted.  And discovered, many years later, that my novel The Ugly Goddess, set in a  fascinating period of ancient Egyptian history, was the realization of that very early dream! It may take 40 or 50 years to realize your dreams—but it can happen! 

What stories do you most enjoy telling?

I like to tell stories about young people who face challenges or troubles and somehow manage to end up in a better place.  When I started writing, wanting to use the unusual places I’d had a chance to spend time in (Cairo, Carthage, Greek Islands), I wrote rather complicated mystery/adventure stories about young Americans in those settings.  But at a conference the well-known author Avi once told me:  “I think you should write stories that move people.”  I now feel  that the stories in my collection Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World best express what I want to do and perhaps can do best.  They still have an “exotic” element, being set in a variety of contemporary Arab societies, but my main concern is to depict young people trying to deal with the lives they were given, and make the best of it.

How did you decide to write about the Middle East and North Africa for young adults?

Since early childhood I’ve been intrigued by “other times, other places,” so I always had an international bent.   A Rotary Foundation fellowship took me to the American University of Beirut, and my marriage to the young man I met there—and the combination of his work and my own lifelong interests—led naturally to specializing in that part of the world.

But there’s another reason.  The Arab world is badly misunderstood, rejected, and disparaged in this country—even though Arab-Americans have always been exemplary as an immigrant community.  Since the founding of Israel in the Arab country of Palestine, in 1948, this prejudice has been drastically hardened by political complications, which are harmful not only to Arabs but to the interests of the U.S. and ultimately, I believe, to Israel.  I feel a mission as a writer to counter some of the ignorance and  politically motivated prejudice by presenting the people of the Arab world in ways that Americans can comprehend and relate to sympathetically.

You’ve described the whole Arab/Muslim world as invisible through use of the term “people of of color” and through their lack of representation in children’s literature.  Could you mention a few of the significant events, authors or books in children’s lit relating to books by and featuring Arab/Muslim Americans of which we should be aware?

Until the mid 1990’s there were very, very few books for young people with a positive Arab viewpoint—largely, I firmly believe, because of the prejudice mentioned above.  The door started to open with the publication of two very successful books by an already successful writer, Naomi Shihab Nye:  the novel Habibi and picture book Sitti’s Secrets, both about Palestine.  This showed publishers and writers that it was possible to produce books that give a favorable view of Arabs—without a storm of criticism.  Two other picture books published at about this time, by Florence Parry Heidi and Judith Heidi Gilliland, The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Egypt) and Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Lebanon), were also important “door openers.” 

Since then, we’ve seen a slow but pretty steady increase in accurate, fair, and sympathetic books about Arabs, by British, American, and Israeli authors.  But very few Arab or Arab-American writers!  Although there are many Arab novelists, poets, and essayists, the idea that literature for children is an important and worthy use of literary talent has been slow to catch on.  Books for kids have been published in Arabic for years in such countries as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Kuwait; but they very rarely attract attention for translation and publication in the U.S.  I keep hoping!

I keep a list of recommended books, mostly fiction, mostly about the Arab world,  which I think is as comprehensive a list as you could find, going back to the 1970s.  I’d be happy to send it electronically to anyone who gets in touch with me  (elsa.marston@gmail.com)   Besides the ones mentioned above, here are some that I especially recommend:

Ibtisam Barakat, Tasting the Sky:  A Palestinian Childhood

Anne Laurel Carter,  The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (Palestine)

Elizabeth Laird, A Little Piece of Ground   (Palestine)

Zeina Abirached, A Game for Swallows  (Lebanon)

Alalou, Elizabeth and Ali, The Butter Man  (Morocco)

Carolyn Marsden,  The White Zone  (Iraq)

Mary Matthews,  Magid Fasts for Ramadan (Egypt)

Jeanette Winter,  The Librarian of Basra  (Iraq)

Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me;   Does My Head Look Big in This? (Arab-Australians)

Claire Sidhom Matze, The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky  (Egypt, Egyptian-Americans)

Cathryn Clinton, A Stone in My Hand  (Palestine)

Maha Addasi, The White Nights of Ramadan  (Gulf States)

What does diversity mean to you?

Talking about books, I take diversity to mean inclusion of good books about the Arab/Muslim world!  But of course I would include all cultures and countries—and encouragement of good writing and storytelling, that will hold up well in translation and publication in diverse societies.  I also welcome positive attention to all sorts of human conditions.  It’s wonderful to have books that broaden our understanding and appreciation of different experience—whether social, gender, religious, occupational, or virtually any other walk of life.   

 

Previous Posts From the Heartland

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