Ashley Hope Pérez wants to get teenagers addicted—to reading.
When Pérez taught low-income Mexican-American high school students in Houston, they told her that they couldn’t find a novel that told their story. So she wrote it. The product of her process, the young adult novel What Can’t Wait, draws on Pérez’s three years as a high school English teacher at the Cesar E. Chavez High School. It will be published in March by Carolrhoda Lab.
At 26, Pérez is many things: a doctoral candidate in IU’s Department of Comparative Literature, teaching assistant, wife, and mother to an 8-month-old boy. She’s currently revising her second novel and has started work on a third. In her spare time she runs marathons.
Pérez spoke with Artworks’ Adam Schwartz.
Highlights From The Interview
Adam Schwartz: Marisa, the 17-year-old heroine of What Can’t Wait, is a first-generation American torn between following the demands of her familia—marry a neighborhood guy, get a job, have babies—or pursue her bigger ambitions. Why is that such a powerful conflict for her?
Ashley Hope Pérez: We often think of parents as being the biggest advocates of education. In Marisa’s situation, it’s not that her parents don’t want her to be successful, but they feel that other concerns are more urgent.
They’re not thinking, “We’re going to keep you here, and you’re not going to accomplish your dreams.” They’re thinking, “That stuff can wait. You’re going to get to those things, but right now, you need to be working so you can help with the bills.”
AS: What does Marisa want?
AHP: She wants her world to get bigger.
AS: She wants to go to University of Texas.
AHP: Absolutely. At first this seems like something out of the realm of possibility. This is something I saw with a lot of my students. It was hard for them to think beyond Houston, partly because their lives were so connected with the lives of their family members and friends in Houston. They had a hard time envisioning themselves in a different place even when another place like the University of Texas would offer them new opportunities that Houston couldn’t offer.
‘Miss, There’s A Novel We Want You To Write.’
AS: Did you base Marisa’s story on a particular girl?
AHP: Marisa isn’t a facsimile of any one student. She is so many of the stories my students shared with me, both through their writing and in conversations we had in the library, after school and before school, when we were working out how they were going to accomplish the ambitious goals I had for them in the classroom.
AS: You’ve said elsewhere that your students at Chavez High School inspired you. How so?
AHP: They were the ones demanding this book. They knew I was a writer. There’s a summer program at the University of Houston—it’s part of the National Writing Project—that really taught me how to bring my own writing into the classroom and to write with my students.
So one of the things that happened once I started sharing with my students what it meant for me to be a writer—and we would write things together, so if I asked them to write, I was writing too—they were telling me, “Miss, why haven’t you written a novel? You need to write a novel! There’s a novel we want you to write!”
Of course [my novel] didn’t satisfy all of them, but a lot of my students felt when they read the manuscript—they were my very first readers—that I had written a story they’d been waiting to find. So they inspired me in the sense that they were prodding me. But they also inspired me because of the stories they shared with me.
A Vision For Her Students
AS: It sounds like your students couldn’t find books they could identify with.
AHP: It’s not that there weren’t any books for my students . . . but they didn’t find their story. There were students in my class who were longing for that experience of recognition that is so powerful when we’re reading. Of being able to read something and think, “That is exactly what I felt. I know exactly what this character is going through.”
We had lots of conversations about why they didn’t like to read. I believe that there are books out there for every person. And that once they find those books, once they figure out what they enjoy to read, they can become a person who reads for pleasure.
AS: At the end of What Can’t Wait, Marisa leaves home and attends college. By having her make her decision, were you trying to send a message to your students to do the same?
AHP: Of course! I think the novel is entertainment, but it’s also rooted in my hopes and my aspirations for my students. And my strong belief that when students follow their ambitions, follow their potential to the place where they can best fulfill that potential, their families will eventually come around. That’s an optimistic view, but it’s the vision I wanted to give to my students, for what was possible.
A Gateway Drug For Readers
AS: I understand that some of your students who have read What Can’t Wait have written you letters telling you what they thought of it.
AHP: I had a couple of male students who wrote incredibly powerful, moving letters, one of whom said,
This is the first book that I have ever read from beginning to end. There are so many things here that I have never seen in a book before . . . . There were lots of times I stopped reading a book, but I didn’t want to stop reading this book.
He was one of my most difficult students, so it really meant a lot to me that he took the time not only to read the book but to let me know what it had meant to him.
That was an amazing moment for me. To think that even if the book were never published, it was already worth it, because I had a reader for whom the book was a gateway experience. And I think that’s what I would love: for this book to be the gateway drug for many readers, for it to be a book that makes them want to read more, because they’ve experienced something they hadn’t experienced before.
Visit Ashley Hope Pérez’s Web site.