Encouraged by her calculus teacher, Marisa dreams of going to college in Austin, Texas to become an engineer. Her barely educated parents, who left Mexico for Houston, have a different dream. They expect Marisa to cook, to look after her niece and to help support the family by working a minimum wage job. School comes a distant second to family. Marisa’s boyfriend is supportive, but his expectations weigh on her too. She struggles to please everyone at once but cracks under the pressure. Just when Marisa wants to give up, she finds encouragement from her niece, who is still young enough to think anything is possible.
What Can(t) Wait reads like a suspense story with high stakes even though what Marisa wants is what more privileged teens take for granted. Despite all the hardships, Marisa never whines and the book is not preachy. I would strongly recommend this well crafted novel to older teens and to adults. It's a must read for teachers. Sexually graphic material, including a near rape, makes it upper young adult fiction. What Can(t) Wait is not an easy read, but it’s well worth reading. I can’t stop thinking about it. Marisa and her issues feel so real.
My Interview of Ashley Hope Pérez
Sarah: You served in Teach for America Corps in a neighborhood similar to the one depicted in your novel. What did you teach? How did that experience inform your writing?
Ashley: I taught high school English in Houston. I’ve said this many times, but there would be no novel without my students. Many were reluctant to read or write when they first came to my class, so winning them over was a big challenge. Once I sold them on the power of reading and writing for success in life and for pleasure, though, they were unstoppable.
Read more about my students in this Diversity in YA guest post.
How did that experience as a teacher compare with your high school years as teenager?
my dropout story here. The fact remains that I didn’t feel like I fit in at all. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t! I had friends who were very kind (and somewhat protective of me), but I always felt like we were speaking different languages. In retrospect, I see that I probably seemed relatively well adjusted from the outside. I still felt lonely and out of place on the inside, though. Most people don’t realize that I’m shy, but I am. (Photo at right of Ashley at the same age as Marisa.)
What changes in our educational system would you make to help students like Marisa?
Set high expectations for student achievement and catch gaps early. The majority of my high school seniors were reading well below grade level, many of them on a fifth- to sixth-grade level. How did this happen? There are many factors, but (since I’ve also taught at the elementary level), I know first hand that students who start behind—particularly when they come from disadvantaged backgrounds—usually stay behind. It’s easy to make excuses for students based on their circumstances, but this is no favor to them. What they need are teachers and programs that are up to the challenge of helping them fill in gaps that will only widen with time.
Ashley Hope Pérez with her son.
How do you balance the competing demands of academic and creative writing with family life?
I’m just now taking my qualifying exams for my PhD in Comparative Literature, which is the last step before the dissertation. I read and work with literatures in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English. For my exams, I have focused on the novel in all of these language traditions, but I have an especially strong interest in twentieth-century literature in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S. (especially Latino/a lit). You can read about the books I teach in a course on Caribbean women writers in this post for Color Online.
I find that I tend to work best by focusing on academic work for a while (with a chunk of writing every day still for my creative work.) For example, during the past months, I have set a very small goal of 15 minutes daily for my creative writing. But by the time this interview goes up, I’ll have finished my exams, and I’ll be working full-time on the revision of my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, with a short block of time reserved every day for free-writing toward my dissertation idea.
As for family: my son and husband are so cool (and they are best buds) that I’m always happy to be with them! We work really hard to have playtime together every day no matter how busy we are.
How does the writing experience differ in your 2 fields?
While I find that the kind of writing I do is very different writing for teens versus writing for my colleagues, my process is pretty similar in both cases. I do a lot of zero drafting. A zero draft is “throw-away” writing in notebooks, on notecards, and on sticky notes. All of this is before I officially “begin”—I’m just trying to find my way in to the topic, to find the interesting material or the “story” (the best scholarly writing, in my opinion, also tells a story—a story of interpretation).
What is the best writing advice you received?
Oh, I’ve gotten so much good advice! But I suppose the two most important bits are:
(1) Write with whatever time you have; don’t let yourself say that it’s not enough to get something done. If you are focused, you can get a lot done even in 10 or 15 minutes.
(2) Write the book (or story or poem or essay) that YOU can write. The more I write, the more I realize what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish (much less publish) anything.
Ashley Hope Pérez with former student Rey Mejía (he's also in the student photo above.)
Congratulations on your 2-book debut deal with Carolrhoda Books. Can you give us a sneak preview of your next novel?
Sure! The Knife and the Butterfly was inspired in part by an actual event in Houston. I used a series of articles from the Houston Chronicle while teaching a freshman English summer school class, and the students got so into the story that I decided I had to use it. The novel follows two teenagers through the aftermath of a deadly gang fight. Lexi is from a working class background and hangs around a gang for protection and for a sense of herself. Azael is a romantic drifter essentially orphaned by his mom’s death and his father’s deportation to El Salvador. Their lives get mixed up in a way that neither one of them wanted but that neither one can escape, either.
Thanks, Ashley, for joining us! Your next book sounds very intriguing too.
Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this book after reading a terrific review on Reading in Color. All photos were supplied by the author and reproduced with her permission. The (t) in the title is not a typo. Think mathematical function and literary perentheses.
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